It is Not in Me: Resisting the Cults of Mass Delusion

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, December 15, 2023 / 3 Tevet 5784

Summary: Historians have documented numerous periods in which entire societies or segments of them succumbed to mass delusion.

Reading Time: Thirteen minutes

It is Not in Me: Resisting the Cults of Mass Delusion

November 18th, 1978—that’s when the mass suicide occurred, forty-five years ago.

November 18th is also my birthday, so perhaps that is why the story of Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre has always haunted me. Jim Jones began as a social activist, working to ameliorate some of America’s racism. Over time, the forms of his social activism and his associated beliefs became more extreme, even as his ability to manipulate and exert control over his followers grew. Slowly, his ideology divided the world into two camps, the good and bad, presenting the external world as corrupt and out to get the church and his followers. On that fateful date, November 18th, a US Congressman, Leo Ryan, had visited the compound to determine if reports of abuse were accurate. As the congressman attempted to depart, he was gunned down at the local airstrip under orders from Jim Jones.

Realizing that this action would draw a response from the US military, Jones convinced over 900 people at the People’s Temple to drink cyanide-laced Flavor-Aide, which was mistakenly reported in the news as Kool Aid. To this day, when we say, “they really drank the Kool Aid,” we mean that someone has stopped thinking critically and accepted a party line.

The People’s Temple was not an isolated incident. The 1970s saw a proliferation of cults, such as Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church and David Berg’s The Children of God. Cults were a big thing in my house growing up because during my childhood, The Way International purchased a home down the block from us, on the street where I grew up. My mother feared her kids might get brainwashed by them and felt it was important to warn us of the danger.

The 1960s and 1970s were a period of upheaval, in which the countercultural movement of that era grew disenchanted with the traditional institutions of the day; out of that foment, many new movements and ideologies were born, all of which promised a new vision of life and reality. Young adults, in particular, who were in search of meaning, identity, and a sense of belonging, found these new beliefs and groups an intoxicating source of stability and certainty during a time of rapid change.

It wasn’t just youth who were seeking for some understanding that would explain everything. The 1970s saw something similar happen at the cutting edge of physics. The stable Newtonian understanding of how the world operates began to unravel in the early part of the 20th century with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and the introduction of Quantum Mechanics. Suddenly, everything we thought we knew about how the world operated was put into question, and this created a sense of both intellectual and emotional unease in the scientific community.1

Thus it was in the 1970s, that Jewish physicist, Sheldon Glashow, and his colleague, Howard Georgi, proposed a Grand Unification Theory that would unite the electroweak force with the strong nuclear force. The idea was that at high energy levels, like those present just after the Big Bang, these forces might merge into a single force. Put differently, in a society whose norms were being called into question, and in physics where the same thing had occurred, these physicists were seeking an answer to everything, by which all the major forces of physics could be described using a single theory and a single formula. As complicated as the math involved was, they were seeking a simple answer.

I don’t have the mathematical credentials to evaluate Glashow and Georgi’s theory, but what is clear is that after fifty years, no physicist has yet been able to generate a Grand Unification Theory. Although physicists are arguably some of the smartest people on the planet, physics itself has far fewer variables than human beings, which is why it has been able to make much better predictions than sociology. Despite that, if physics cannot produce a grand theory, why do we hold out a similar hope in the messier and more complicated world of human affairs?

I’d like to answer that by arguing that too many of us haven’t invested the time needed to accept the swirl of dark emotions that flood our brains as states of mind that simply arise. Until we can sit with these uncomfortable feelings without judgement, we resort to the primitive limbic system’s binary choice of fight or flight and attempt to construct ideas to eliminate the terror and discomfort we experience.2

In parshat Vayeshev, the Torah portion could not be clearer about this. While Joseph is in jail, two other prisoners, the chief butler and baker, wake from terrifying dreams. Seeking relief from the pain these dreams cause them, they ask Joseph to resolve them, which of course he does. The same thing happens with Pharaoh’s dream of healthy and emaciated cows and grains of wheat. Pharaoh is so perturbed that he calls all of his advisers to explain his dreams to him so that he can gain some emotional release. This leads to Joseph’s audience with Pharaoh, during which he provides an interpretation that settles Pharaoh’s mind. But Joseph also offers a cogent word of caution, first to the baker and butler, and then to Pharaoh.

In Genesis 41:16, he states: “It is not in me [to interpret dreams]. God will provide an answer that restores peace to Pharaoh’s [unsettled mind].”

