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Interview: Rabbi Yehudah Fine - Neil T. Duddy

Rabbi Yehudah Fine is the executive director of Choices for the Jewish Family, headquartered in Brooklyn, New York. He is associated with the Manhattan-based Jewish Community Relations Task Force on Cults and is a spokesman on new religions for the larger Jewish community.

UPDATE: Let’s start with some background material. Why did you become interested in new religions?

FINE: In a nutshell, I became interested because I was living and working as a high-school principal in Mendicino, California where there was a lot of cult activity. Whereas I was concerned about all of my students, I was most surprised that many of the Jewish students were joining those groups, and I, a Jew, had no appreciable impact on them. I was aware that they were experiencing personality transformations and were radically altering their lifestyles. That was the milieu and context of California in the early ‘70s.

I had also met my wife-to-be who was involved then in the Divine Light Mission.

UPDATE: Why did you develop a professional ministry to new religious movements?
FINE: I took a vacation to Jerusalem and, while there, I decided to make a radical change, a career switch, in my life. Until then I had invested seven or eight years in public education. Vacationing in Jerusalem, I realized that as a Jew I was living in an extraordinarily historical time; my people were back in Israel after centuries of exile. I felt that I wanted to contribute my skills to Jewish causes, so I became a rabbi. I left my job, studied in Jerusalem, and when I came to New York, the work with cults began to happen naturally. Because I was giving classes on the new religions, other rabbis, families, and family services began calling me. Various people, including those in the cults, were coming to me, and I began to counsel and redirect them.


UPDATE: Does your counseling have a distinctively Jewish character?

FINE: I began my work with a true sense of mission, of re-acquainting and reawakening in Jewish people their own rich spiritual heritage. I approached it from that angle, a Jewish perspective, and that approach has been both popular and successful.


UPDATE: Why have young Jews been attracted to the new religions? Some researchers would suggest that an inordinate percentage of Jewish people belong to some of the new religions. Is that true?

FINE: There are a disproportionate number of young Jews in certain groups, definitely. One very obvious reason for that is that 85 percent of Jewish kids go to college where recruiting by the new religions often takes place. They also come from upwardly mobile families who send their children away, out of town, to school. A third factor is the breakdown in Jewish family life. Jews have always had a very strong family tradition; not necessarily a religious one, but nonetheless a very influential, ethnic-oriented tradition. What we’re seeing is that, within one generation of intellectually oriented kids who have not really had any religious and spiritual upbringing in their lives, those traditions have ruptured. Jewish young people haven’t grappled with life and meaning questions, although the whole basis of questioning is built into the family. Add to that a divorce or any of those kinds of vectors that make kids vulnerable emotionally, besides their going off to school, and you have all the ingredients for somebody getting involved in one of the new religious groups.

UPDATE: Those factors don’t seem to be distinctively different from the rest of the population, or are they?


FINE: Well, I think they are very different because Jews are not part of the mainstream of societies in the United States or Europe. They are a minority group. Joining a new religion is often a form of cultural assimilation, a going away from Judaism. It’s different for a Protestant kid in Midwestern America who gets involved in a Bible cult. That’s a modest shift from likely religious activity at home. But for young Jews, they wonder, What does it mean to be a Jew, rising out of the ashes of the holocaust?, What does it mean to be one of 3.5 percent of the population in a non-Jewish culture? Those considerations affect Jews as individuals. They cause a person to question and wonder. And when men and women question and wonder inside of themselves, internally they seek resolution. The new religious movements, of course, provide that resolution.


UPDATE: Are there some new religions whose beliefs lend themselves to attracting Jews?


FINE: I think the Eastern groups do. They have the universalist pitch--we will accept and bring in everyone--which fits in well with a lot of liberalism, and it also solves a lot of unique Jewish concerns instantly. You can still be identified more or less (mostly less) with your Judaism, but acceptance is for everybody. You don’t have to deal with any of those historical or minority problems because the solution Is “we are one” to begin with. If you take away the diversity of all individuals and say there is unity, then you don’t have to deal with any particular issues that raise distinctions.


