Who’s Brainwashed?

I remember when I looked at him and I argued, the way he looked at me, almost like he was sad. And I remember thinking, how dare you, how dare you be sad for me.

I was a secular college guy in college, and I had spend the last few months living with a bunch of Christians. I ended up there because one of my best friends happened to be a religious Christian in college, and I thought maybe it would give me some sort of order if I moved in with him and his friends.

I was surprised how quickly I became friends with his roommates, how quickly I opened up to them and how quickly we shared our thoughts and experiences despite me being in a completely different place than they were.

But something always happened when we brought up that word.  That word I could hardly bring myself to speak. I spit it out like it was a disease whenever I said it.


Gross. Add the word “organized” in front of that and, as far as I could see, you had a crud salad. A mix of everything wrong with the world.

So when one of those friends and I argued that one night, and I argued louder than I ever argued before, and he calmly answered my questions, and I stamped my feet and got angry about all those things, about how they make no sense, how they’re opppressive, how they’re foolish, so foolish, and all he did was calmly answer, and then give me that look for a second like he was sad, like he felt bad for me, I remember how badly I wanted to punch something.

But instead we just argued the whole way down the highway as I drove and I pointed my finger up and down and he answered, answered, answered, I couldn’t help feeling like there was something going on here, something I was missing. Here was a guy, calm as a cucumber, and me, frustrated as all hell.

It didn’t hit me that night. Instead, like most of our arguments, we went into our rooms afterwards, and I was frustrated and sad and quiet, and wondering how someone I respected, how someone I thought so much of, could believe his gobbledygook. It made no sense.

And I remember how eventually things became a sort of neutral peace about these things with a few eruptions of debate punctuating our quietude every now and then.

And I remember how for weeks, months, a year, I watched them quietly, trying to understand this weird breed of person. These people who I never would have respected if I never met, and now I couldn’t help but admire. This whole group of Christians who were cool and hip, but got all weird and bizarre when they started saying think like, “I put my trust in Him.” How they were all artists and deep thinkers and intelligent people.

It made no sense.

There’s an experience that you have when your views are challenged. When your worldview, one that you’ve held all your life is being dismantled in front of your eyes.

It’s kind of like the stages you go through when something tragic that you can’t compute has happened in your life. Denial, anger, confusion.

You’re in a state of cognitive dissonance. Where something has to give in the way you think and believe, or your brain might explode from the conflictedness of it all.

I remember going through that with them, with those people that proved to me that being religious doesn’t mean being stupid or not thinking for yourself or being a mindless sheep.

And I remember having this realization at some point, maybe it was as late as when I started to become religious myself, that maybe I was the one who was brainwashed. Maybe I had been led to believe false things. Maybe I was a victim of a system that turned people against each other just because of their beliefs.

It wasn’t one of those things that just hits you at once, but slowly creeps up onto your shoulder, and tells you with a whisper in one ear that you’re the very thing you fear, that you argue against and throw a fist around for.

And soon I started to look back on other people I knew in college, the people who helped convince me that this is how religious people are, and I remembered how they were, how they judged others, how they looked down on whole societies of people without really knowing them or their beliefs. How they judged everything based on books they read and websites they went to. And the whisper grew louder.

Because those were the people I should have been waving my finger at. Those were the judging, stereotyping, sheep. And so was I.

And as the whisper grew into a wailing siren, and I began the transition into becoming a religious Jew, it took me a while to stop getting angry at those people who I felt had brainwashed me. I started to realize that I felt bad for them, just the way my friend felt bad for me.

These were people who were sacrficing so much in their lives for these beliefs they didn’t even know they had. They were extreme secularists, living lives based on gender studies classes and an echo chamber of beliefs that distracted them from looking at the world in a truly open way.

And now, it truly makes me sad, and I realize that maybe, maybe, it’s a patronizing sort of sadness (although I hope not), to see a world of people who judge, who criticize, who attack religious people and just anyone with a different belief than themselves because they are a part of a combine that tells them to do so, that says they shouldn’t judge anyone except who their society has confirmed is eligible to be attacked.

I’m sad because I realize these people are sacrificing something for their judgements.

They’re sacrificing self-awareness.

A self-awareness that can only be had by looking at ourselves honestly and deeply and realizing that we don’t have all the answers, that the world is deep and dark and mysterious, and that things like feminism and politics and “Occupy”-ing have been distorted into distractions, distractions that come with a cost. Like when a woman chooses that she will not have children until later in her life just because that’s what is accepted practice.

Because that choice isn’t inherently wrong, but that lack of self-awareness that has pervaded our culture, those choices that aren’t really choices, because people have been convinced that their choices are intelligent simply because they live in a vacuum that tells them what choices are intelligent…. that’s criminal.

And that’s why I’m sad about those people, and maybe it’s patronizing, and maybe it’s arrogant.

But there was a time when I thought my friend was arrogant. And he changed my life. Thank G-d.





14 responses to “Who’s Brainwashed?”

