I know that it is unseemly to speak ill of the dead, but at first glance there is little good that we can say about the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the leader of the Unification Church, who died earlier this month. For most people, the very mention of “Reverend Moon” and “the Unification Church” hearkens back to the era when disco was still the rage.
Still, Moon’s passing reminds us of a dark era in world religion and of the dangers of a particular manifestation of piety. Moon was the self-proclaimed messiah from Korea, a charismatic businessman who believed, and who convinced his followers, that he was the modern inheritor of Jesus’ mantle. His theology was bizarre: Jesus of Nazareth’s mission had, in fact, failed, because he had not married and had children. Moon would bring humanity back to a more pristine state in which sinless children would be born.
To help ensure that possibility, Moon was known to have played “heavenly matchmaker” to thousands of couples. In 1982 in Madison Square Garden, for example, he performed a ceremony for some 2,075 couples — none of whom had met before the ceremony and many of whom spent extended periods apart after the ceremony (and before consummation) doing church work. As recently as 2009, 10,000 couples were married or renewed their vows before Moon at Sun Moon University near Seoul.
And then there were Moon’s shady financial dealings, which landed him in prison. There were his tight, problematic relationships with elected officials, including several United States presidents. In 2004, according to The New York Times obituary, he had himself crowned “humanity’s savior” in front of astonished members of Congress at a Capitol Hill luncheon. There was his purchase of the Washington Times newspaper and the nearly bankrupt University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, where he recruited the radical theologian Richard L. Rubenstein to be its president. Rubenstein eulogized Moon by saying, “When I think of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, I realize that no other individual outside of my immediate family has had a greater impact on my adult life.”
Moon’s manic self-regard was matched by his virulent hatred of others. He referred to homosexuals as “dirty, dung-eating dogs” and said Jews were to blame for the Holocaust because they betrayed Jesus by handing him over to the Romans. He claimed to have personally helped the spirits of Hitler and Stalin become “reborn as new persons.”
The history of religion is filled with tales of hucksters and false or failed messiahs. For Judaism, the most relevant historical parallel would be the careers of Shabbatai Zvi and Jacob Frank, the false messiahs of the 17th and 18th centuries who taught a dramatic doctrine of “redemption through sinning” and who created havoc throughout the Jewish world.
For us as Jews, the worst part of Moon’s legacy was his unethical “recruitment” practices. These included the brainwashing of young people and virtually holding them captive. Thus was born the American-Jewish horror of cults and their effect on our children — which itself launched a cottage industry of deprogrammers and inspired heroes like the late Rabbi Maurice Davis of White Plains, NY, who devoted the latter years of his rabbinate to fighting Moon and reuniting ex-Moonies with their families.
And in those efforts lies a paradox: The deceptive and dangerous techniques of the Unification Church succeeded in pushing our communal buttons. Concerns about the spiritual safety of our young led to a communal cri de coeur about one of the great crises facing American Judaism.
It was simply this: Our religious institutions had become spiritually anorexic. They had become overly concerned with mere survival, budgets, and buildings and insufficiently concerned with sacred text, ritual, poetry, community, and the inner life. Our young people were looking outside the boundaries of the Jewish community for spiritual nourishment. It wasn’t just the Unification Church — it was Hare Krishna, and Transcendental Meditation, and flirtations with Buddhism, and, eventually, emerging forms of New Age religion. At roughly the same time, psychological cults like EST and Mind Spring came upon the scene.
The Jewish community fought back. The 1970s saw the beginning of the havura movement, the explosion of Chabad’s global outreach efforts, and the first stirrings of Jewish mystical renewal. Eventually, the insights of these movements would become mainstream — so much so that they are now practically indistinguishable from what happens in “regular” synagogues at “regular” services.
Just as Jewish anguish over their false messiahs, Shabbatai Zvi and Jacob Frank, ultimately paved the way for Jewish emancipation and enlightenment, so, too, did the threat from Moon and his fellow cult leaders inadvertently lead American Judaism into a period of spiritual introspection. For all the deeply problematic aspects of Moon’s legacy, if American Judaism is now more spiritually alive, it might have been Moon’s “fault.”
Religion is often paradoxical, and this is one of those paradoxes. While we do not mourn Moon’s legacy, his malignant actions ultimately had a great deal to teach us.