The issue of women who feel a bit like spectators in the Torah community is something to which I've given some thought over the years (especially as a teacher in a girls' high school). Your comment that "I think he's 'on to some kind of truth' but I can't get it" is especially poignant. I would suggest, however, that "the truth" your son is on to is nevertheless most accessible to you; both his intellectual stimulation and emotional engagement.
Besides the academic rigor and excitement that's readily available even within the traditional women's curriculum (assuming you're within reach of good educational resources), there's something much more profound:
I was once asked the following interesting question: you read about the glorious inner Holocaust-heroism of, let's say, young chassidim of Ger. There are countless stories about their contempt for their oppressors, complete disregard for the abysmal conditions that surrounded them and their nearly super-human dedication to intense Torah study, acts of selfless kindness and deep love of God. All under circumstances we can only imagine (I actually grew up in Toronto only a single block from one of these Gerrer "boys" from Warsaw).
But, I was asked, what were their sisters and mothers doing? It's all very nice that these young men were able to immerse themselves in a better world of Torah that allowed them to rise above the horror around them, but what vehicles could their women-folk ride to greatness? I don't remember what I answered at the time, but I do recall, a short time later, repeating the question to a prominent American rabbi/educator and he told me the following.
It's very simple: read the book "Vanquish the Dragon." I subsequently read the book myself (it's written by a holocaust survivor named Perel Benisch and published by Feldheim Publishers) and was forced to agree. It describes how the former students of the Polish Bais Yakov girls' school movement reached unfathomable levels of selflessness and holiness through the war years. It's true that there are descriptions of the brutality of the Nazis, but in this case, that's not the point; this isn't really a Holocaust book at all. What it's really about is how truly great a human being can become under even the worst of circumstances...and how that greatness is most manifest in a life devoted to kindness and inner goodness.
Whether man or woman, I don't believe a thinking person can read this narrative without catching a glimpse of a most complex world...a world that can be attained only through long and hard effort, but a world so beautiful that, having your senses about you, you'd never want to leave. The life described by Mrs. Benisch is a life that needs blush before no other lifestyle - even that of Torah-oriented men!
"I appreciate the ability of people appropriately connected to Judaism to transcend outside exogenesis. Though that transcendence is not uniquely Jewish I appreciate that it is a basic principle of Buddhism it may be that the ability to serve the community is more Jewish than Buddhist."
From what little I know about Buddhism, I would argue that the similarity is at best superficial. To my knowledge, a Buddhist is above all a utilitarian; his actions and attitudes are not born of any sense of morality (although he may well be a decent and trustworthy individual) but of what is most conducive to his personal growth and development. So while his successes might be outwardly comparable to ours, a Jew's (should) come from an effort to bring his life into sync with God's morality and loving-kindness and that lends the act and the success an entirely different hue.
"Does one only get to be able to access this power by practicing the commandments fairly exactly? Can someone who believes there is truth in history outside of history of the Jews, that there is value in a broad liberal education also reach that kind of connection. My son, says that I can't pick and choose what mitzvot I should perform. Is there a " magic" in doing it all or most of it as can be done...?"
If you're up to the challenge, you might attempt to tackle the works of the 19th C. Frankfort scholar, Rabbi S.R. Hirsch - particularly, his Horeb and the Nineteen Letters (www.feldheim.com - do you sense a pattern developing here?). If there's a single defining theme in Rabbi Hirsch's life's work it would be seen in his presentation (before a skeptical German audience) of the Torah's commandments as more than just physical actions. The proper outward performance of a mitzva is meant primarily to arouse the inner moral and social sensitivities in a Jew's heart and, thereby, to develop him into a Godly and just person...a "mentsch-Israel." In that sense, then, this Torah personality will probably not be created from random selections but from partaking of the whole curriculum. There, I suppose, is the "magic."
I must warn you, however, that these books were originally written in German and that the complex and infuriating sentence structure peculiar to that language yet casts its pall over the English. If you enjoy reading paragraphs containing every punctuation mark yet devised...with the noticeable exception of the period...then this is for you! Otherwise, it's still well worth the effort.
"can I access the oneness of God in spite of the fact that I can't believe that literally the Torah was fully and literally available at the time of Moshe going into or up the mountain in the desert?"
