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by Lawrence Bush
Discussed in this essay: The Devil in Jerusalem, a novel by Naomi Ragen. October 13, 2015, St. Martin's Press, 310 pages.
BACK IN THE MID-1970S, when religious cults were sprouting like mushrooms in the soil of the American counterculture, I spent a couple of inebriated moments daydreaming about becoming a cult leader. Maybe I had what it took: the verbal dexterity, interpersonal intelligence, charisma, understanding of mystical concepts, and patience with vulnerable people, enough to be able to climb into their souls, especially the messy corners, build intimate bonds, convince them of my wisdom, and then have sex with all of these admiring women.
I was in my early twenties. Sex with admiring women seemed like an imperative, and becoming a cult leader seemed a lot more likely for me than becoming a member of the Rolling Stones.
Happily, my egotistical fantasizing about guru-hood was a lot more benevolent than the grim reality of manipulation, exploitation, chicanery, sleight-of-hand, sadism, and psychopathic khutspe that was revealed, scandal after scandal, within the world of cults. The worst abuses probably took place within Jim Jones' Peoples Temple, which ended in a mass suicide-murder in Guyana. Naomi Ragen describes it this way in The Devil in Jerusalem: "One little girl, no older than five, was restless in class, so he ordered her to be taken from her house at night and left a quarter of a mile away. They told her that snakes and monsters were waiting for her. They made her walk home, blindfolded. On the way, they snaked a slimy rope around her shoulders and made animal noises... One fourteen-year-old girl was kept for weeks in a plywood box with only two holes for air and a can for a toilet, while adults taunted her... The children were also punished for their parents' behavior. If a couple was discovered talking privately, the children were forced to masturbate or have sex with someone they did not like in front of the entire congregation..."
The context for this grim description is a novel by the best-selling Israeli author, is based on the real-life 2008 case of Elior Chen, an ultra-Orthodox sadist in Israel (shown at right). Ragen has blended several such cases into a fiction in which we watch a young Orthodox American Jewish couple pursue their mystical fantasy life in Israel and fall, along with their lose-count-of-how-many children, into the clutches of a sadistic, master manipulator.
Unfortunately, Ragen's literary powers are overwhelmed by her subject matter as she tries, in only 300-odd pages, to tell the story of this couple's marriage, family backgrounds, emigration to Israel, ever-increasing religiosity, and how they are inveigled into a cult mentality not by one but by two "rebbes" (one of whom supplants the other). There is little room in Ragen's novel for more than a cartoonish sketch of her characters' personalities and psychologies — the husband, in particular, is nothing more than a Punch-and-Judy fool — and the narrative offers a summation but no new insights about the blend of religious yearning, naiveté, self-loathing, isolation, and youthful idealism that can and has led so many intelligent and sensitive people to submit to exploitative gurus.
But Ragen does have a story to tell, however crudely, and The Devil in Jerusalem has enough episodic tension and mind-boggling details about the surrendering of self to be a compelling page-turner. Be warned, however: there is testimony about the incomprehensible torture of children that reads like the worst Holocaust literature.
THE FEATURE SHARED most in common by Nazis and religious cultism may, in fact, be the incomprehensibility of psychopathology. Normal people are simply naive about the lengths to which the power-hungry will go to defraud and manipulate — and thus disarmed, normal people become highly manipulable. Even after being deprived of all civil rights, for example, and confined to starve in ghettos and to slave away in labor camps, Jews simply could not fathom the surreal idea of death camps, gas chambers, organized genocide — and so they were lulled time and time again by the reassuring propaganda of the Nazis. Similarly — though on a much, much lesser scale, of course — during the 1970s, when my fellow hippies were embracing the gurus of the East, and Eastern religion in general, as a whole different stripe of friendly, truth-revealing religion — nothing at all like Billy Graham-style of evangelical Christianity of our conservative enemies! — they could not entertain the idea that many of the gurus they admired were, fundamentally, charlatans, using tricks of mentalism and sleight-of-hand magic to convince their followers of their special powers.
There was a 14-year-old "Perfect Master," for instance, Guru Maharaj Ji, who somehow made sparks fly from the "third eye" forehead regions of his devotees.
Surrounded by such gullibility, it's no wonder I daydreamed about becoming a guru...
"THOSE WHO CAN MAKE YOU believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities," wrote Voltaire, famously, in 1765, in a tract about the absurdity of believing in miracles. "If the God-given understanding of your mind does not resist a demand to believe what is impossible," he continued, "then you will not resist a demand to do wrong to that God-given sense of justice in your heart. As soon as one faculty of your soul has been dominated, other faculties will follow as well. And from this derives all those crimes of religion which have overrun the world."
Unfortunately, Naomi Ragen's book fails to explore which beliefs in the absurdities of Judaism are acceptable, and which take a person beyond the pale and erode his or her moral sensibility. An American-born Orthodox Jew who has herself lived in Jerusalem since 1971, she takes for granted her readers' ability to distinguish between "good" religion and "bad" religion. She doesn't ever challenge the entire religious enterprise — or any other highly ideological form of thinking — as a possible stepping stone to the surrendering of the "sense of justice in your heart."
Lawrence Bush is the author of Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist. He cannot perform sleight-of-hand, or even smile when he's feeling blue.