By Michael Eliyahou
The tradition passed down to religious Jews in the schools we go to, I do think pretty much across the Orthodox board (which can otherwise be pretty diverse theologically, make no mistake) is that, on Mount Sinai, after we left Egypt, God told Moses everything.
Everything: how it begins, how it ends, right? But furthermore, how to relate to people and families, how to build the perfect utopian economic system, how to enforce social justice and prevent corruption, how to resurrect the dead and animate clay, how to conjure demons and make them wait your tables, how to make people’s kidneys explode…
The secret names that all the angels answer to, the secret languages of all the animals, the secret of folding space to be able to teleport from place to place, the secret of how to transmogrify cucumbers into venison, the secret powers of every plant, and the appropriate context.
In Yeshiva, we all heard the story of the Lithuanian rabbi who taught his brain surgeon how to do brain surgery better, because he had learned it out of a passage of the Talmud somehow. Because, ostensibly, it’s all there.
I had this fantasy about the desert Israelites… Moses taught them everything. They could win every war and conquer the Holy Land because they were like tantric ninja masters, whose daily prayer services included asanas now unknown to us. They had the knowledge of how to be ideally developed human beings, and they devoted it all to God, because, truth be told, what else is there?
Although his description is a bit exaggerated, I think that the ba’al teshuvah (return to observant Judaism) movement of the late 20th century gave us newcomers a similar notion. I did not grow up in a Jewish community, and my primary exposure to Judaism for several years was the literature I read heavily on kiruv-oriented websites such as those of Project Genesis (Torah.org), Aish HaTorah, and Ohr Somayach. When I lived in France, I also listened to a Jewish radio station that broadcast the public shiurim (lectures) of Chief Rabbi Joseph Sitruk, and these speeches electrified me. I am not saying there was anything wrong with any of this content; it was all quite good. But it fostered in me an idealism of what it meant to be an Orthodox Jew, something like this:
If we were willing to spend our entire day in Torah study for a number of years and live a committed, frum life, we could achieve enlightenment and a deep spiritual awareness. Never mind that the education was lacking in what Western Civilization considered academically necessary, because Torah contained all the knowledge in the universe. Our practical needs, as well as culture and beauty, would naturally blossom in this environment. And if all Jews would live this way, we would have a utopian society and the end of Exile.
I chose this religion and this identity over the one in which I was raised because I was convinced that the Torah was the authentic expression of God’s will, unlike the other . I didn’t want anything less than the Real Thing.
When I made aliyah, though, I discerned already that there were issues in Orthodox Judaism. It was not the utopian ideal that I’d imagined. But I mostly attributed this to the fact that we were still in Exile. I still had a strong idealism regarding being a Jew in Israel. It went something like this: “Am Yisrael has its Torah heritage, and we are now living where we are supposed to be – the official location. There are leaders, the Gedolei HaDor, who are obviously very saintly people who know all of Torah and how it is to be lived. They are the transmitters of that ancient tradition. There must be some ideal existence that a Jew living in Israel is ‘supposed’ to have. I need to discover that.”
This is a fantasy that I still entertain sometimes, even though my opinions of both the Religious Zionist and the Haredi worlds has changed quite a bit in the seven years that I have been living here. I do still believe that the Rabbinic tradition came from Sinai, that it is supposed to be capable of dealing with everything in life, and that there is some ideal way to live. As a small taste of this, I thoroughly enjoy studying practical halakhah and the Mishnah. I get a real thrill when I taste something authentic even if I do not entirely understand all the underpinnings and implications. I am making progress on that.
But as for an ideal life as represented by the Jewish people living in Israel, I am dismayed and disillusioned. True, I have come to identify more with the Haredim in my day-to-day life. At some point one has to figure out where to put the children in school and which minyan to keep going to.
But I have very little confidence in the Haredi world’s apparent concept of an ideal society or in its decision-making processes. I don’t even know if that world is aware of what those decision-making processes are, or if it is just a mob mentality, something analogous to Google search results – the ideas with the most people talking about them are those that rise to the top. I don’t know if the Gedolei HaDor are who the people say they are, and if their decisions and decrees are really what they people say they are, both by this people’s lives and by their public decrees. The Rabbi Slifkin controversy, for example, and the various proclamations about technology have blown out of the water any illusion that this community knows what it is doing.
 http://cannabischassidis.blogspot.com/2005/01/420-is-gematria-of-smoke.html (Okay, so it’s a very different context. Do not view this citation as my support of the author’s views regarding cannabis.)
 I didn’t want to get into it here, but the religion I grew up in was Christianity, specifically in Fundamentalist Baptist churches and schools. Christianity also claims to have all the answers that you need in life, but maintains that the questions are much simpler, and that whatever is too complex to be understood easily is not worth debating.