Probably. It's (at least) theoretically possible that an infinite God could have created us and then backed away from revelation. But your access to that God will be, by force, somewhat subjective: how do you relate to a God Who has revealed no specific desires for a personal relationship...what, exactly, do you say in your prayers?
Here, if it helps, is a very brief outline of how one might address the question of the Torah's authenticity (there are a number of other classes of evidence, but this one is most satisfying to me, so I'll use it as my example). This approach is based on that of the medieval Jewish scholar, Rabbi Yehuda haLevi in his master work, The Kuzari. The method has been best explained in our day by Rabbi Dr. David Gottlieb in a free e-book called "Living Up to the Truth,". I highly recommend you take a look for yourself.
The first step is to state the Torah's claim (what, according to the Torah itself, was supposed to have happened). We can then consider how believable it is. Or, to put it another way, had it not happened, how likely it would be for a faker to have successfully fooled his unsuspecting audience and passed it off as the historical truth.
We find in the text (Ex. 19; 9): "And God said to Moshe, behold I will come to you in the thickness of a cloud so that the people will hear when I talk with you and also believe in you for ever..."
Thereafter (ibid, verse 19): "And the voice of the shofar continued and (become) very strong and Moses spoke and God answered him with a voice."
There's the claim: That God spoke to Moses and clearly chose him as His prophet; not in a dream or in his private tent, but in front of and in full view of the entire nation. This validates every single statement that would later be made by Moses. Years later (shortly before his death) Moses publicly reminds the people of what they had seen (Deut. 5; 4, 5): "Face to face God spoke with you at the mountain from the midst of the fire; I stood between God and you at that time to tell you the word of God..."
There's no record of any single Jew standing up and denying any detail...evidence that the millions of Jews who stood at the border with Israel and (the many of them) who had also stood at Sinai acknowledged the authenticity of events they themselves must have seen. In other words, it really happened. Again: God Himself appeared (in some way) before the whole nation and spoke to Moses. That scale and style would seem to utterly preclude "magic."
Now you could say that there were Jews who denied and that Moses chose only to record his version of history. The truth is, that the real answer to that challenge is far too long for this letter (you can find the whole story in Rabbi David Gottlieb's book). But, in short, the fact that there has always been a strong and literate core of observant Jews who accepted the authenticity of the accounts of the Torah means that the absurd claims (three million people survived for forty years by eating mannah every day...?) made sense to them.
How do we know this? Because if the book was made up and only published after the fact, why should any intelligent people accept what would have been obvious lies? For example: "Really! If this book is true, and it says (Deut. 31; 24-26) 'and it was when Moses finished writing the words of this Torah in a book until its end; and Moses commanded the Levites, the bearers of the Ark of the covenant of God, saying: Take this book of the Torah and place it...' - then why haven't I ever heard about this book? Where has it been all these years? Why didn't my father tell me about it?"
Or: "Really! If everything you've shown me is true, why didn't I ever hear about the forty year miracle of the manna? Shouldn't I have read about it in school? Shouldn't the subject have come up at home? It's a really big event!"
So the fact that the Jews accepted and still accept the Torah as it is with all its outrageous claims tells us that all the claims were believable. Or, in other words, that they were true.
That's a very brief overview.
"All this, for me, is made worse by the degree of sexual prudishness and separation practiced in my son's community. What has wearing long sleeves when it is hot out got to do with service to God?"
Well it beats getting sun burned (and all the fun stuff that goes with that). But, on a more serious level, let me draw an analogy. Modern Western society goes to great length to protect free speech. There are, as you know, organizations willing to spend millions upon millions of dollars to ensure that no seven year old boy should ever be prevented from viewing any perverse form of internet pornography on a government-funded public-library based computer. Should boys (or girls) be frustrated in their search for limitless entertainment, then, the thinking goes, the very fabric of our free institutions will be shaken; perhaps destroyed and the Nazis will be only steps away from kicking down our doors and taking away our daughters.
Now even the most militant folk at the ACLU admit that the public good is not well served by foisting free pornography on heretofore innocent children (some might even admit that it doesn't do adults and their marriages great service either). It's just that they feel that the public good served by going to heroic extremes to prevent even a distant and most unlikely disruption of our basic freedoms is greater.