Joseph is not arguing against the possibility of human reasoning to solve problems. Indeed, he creates an entire system of twin storage cities to survive the coming famine of which Pharaoh’s dreams speak. Rather, he is reminding us that while we are good at solving specific technical problems, there are vast areas of reality that are beyond human reasoning, and when we forget this and try to explain all of reality with our theories, we fall prey to the sort of mass delusion to which Jim Jones and his followers succumbed. We drink the Kool Aid.

Nearly fifty years after Jonestown, the world is in another period of upheaval. Climate change, global overpopulation and its attendant economic woes and disparities, and the elimination of the United States as the singular superpower have all created a distrust in our institutions not so dissimilar to the 1970s. Uncertainty, despair, and doubt are the flavors of the day, and the emotions it stirs up are unbearable for many. In the Anglosphere, suicide rates are up across Gen Z, especially for young women and girls. That is one terrible solution to our era’s emotional turmoil, but it is thankfully not the prevalent one.

In fact, we have seen other terrible solutions as democracies elect autocrats, and as college academics try to explain all of the world’s suffering as the result of the oppressed and oppressors, leading to a breakdown of any sense of shared morality or shared destiny. The perspective of unity is gone.

Unsurprisingly, if there is one pattern that history makes clear, and that doesn’t require God to explain, it is that Jews become scapegoated when societies struggle. Jew hatred, whether it is directed at Israel or the American Jewish community, is the convenient answer to the messiness of life. As I am sure you have heard—there was a shooting at an Albany synagogue last week, when Mufid Fawaz Alkhader decided to open fire. He claimed that events in the Middle East led him to do so. Thankfully, no one was harmed, yet as the spiking rates of antisemitism demonstrate, Jew hatred has always served as a sort of warped dream interpretation to settle the troubled minds of those around us. More than anything, antisemitism is a sort of mass delusion not so very different than the ideology espoused by Jim Jones.

What are we to do with all this? What is the Jewish answer during an era of turmoil and antisemitism?

During this period of Chanukah, while I don’t want to overstate the connections between Maccabean history and the present moment—that would also be a form of ideology and delusion—there are important lessons that can help us keep our hearts strong and our chins up.

First, in the age of the Maccabees, the regional hegemon was the Seleucid Greeks, and we Jews had no allies during this time. We had to fight alone, a tiny minority against a vast force.

In a stretch of time during which the presidents of top private universities were unable to denounce genocide unequivocally, it would be easy to imagine that our situation is similar to the Maccabees. Yet let’s not forget that these same presidents were called before Congress. We have countless friends and allies who are standing with us against the mass delusion of the era. Last week, our president, Liza Milliner, posted about an act of love and kindness from a Christian neighbor; one of my Muslim friends, Pete, reached out to me with his blessings of support. In November, France had one of its largest rallies, in which average French citizens marched against antisemitism.

Second, the Maccabees are a reminder that when a minority of Jews held fast to our values and our culture, they could resist those same global forces. Jewish pride, and using the many tools of organizing we have, will allow us to resist and overcome today’s antisemitism. While I was unable to attend, 290,000 Jews and friends marched in Washington, DC. We will not survive by hiding but by standing tall.

Antisemitism is ultimately a non-Jewish problem, and it invariably attaches itself to whatever mass delusion is popular at the time. Between the World Wars, Germans blamed the Jews for their economic woes. The medieval Church blamed us for the murder of Jesus, despite the clear historical record that the Romans did this. Together, we could rattle off a dozen more examples. In an era in which people are either oppressed or oppressor, antisemitism-of necessity-must say Jews anywhere in the world are oppressors, which is basically what that Albany gunmen held. The absurdity of this is only clear to those who have not drunk the Kool Aid.

It is at times like this that we Jews have a responsibility to speak forcefully and clearly, using the gifts of logic and insight to reach those whose minds remain open.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D

1 As scientist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn proposed in his seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (1962) science works under a set of assumptions until sufficient anomalies forces it to undergo a radical paradigm shift. He argued that sociology and subjectivity therefore played a role in scientific research.

2 In fact, a body of research convincingly argues that in our era, we prioritize our emotions to rational thought, often imagining that they provide a deeper insight into reality. While it is true that some of our emotions preceded rational thought, often impacting what we think, it is also true that many of our emotions are constructed based on our thinking or past experience. In other words, our emotions are as subject to error as our ideologies.

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