  1. Shmiel B Avatar
    Shmiel B


  2. Eric Linus Kaplan Avatar

    I think you can come up with some criteria for brainwashing that would include, for example scientologists, and exclude, for example professors of sociology. For example if you control access to information and critical points of view, if you make your leaders out to be super-human and your enemies to be fundamentally evil, if you teach your members techniques for repeating certain ideas and mentally avoiding other doctrines, you might be brainwashing people. Whether a particular organized religion is more like scientology or more like sociology is a judgment call.

  3. BirdieWaters Avatar

    We could add “Who’s indoctrinated?” to the list of questions we need to ask ourselves and then we should answer honestly, if we find the courage. Children can’t be called brainwashed technically, but from the moment a baby enters the world, for better or worse, they’re thrust into a rather fast paced momentum where freedom to discover the self is superseded by labels and customs based on the beliefs of the parents and community, be it religious or secular. Bucking them doesn’t usually garner any praise. With the best of intentions, most of us are indoctrinated in this way. Why is that? Fear? Survival instinct? I’ve already seen 40 winters and I’m just beginning to recover lol!

    “Maybe I was a victim of a system that turned people against each other just because of their beliefs.”

    One does begin to wonder! Could that be part of the reason we’re here though? Part of the grand adventure of being here in this existence may be the thrill of expansion that comes as we see glints of awareness along the way, right in the midst of this challenging and dimly lit environment in which we find ourselves.

    Obvious imbalances arise with succumbing to the pressure of perpetually doing things “because that’s the way it’s always been done”. Being capable of fewer conscious moments and seeing life as more of a series of “means to ends” are a few. We may also default to conformity in a warped desire for the yo-yo like, conditional approval of others. How many are just becoming self aware and wishing they could break out of their indoctrination/brainwashing, but are too scared? Who has the strength to dis-cover and be themselves despite the judgment of others? Avraham did. Precious few still, but more and more will all the time and what a game changer that is. Your posts play a part in that. They’re a real pebble in this corner of the pond.

    Just today as I waited in the parking lot for our daughter to get out of school, I was thinking about the staunchly spiritual and staunchly secular. In my mind’s eye, I held spiritual people on one side and atheists on the other and looked at them from a distance. Neither group knew “all”, yet all of them were convinced they had ‘the truth’. All of them viewed the world subjectively (whether they’d admit it or not), all of them held some pieces of the puzzle while missing others (whether they knew it or not), all of them learned from trusted teachers and books then taught their those beliefs and standards to their children (and others who would listen), all of them judged, many times severely. Many belittled and cut others out of their lives based on those judgements.

    I thought…You know? They think they’re so different, but they’re not so different after all!

    Thank you for looking at yourself honestly and sharing the experience.

  4. Shoshana Goldberg Avatar
    Shoshana Goldberg

    its like u took the words out of my mouth.

  5. Tuvia Avatar

    Orthodox religion, like soviet communism, is very inspiring and indoctrinating.

    But orthodox Judaism cannot afford a sustained, unflinching encounter with the outside world. The way to cover up that flaw is to cut off open inquiry.

    Outside information is suppressed, omitted, distorted. Even the information they want – like parenting and relationship guides – has to be processed and filtered and rebranded as coming from “eternally Jewish values based on Torah.”

    Instead of education, you get indoctrination. Instead of information, you get manipulation.

    “The Torah is obviously true,” but you are not permitted to test this statement.

    If a rabbi wants to show you how the academic view of the Torah has to be false – he will present the case for it (badly) in two minutes, and then spend ten minutes telling you why the traditional view is obviously true. An outside authority representing the academic position is never invited to the debate. Even a “goyishe” mentality understands this is a show trial.

    Then there is supernatural fear mongering – you will lose your place in the world to come – if that helps to keep you from looking at information from the outside world.

    Is this acceptable to you? And if it is, I know why: because you love orthodoxy. The same way some loved Soviet Communism, and some loved Aryanism. And when you love an ism, you don’t ask the hard questions, and you don’t care about what happens to those who do, or that mind control is really at the heart of the effort to get others to love it too.

    If it feels good…you get the point. It probably was a lot of fun to be a communist party member in Soviet Russia too. Or an Aryan in 1925 — superior race, descended from G-d, know how to live, what matters. Kids in the best schools….


    1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

      Hi again, Tuvia. I know I addressed this to an extent in my first comment to you, but I felt the need to address it here as well.

      It’s funny that you mention this idea that I “love orthodoxy”. Because I wrote a post not so long ago called, “Don’t Call Me An Orthodox Jew”. You can read it here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elad-nehorai/dont-call-me-an-orthodox-jew_b_1596960.html

      The point in that, and the point I’d like to stress here is that orthodoxy exists everywhere, and if you choose to apply it to a whole group of people, especially in a world as diverse as Torah-observant Jews, you are doing all those people a disservice.

      The words you use are very broad: everything is applied to every “orthodox” Jew, and there is no room for any distinctions. This tells me that you are biased against them, for reasons only you can know.

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  7. Katrina Bascom Avatar
    Katrina Bascom

    I’m so glad you linked to this post. I loved it!

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