If free speech is for you a prime value, then any extreme is justified in protecting it. For the Torah Jew, sexual morality and marital fidelity are prime values. Does going to great lengths (sleeve and otherwise) in order to prevent even isolated breeches in our moral code strike you as a goal less noble and urgent than that of free speech? Is the cost of being "over-dressed" more onerous than that associated with creating a society of young porn consumers?
"Modesty is to a great extent in the eye of the beholder. I want to belong to a world where, when the men are studying and being joyous at the time that a baby is born, I am not sitting in the kitchen with a nice friendly collection of women who say nothing and who don't have an approved place to express and explore. For me perhaps because I'm a stranger not being able to sit and eat with the men at a party seems more "fence around rule" than necessary, You have to be committed to that degree of carefulness for it to make sense. Even then it doesn't seem that it could possibly contribute to feeling the special ness or glory in God's universe."
I appreciate your emotional reaction to the social setting you've described and I know exactly where you've come from. The truth is that you can be an Orthodox Jew without maintaining quite such a standard of separation (and there are many Orthodox communities in the US that live that way). In theory, however, even if there was no other way and even if we couldn't come to grips with it, it might be seen as a relatively small sacrifice for the eternal goals we're after - not worse than a liberal reluctantly allowing his kids to watch free-speech inspired trash on TV.
"Does one choose to join the community (which is wonderful) and then the truth of the Torah becomes manifest as one lives."
If you live a Torah life with your eyes, ears and heart open; if the commandments slowly become real to you and you intelligently seek out their meaning and proper attitude, then it has been my experience that you can develop a profound intuitive feel for Torah truth (although, to be honest, I can't prove empirically that it's not just indigestion).
"Should we really allow ourselves to not liberally educate our men so that they can't think outside the tradition and so that they deliberately can't see themselves in historic perspective? But then I display my bias...."
You're asking a good question. Let me quickly change the subject. Aside from one boring summer many years ago I never attended college. Nor to I have a television, newspapers or all that much radio in my house. Yet I feel that I have a fairly keen understanding of the world around me. How?
There are, in the world out there, two types of higher education: the serious fields (like medicine) which specialize and specialize and specialize their students until they know nothing but the scalpel before them. Thank God for such specialists.
Then there are the general, liberal arts faculties that teach the "wisdom of living." It is my experience that the general aim of such faculties is to "force" its students into a very narrow social paradigm (varying somewhat from school to school). I have read (from a reliable source) that "several women's colleges...for example, silently consider lesbianism a goal for all of its students; they see it as the ultimate form of female self-actualization." Please forgive my language. My world-view simply doesn't fit with those.
Let me change the subject once again. As a classroom exercise - part of one of the Jewish history courses I teach - I ask the following question (knowing full well that it's unfair): Is our planet a better place (in any measurable way) for having been blessed with 150 years of universal education? Or, to put it a different way, has the 20th Century been one of safety, peace, goodwill, morality and decency?
In which way is "education" good? It does educate us. That's true. It helps us earn a living. That's nice (perhaps not the whole bundle, but nice all the same). But the most civilized and educated culture of the 19th Century was, of course, Germany, and they've been a veritable beacon of wholesomeness now, haven't they? Are we now better off in absolute terms than we were in the 14th Century? No Bubonic plague...but traffic accidents and smoking do just as good a job.
Don't get me wrong, I surely have no desire to renounce the comforts of our world, but I am allowed to analyze and qualify the actual worth of education.
Now back to your point. Is there something to be lost by under-emphasizing secular knowledge in the Torah world? Of course. But submitting the issue to a cost-benefit analysis might tell us that the alternatives aren't very attractive either. And, by the way, an intelligent young Torah Jew (and there are lots of those around) will, should he seek it, find his own way to "enlightenment" in his own good time.
"By the way, not to diminish the Bais Yakov girls' schools which were wonderful. They were proof that the tradition can reinterpret what education is owed to women."
Actually, it is my understanding (and half of my career has been devoted to teaching in the North American Bais Yakov system) that the change 80 years ago was evolutionary rather than revolutionary. The laws, attitudes and faith that every Jewish girl through the centuries learned at her mother's feet in the kitchen were simply no longer available once the anti-religious movements of the 19th Century began to seep into the Jewish mind and once the strident call of universal secular education worked faster and stronger than a mother's soft voice.
That curriculum simply had to be formalized and institutionalized to replace what had been lost through the disappearance of the traditional method. But the curriculum itself remained fundamentally the same as it had always been.