Coercion, intimidation are way of cults, not Judaism

People the world over were shocked and dismayed that 39 human beings who were intelligent, successful and physically healthy committed suicide in a very calculated and planned manner. The most startling thing in this story is that they committed suicide willingly, without coercion or intimidation.

All of them belonged to the Heaven's Gate cult. We ask ourselves how this cult could bring people to annihilate themselves.

Usually, cults operate through a two-stage approach — it begins with kindness and ends with intimidation. At first, the leaders of the cult are friendly and persuasive; the atmosphere is relaxed and nobody has reason to suspect there is something terribly wrong within the group.

However, in later stages intimidation and brainwashing take place, and the members of the cult do not have a choice but to follow directions from the leader.

Between the friendly first stage and the later intimidation and coercion phase, the following takes place:

*The cult, most likely the leader of the cult, diminishes the ego of the follower, lowering his or her self-respect.

*The cult's teaching blurs the distinction between good and bad, and the follower's thought processes become im-paired.

The end result is that the follower becomes totally dependent, mentally and emotionally, on the mentor, who then can do with him or her whatever he wants. No one is immune from this kind of influence. Every person can be a victim: bright people and those who are not so bright, rich or poor. The mind of man is very fragile and can be swayed from its normal thinking process.

In the final stage, the ability of the victim to resist and to object and to be critical no longer exists. Usually in this stage, in order to complete the subjugation of that individual or group of people, intimidation is applied and the victim is stripped of any self-will or aspiration.

All these cult characteristics were manifest in Heaven's Gate.

According to the media reports, the 39 people who committed suicide were led to believe that:

*Death just means leaving the planet Earth;

*They were going to reach a "higher level" of existence;

*The comet was ac-companied by a spaceship that was going to take them to that "higher level";

*They were not regular human beings but angels.

Judaism, through its articles of faith and system of commandments, safeguards its adherents from such destructive influence and twisted thinking.

The Torah commands us to "scrupulously guard one's soul." The rabbis explain that every human being should refrain from putting himself in a dangerous situation for the fun of it and should keep his soul and body in good condition.

Far from permitting castration and suicide, the two hallmarks of the Heaven's Gate cult, the Torah prohibits us from mutilating our bodies or any part of them in any way. Not only is castration of human beings prohibited, but even animal castration is banned by the Torah.

The Torah also enjoins us not to degrade God's handiwork by even inscribing tattoos on our flesh, for we were all made in the image of God.

While we are bidden to place all our faith and trust in God, the rabbis nevertheless deduce from the language of the Torah itself that we should be active in improving and preserving the health of the body, including medical treatment.

Just as we are prohibited from taking the life of another, we are also prohibited by the Torah from taking our own life, which is God-given, and anyone who commits suicide is deemed a murderer and is not to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

Judaism views the human body as a holy object — similar to the case of the Sefer Torah, and the Torah scroll itself is comparable to the soul of a person. Every part of the human body is sacred. Therefore, in case a limb is amputated, we bury it and later, when the person dies, he is laid to rest beside his other interred remains.

We never consider the body of a human being as a mere container. This kind of thinking, unfortunately, can lead to horrible and tragic consequences.

Every authentic source of Jewish thought — the Talmud, the halachah (Jewish law), agadah (legend), mussar (manners) — is geared to enhance self-respect and to sharpen the ability of the individual to differentiate between good and bad, to develop his critical faculties.

Judaism opposes any attempt from any individual or group to play the role of God in the life of another human being. It is against Jewish law for a person to play the role of God, commanding or dictating to another person whom to marry or whom to divorce, or not to marry at all. Nor may a person command another on what kind of venture or investments to be engaged in.

This kind of behavior, which is characteristic of a cult mentality, can lead to regretful or even horrific consequences.