Thoughts on the challenges of being a chossid (or trying) in a modern world.
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Thursday, 2 January 2014

Call of the Shofar

Several people have asked my opinion of the Call of the Shofar program ("COTS"), and given its popularity (or notoriety) in the Chabad community, this site seemed an appropriate place to write an analysis.

Important disclaimer: I've never been to one of their courses, nor communicated directly with someone who did. The research I've done includes reading several different perspectives that I found about them online, watching the interview with the founder, and reading some of Rabbi Shea Hecht's comments and related material.

Lots of strong things have been said about COTS - in particular the use of the term "cult". The bad news is: we are also a cult.
But don't worry - there's good news too: we are a cult. Using a pejorative like "cult" to describe a movement is not helpful, because it immediately puts them in the same "box" as anything else labelled in the same way, and that's a dangerous generalisation.

It's far better to frame things in terms of a set of markers, which can firstly help breaks down a particular group or movement into the positive and negative attributes, and then can allow us to place them on a spectrum relative to a particular term like "cult", so we can distinguish "good" and "bad" cults (although I'd still rather stay away from such a word).

I've distilled my research into the simple table below. Across the top there are some key markers associated with the groups or programs under discussion, and then they are listed down the side with their "scores" in the middle. If anyone makes a cogent argument that some of my scores are wrong, I will change them.

Marker ->

Isolate and overload; break then rebuild Lead member to conclusion Uniforms and conformity Group-induced euphoria Authority of leaders Dissociate from previous life Governance & accountability
Haredi groups No Medium High Medium High Low-Medium Low
Military, esp marines High High High No High Low High
'Classic' religious cults High High High High High High No
COTS, Landmark High High No Medium-High Medium No Low
Professional Therapist No No No No Medium No High

Now, some important words of explanation:

"Isolate and overload; break then rebuild" is how I've described the specific technique used in the initial introductory seminar/initiation to the group. This is something COTS shares with Landmark (from which it appears to be derived) and other Large Group Awareness Training (LGAT) programs, the military and religious cults like the Moonies etc. It is a very intensive program where initiates are separated from their regular environment for several days or even weeks, overloaded with continuous stimulus in a group, which leads to some form of "break" or point of inflection after which the subject is brought to a state where they can accept significant change.

"Lead member to conclusion": These three groups also have a strong emphasis on leading their members down a well-defined path to a set of desired conclusions. This might be acknowledging previous failings or weaknesses, which may in turn lead to a strong shift from a previous way of thinking or lifestyle. They are not big on allowing people to challenge their thinking, but rather rely on the other markers which help support groupthink and acceptance by everyone.

"Uniforms and conformity" are a very powerful technique that can be used to discourage feelings of individuality, make people feel part of a large "family", and discourage unapproved behaviour and leaving the group.

"Group-induced euphoria" is typically achieved through meditation, chanting, singing (and farbrenging). It can also come as a result of coming off the low of being "broken" to a high of self-discovery and finding a new perspective on life The adage "ain simcha k'hasoras hasfeikos" - "there is no joy like the removal of doubt" is very appropriate here. Many people are drawn to these groups because of doubts or issues they may be facing, and the resultant epiphany is not just euphoric, but addictive - drawing people back for more.

The "Authority of leaders" is a very important element in many of these groups. Authority is one of the most powerful persuasive techniques used in marketing - we are more likely to accept instruction from someone who is perceived to have authority and power (why do you think advertisements for toothpaste and hair restoration feature people in white lab coats?). But while the leader may purport to have authority, on what is their authority based? and to what extent is there "governance & accountability" to ensure the group's activities are operating to some standards? In the case of Haredi groups, despite general lack of governance, there is a very high trust in the authority of the leader - be they a Rebbe or a Gadol - because by either their knowledge or pedigree (or both) they are accepted as our guide to a spiritual path. Some leaders establish their authority from the testimonials of people who are in the group, rather than any independent or objective standard.