UPDATE: Are you specifically thinking of guru groups?


FINE: Yes, Jewish kids are attracted to guru movements. And those movements have, accordingly, tailored their proselytizing to address a Jewish audience. For example, I’ve seen poorly written materials in the Hare Krishna movement that are a psycho-spiritual textual attack on Judaism. Those commentaries to prove Krishna consciousness are handed out to Jewish disciples to deal specifically with Jewish questions.


Some of the Bible groups approach it from a completely different angle. They manipulate and monopolize the tensions that have always existed between Christian and Jewish communities and seek to bring about a resolution of that tension for the Jews within their group. During the recruitment of a Jewish kid, if he maintains his Jewish identity, that tension is always discussed.


UPDATE: How has the Jewish community organized itself institutionally in response to new religious movements?


FINE: Well, I think it’s true that we are way ahead organizationally of Christian institutions. But in terms of the new religions, they are still far outdistancing us. In the United States there is a growing national Jewish response that is centered in New York, primarily through the active Jewish Community Relations Task Force on Cults. We have a clinic in New York, and other cult clinics are springing up through Jewish family services across the country. We’ve trained many seminary students as well. There’s an ongoing network of exchange of information and seminars through Jewish family services. The biggest thing we’ve done to make a broad-based statement as a religious community, besides our own Jewish efforts, is to form an interfaith coalition in New York City. The archdioceses, the council of churches, and individual representatives from Greek Orthodox, Episcopalian, United Church of Christ, etc. denominations meet and conduct seminars that will affect clergy across the country. Our goal is to help them deal with the common, value-based issues raised by new religious movements and to develop programs that will affect Jews and Christians alike.


UPDATE: What value-based issues are important to that committee?


FINE: Basically, cultic religious groups are so successful today because they supplant the natural family. Family and community identities are decomposing, and I think a theological perspective is critically important in supporting those identities. I think we’ve run out of gas in looking at the growth of new religions from a purely psychological perspective. One must have a family and community to come back to, integrate and grow in. I tell parents, What good is it to talk with your son and help him get on track again if he just assimilates into the culture and disappears? What good does it do for our whole journey down through history?


UPDATE: What do you offer a Jew who is coming out of a new religion?


FINE: Through the Jewish Community Relations council and other groups we work with, particularly in New York and Philadelphia, we’re building communities--supportive places where individuals can grapple with the deep questions which the new religions raise. Whereas we’re genuinely trying to work towards that, we’re only in the development stage.


UPDATE: What do you offer, religiously, theologically, to Jews who are in new religious movements?

FINE: Let me give you a little scenario of what happens here almost continually. By coming to my house, people encounter a major paradox. Why is that? Because they encounter a strong, spiritually oriented, religious family that is also autonomous. We are a community who is willing to engage their religious value structure. I care what individuals believe in, especially how they acquired that belief. So we will talk theology. They also encounter a community of people who are caring and support independent growth. A former Rajneesh devotee came here one Sabbath afternoon as we were singing and worshiping. She walked in and said, “My God, I’m back in Poona.” Now that’s just crazy on the one hand, but on the other hand, that doesn’t happen if you’re picked up by a coercive deprogrammer.

Something else happens here. Kids tell me that when they come out of groups, they have a lot of deep, God-related questions they wonder about. They want to talk about the kinds of values that we as human beings cherish. Where are they going to find that? This house is a place that is different from the average synagogue or church. Ex-members of the new religions will say, You know, for the last few months I’ve really been scared to open up my heart again and to even think about any deep, spiritual questions. I’ve been afraid to do that. But here, I feel safe because it’s mine.

UPDATE: How is your intensive community distinctly Jewish?

