The reason you’re lied to in Baal Teshuva Yeshiva is that Judaism is not a cult.
People think a cult is full of falsehood and deception but I’m not sure this is quite right. A cult doesn’t need to lie to you because it does not consider you a thinking human being. A cult manipulates you to be unable to tell reality from fiction and then sells you a truth, a big truth, a truth so overwhelming and simple that the pains and complexity of society and family fade away and life is permeated by a diffuse, passive light compelling and inexorable as the fall, before which the candle of your own soul pales, spits, and gutters…
A cult uses your capacity for attaining the truth to destroy you. Science, with its narrow vision, has the privilege of sharing facts without much concern for transcendent truth. But forging true observant Jews is not a science. It is an art, and art uses lies to tell the truth.
Take, for example, a common conversation from the study hall. Nathan (please call him Nesanel now) insists he’s ready to start wearing black and white and growing a beard. What is a responsible teacher in a position of authority to tell him?
If the Yeshiva is a cult, the Rabbi tells him that he has actually waited too long, because the truth is attained through action and the dress code is one of the actions. Indeed, those who pursue enlightenment must wear black and white; this is the shape that all true adherents take, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a heretic from the outer darkness who wants to use word games to keep you from the truth. Your friends or family might object to this move, but really there is only one thing that matters, and sacrifices must be made if you wish to achieve it. The other students here are too stuck in their own minds to come to this wisest of conclusions, and once you’ve made this change, your superior decision will be pointed out to all the others as an example.
If the Yeshiva is an (ideal) institute of science or some other secular understanding, the Rabbi will present the predicted effects of wearing black and white on Nathan and his environs, based on past examples. A dress code of sorts is excellent for social cohesion in the Yeshiva environment but may have adverse effects on family life. As for the truth as expressed in the actions beyond their practical effects, one wonders about it with a sunny and detached agnosticism; what is the measure of sincerity, or faith, or being an authentic Jew? Who can say? (Some even go so far as declaring all truth to be action itself, that fact and truth are entangled and pragmatism is the highest philosophy.) Until truth can be quantified it does not exist for practical purposes; take your action or don’t, and witness the consequences.
If the Yeshiva is devoted to the delicate art of forming real Jews, the Rabbi’s answer must be complicated, for the same reason art must use lies to tell the truth (as I’ve written about before). If a cult believes that Truth demands the death of the individual, and the “facts-based” approach will not approach the Truth at all, the goal of a true religion is to find some sort of union (or at least common ground) between the Truth and the individual.
The Truth is ineffable and simple, and therefore cannot be communicated, even to the perhaps paltry extent the Rabbi has attained it.
The individual is complex, communicates only through fragmented words, and is looking for an answer.
What follows is a game. It is one of those delightful games, like Petals Around The Rose, in which victory entails figuring out the rules of the game. The Truth, by its very nature, cannot be communicated. And so the lies begin.
The Rabbi will say to do it, or not to do it, or cite some source on the topic at hand. Then, later, in public, they may say the decision made was the wrong one, and advocate the opposite. They will say that the truth is found through both, or the truth is found through neither (but one decision is still the right one). They’ll think that perhaps Nathan should wear black and white but will not tell him so because they don’t want it to be interpreted as their advice. They’ll think that he should not wear black and white and tell him so and then hope that perhaps he does not listen.
What the Rabbi will not do (if the truth is his concern) is give a simple answer, or say the question entirely does not matter. He cannot give a simple answer to the question any more than he can catch God in his pocket and save Him for a rainy day. He can only give an answer that is not an answer, the hunger-inducing bread of heaven, and play the person between the poles, and hope they reach enlightenment.
The seemingly simple question of whether Nesanel should start growing out his beard does not have a simple answer.
The answer is what G-d desires, which is what the G-dly soul desires, which we come to desire by leaving behind the dumb preconceptions of the rational animal.
The answer is the process of answering the question.
The answer is the truth of our own selves we come to through showing our work on both sides of the question.
The answer is that you cannot make something as real as a Jew with an answer.
The answer is that we must live and try it and see if it fits.
The answer is to be true to ourselves and true to the Truth, and figure out how to make them fit.
The answer is that God wants a beard, and wants Nesanel, and wants Nesanel’s beard.
The answer is to pray.
The answer is to tell the truth.
The answer is to play the game, to win, but with love.
Some people do not take kindly to games, however. They don’t understand that they are playing, or they understand something is afoot and it conflicts with their desire for authenticity. They don’t realize that questions about Judaism are aimed at an infinite ineffable faith-bond with God and get upset with difficult answers. They usually end up moving either toward the overwhelming extreme of the cult (which says it can communicate the Truth) or the pragmatic conquests of secularism (which pretends the Truth does not exist because it’s really good at accomplishing things while ignoring it).
They go off and meet some charismatic (or particularly uncharismatic) mentor who has all the answers and tells them there simply are no Jews who wear black and white or who don’t wear black and white. They meet FFBs who never really had to ask the question and take it for granted and say it has a simple answer, the same, for everyone, always, and that’s the end of the matter. They meet someone who never cared about G-d who mocks the game because he cannot eat it or mate with it. They sleep easier after telling themselves that all those agonizing games when they were younger were unnecessary complications from which they are finally free. They find simple answers you can read in a book, without realizing the books are written for orphans and what they need is a parent.
They might read in a book that Tiferes, beauty, is one of the middle sefiros, a synthesis of each side that somehow forms the middle. They might read that Tiferes is also the quality of truth, which like the middle beam stretches unchanged from the heights to the depths. They might read that Tiferes is the quality of Jacob, who is synonymous with Torah, which is synonymous with Truth — that beauty is truth, and truth beauty, and that it is specifically the middle path, where the contradictions should be greatest, that stretches up to God.
They read it all, and perhaps regret they weren’t wise enough to live it.