I've included "Professional therapist" even though going to see a therapist doesn't make you part of any group as a very important counter-example. Psychologists and psychiatrists are medical professionals whose practice is governed by strict industry standards of behaviour. They are very careful not to "lead" patients, but rather to help them reach their own conclusions, and encourage them to challenge along the way. Governance and accountability is very strong - any practitioner must themselves have a supervisor with whom they can discuss issues that come up in their dealings with patients. This gives them an external assessment tool to ensure they have not stepped over any boundaries during what are often very intimate and intense discussions with their patients. The sanctions for breaching codes of practice can lead to criminal prosecution.

There is a principle that "adam korov etzel atzmoi" - we are by nature subjective. Just as someone who is "brainwashed" will not actually know it, someone who has been through (or born into) a system that uses some or all of the markers/techniques described above will have a lot of difficulty even identifying those markers, let alone thinking critically about them. Only by stepping back and examining things from a broader perspective can one understand what is going on under the surface. This principle is evident in many ways - from the way a therapist operates to the way an organisation or company is (or should be) governed.

We are also familiar with the "pendulum effect" - where someone comes from one extreme and seeks the opposite extreme to get as far away from their previous life as possible. Some people will stay extreme, some oscillate back and forth, and others will settle into some form of equilibrium. This applies to BTs, to frum people who leave the fold, and to anyone who experiences sudden and rapid change in their lives.

We live in a world full of influence - bombarded by marketing messages, with social media tools and mobile devices facilitating near-constant stimulus. Now more than ever we appreciate Shabbos as a time we can genuinely switch off from the world, and some large corporations are starting to recognize this. Our addiction to the 24/7 news cycle goes along with the constant search for a quick fix for everything.

Rabbi Hecht described COTS as "antibiotics not vitamins" - helpful only for someone who is challenged by some issues. If someone with such issues went to a therapist, and asked to be "fixed" over a weekend, any self-respecting therapist would decline to take them on as a patient. The tools at the disposal of a therapist work, but take time. What may take weeks or months of regular therapy could also be treated with an intensive weekend seminar, but one must ask: is the "short-cut" method risky or as effective over a longer period of time? Does it have unwanted consequences? Can it lead to pendulum effects?

We all face challenges in our lives - questions of theology and faith, relationship problems, general issues in our work and personal lives - as well as a desire to improve. As Chassidim living in a secular world, it's often the case that multiple issues overlap and are interconnected. While it can benefit to have external help in dealing with these things, it's important to ensure this is done in a manner which is consistent with our religious beliefs. Getting objective and professional advice before embarking on an intensive LGAT program like COTS is essential. Perhaps our community needs more frum therapists, or for mashpi'im to become "cross-disciplinary" and learn contemporary psychology. Whether this would be acceptable to the Crown Heights beis din, and to what extent one may borrow from or adapt independent well-being frameworks into Orthodox Judaism is an important issue, and one that is worthy of further discussion.

The short answer is: there are no short answers.


  1. Of course it's a cult. When's the last time you heard of anyone paying $700 to learn a ma'amar?

  2. We need these conversations to rescue the chassidus from the many levels of layers of obscurity, confusion and folly. An accountability checklist is a good starting point.

  3. The key criteria of a cult are just: Near total enforced dissociation from previous life, Absolute obedience to the leader and No Accountability. I would debate that any strain of Orthodox Judaism would have any of these (though some would love to have zero accountability). Most Charedi groups are quite arbitrarily selective on which of their Rebbe's/Rov's/Rosh Yeshiva's derochim are to be followed. No Charedi group stops the Baal Teshuva from associating with family & friends from the past. Mostly it's that the common threads that kept people friends are no longer relevant as the focus on life is now different.

  4. The main ingredient that distinguishes COTS from the other groups in your comparison is the tactics. COTS tactics are the same as those used in other mind control or thought-reform groups and what have been traditionally labeled as cults. This is done in a 1-size-fits-all approach by people with no recognized expertise in mental health. Besides the obvious halachic issues involved with the tactics as well as the philosophies of COTS, this is the essential and very dangerous difference. There is a lot of literature available on all these things and people who may be considering attending COTS are well advised to do their homework before diving in to something that could have a profoundly negative affect on their mental and therefore spiritual health. Someone needs to put together a flow chart of exactly what transpires at COTS retreats and then analyze the parts and the whole. Also, having someone come forward who knows the leader of this group, his origins, family, and background could be very insightful.