FINE: We maintain what we call religious rituals in our family life that are part and parcel of who we are and what we do. Those religious acts have the spiritual consequence in the family of drawing people together. In an open kind of atmosphere, a person can have an ultimate encounter with God. Come here some Friday night, for example, and watch my three-year-old daughter light a candle and tell me that you don’t feel something. There is a special meaning beyond the mere lighting of the candle. If I look at it psychologically, lighting the candle brings light into the world, and that’s a nice symbol. But if the lighting ushers in the Sabbath, a sanctity is brought down into the world. We can step out of our secular world for just a moment to remember who we are. It’s more than just rehabilitation, more than just psychological counseling. It’s an encounter with eternity.

UPDATE: Are there new religious movements in Israel?

FINE: Yes, it’s wild. They’re all over there, too. Scientology, The Way International, Divine Light Mission, the Hare Krishnas. Nearly every group is present in Jerusalem, a prized piece of turf to acquire members in. To be able to recruit and train Israelis who will then come to the United States or Europe is obviously a tremendous plus. To be on ground that is acknowledged as the holy land is a very important thing. Israel is ripe. It’s not easy to live there. How much tension, how much war can people take? How much suffering can they bear in a highly technological society? It’s beautiful but nevertheless hard. That provides a fertile ground from which people listen and convert to new religious beliefs.

UPDATE: After exit-counseling, we assume a person leaves and becomes reoriented. Do you feel a religious worldview needs to be part of a person’s reconstruction?

Our counseling is not distinctly religious. I certainly hope non-Jewish clients come out of the groups. There’s no doubt about that. In dealing with people who grew up in the Catholic church, for example, I refer them to professionals I know who they can contact and engage in dialog. I do that.

But I don’t want to talk now about people who are the casualties of the new religions, because they need special kinds of counseling and attention. Let’s talk about a “normal” recruit. Some of them may have come from wounded environments to begin with, but they are nonetheless functional. But because everybody brings their own kind of cultural baggage and fears into an exit-counseling situation, kids are not often encouraged to seek it out.
Based on conversations I’ve had with kids who have sought me out, however, I believe that even in the most perverted sense, in just about every group, there was some encounter with the divine. (That’s looking at if from a somewhat mystical perspective, I realize.) Something happened to the person. You cannot just label it thought reform. No matter how perverted it was, it ripped that person into another reality that lies at the bottom of things--a reality in which they were not capable of functioning before. Good or bad (I don’t want to say that most of it is bad), something was awakened in a funny way; a religious or spiritual awakening, whatever word you want to use. But that poses a very big question. Every kid wants to know what happened to them in the group. Most counselors say, Here’s Lifton (author of Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism). That’s what happened to you. But that’s not what happened. Something happened inside the person’s heart and mind. How are you going to get at and understand that? How are you going to integrate that, because there is much confusion in that ongoing process that needs to be resolved.

UPDATE: Are there theological criteria by which you evaluate new religions?

FINE: Yes, certainly, there are criteria. I’ll speak Jewishly. Judaism says there are basically three criteria. I’ll tell you a story to put them into context.

There was once a great Hasidic master named Reb Nachman of Breslov. His students are still around today. The story goes that one of his students was praying, swaying back and forth, and nothing special happened. But the next day when people came in, he was on fire. He was able to understand everything they asked him and to repeat the Rebbe’s teaching. So they went to the Hasidic master and said, “You must be proud of your disciple. He explains your teachings and your stories, and when we see him pray with such fire, we become ecstatic ourselves. “ The Rebbe looked back and said, “No, when he gets over all of that experience, let’s see if he really learned anything. Let’s see if he has a better life.”

So the three criteria address the question, How do I know what I’m doing is good and right? First, you have to ask, Am I hurting anybody? Second, Am I adding to what is here? Although there is an intuitive experience in Judaism that is private, personal, and indescribable, you should be able to speak about it in a rational way. Not the experience, but the effect of that experience. Third, Is a positive action modality present in my life? Can I see that I’m a better husband, that I’m not as angry, I’m more compassionate, more caring? Those are very powerful value statements. The Jews have ways of serving God which include all kinds of improved interrelationships and interactions. If the quality of life improves after a religious experience, then something true has happened. That includes the affirmation of family and community values.

UPDATE: What is your starting point in exit-counseling?

FINE: I begin examining the theology in terms of the group’s action modality in the world. Once you have rapport with an individual, there are lots of ways you can enter into their theology. All groups have either a millennial or universal-saving-the-world component which operates only within the perimeters of the group. Those components never really reach anyone else apart from witnessing for the group to enlist new members. If you can get to the point where critical thinking begins, then ask members, What do you really do out there?, What is that for?, How is that tied into what you are taught? Glaring problems exist in most groups. Nothing is really happening except in the members’ own little world. They’re not really doing anything. Ask them why? What in their theology says that? Why is what they are doing so self-limiting?
UPDATE: The main editors of Shambala publishers wrote an article for Publishers Weekly that described how the new age market for belief and meditational books is withering. Consequently, they’re now printing books and articles on how to be active in your environment; for example, new age ecology, energy, childbirth, cooking, medicine, community relations, etc. In that sense, I wonder if you see a potential change within new religious groups? Would your criteria of action modality change?

FINE: No, I believe those movements are of such an unusual nature that If they were to adopt positive actions toward society and culture, they would dissipate. The social controls for maintaining membership would break up, and members would slip into mainstream culture. I would argue that once controls were eased, narrow and limited theologies would not attract members or provide a positive basis for positive social activism. By the way, I’d love to have consumer legislation in all religions--let’s talk about what we’re all about.

UPDATE: That’s not really consumer protection, though. It’s legislation directed at religious belief. But theoretically, how would you like to see that legislation applied? For example, if you join the Unification Church (UC), you should be told that you will probably be married within five years; your spouse will be selected for you; you’re likely to work for the UC and, although they won’t demand that you turn your paycheck back over to the church, you’ll be a better steward of your monies if you do; that you will come and live in UC centers; if you do come to work for the church and stay for 15 to 20 years, a retirement program will not be provided for you; you won’t have medical coverage, etc. Is that the kind of thing you would like recruits to hear?

FINE: Yes. Why should we be afraid to talk about those things? Why shouldn’t I be able to ask you about my retirement plan in the UC? Why shouldn’t the freedom exist so that, when I ask the question about marriages, I’ll get an answer? Before we conclude the interview, however, I have one other concern to raise with you.


FINE: The Christian population has to understand that Jewish-Christian movements are neither Christianity nor Judaism. Point number two is that I’ve met most of the leaders of those groups and realized that they have limited knowledge about Judaism. They are Jews, yet they don’t know much about Judaism. They cannot even carefully articulate what is in the Torah.

UPDATE: Isn’t that a little broad?

FINE: On important issues, massive deception has been laid on converts to Jewish-Christian groups. The motto is, I’m Jewish, therefore I can become fulfilled. The individuals who preach that theology are faced with an information problem; they are deceptive. First of all, they claim to know about Judaism, the Torah, the Talmud, all of the things about which they have no knowledge. They claim to know everything about a meaningful Jewish spiritual life yet either posit it as being bankrupt or manipulate the symbols. They destroy rabbinic Judaism.

UPDATE: Can you be more specific?

FINE: They manipulate Judaism by using the symbols of Jewish tradition in order to foster what they call Hebrew Christianity. They prey on a young person who doesn’t know anything about his or her own Jewish identity to begin with. Theologically they destroy the oral tradition of Judaism. They practice the ritual blessings of the candles, wearing prayer shawls and celebrating Sabbath Passover services. Where did they find all of those things? Not in the Bible, but in the Talmud. And that is rabbinic Judaism. They are making theological mistakes by using the Talmud in a Christian context. You cannot make a blessing on the candles and say God commanded me to do this unless you believe in the Talmud. I was told by one man that I could be a complete Sabbath observer and still be a Hebrew Christian. “How is that possible?” I asked him, “because we have to go to the Talmud.”

Earlier a number of those groups had strong financial ties to Christian churches, particularly fundamentalist ones. Money is tight nowadays, and I think you’ll see the Hebrew Christian groups forming their own churches. It used to be that they fed their Jewish converts into local Christian congregations, but that has changed.