When I consider the actual need to repent on my sins, it seems the place my thoughts go to automatically is the Musar books (Ethic books) of the Middle Ages.  I got the idea a long time ago that my troubles are the direct result of sin. Therefore when I see things not going the way I would like the to I think about "What is it that I am doing wrong?" 
Now in yeshiva I learned  a certain amount of Gemara and Tenach (Old Testament). But to get a good idea of what the Torah actually requires of me I found  I was not really understanding at all until I learned Musar.

The thing I gained from Musar was to get a good idea of the basic worldview of Torah--that is: what the Torah consider important.[Also the ספר החינוך was a great help in that direction.]  

There is however a question on this system because sometimes people that are "משגיחים" "mashgichim" מנהלים רוחניים "the spiritual adviser in the yeshiva" are not people that represent the ideals of Musar very well. In fact often it is those people that specifically give Musar and all yehivas a bad name.

I wish I had an answer for this dilemma. But at least for myself I consider Musar to be the way and the path to the Tree of Life because through it I can understand at least more or less what is is that God requires of me.

Just for the record the actual Musar books that I liked the most were the Mediaeval Books: חובות לבבות Obligations of the Heart, שערי תשובה. אורחות צדיקים, נפש החיים ספר היראה המתיחס לרבינו תם, אור ישראל ע''י רב יצחק בלזר תלמיד רב ישראל סלנטר
(Musar tends to emphasize fear and love of God and good character which it sees as the most essential and important aspects of the Torah. )

Once I discovered musar I tried to get my actions to fit. Part of the problem for me was the message was not always clear. That is the yeshiva path seemed different to some degree. A later problem for me was the religious world really did not seem kosher at all.


Hyper religiosity

Hyper religiosity actually has a history that is very different from simple keeping of Torah. That is people first think they will adhere to the literal meaning of the text (of the Oral and Written Law). Thus being more loyal to the Torah than normal Jews. Then comes the personal delusions in the form of visions that radically change the meaning of the texts. 
That is.-- first (step one) being supposedly more loyal and faithful to Torah, and then (step two) ending up replacing the Torah with their personal revelation (schizophrenic delusions.)
They hide their secret venom for the holy Torah and Jews that are not part of their cult.
[I should, make it clear that straight Torah is great. It is when the hyper-religiosity comes from schizoid tendencies  that there is a problem. There is also a problem when a normal person is seduced to join a cult and by that partakes of the schizoid delusions of the cult even though he is himself sane--at first. For this reason the Gra signed the excommunication because he did not want normal Jews joining  any schizoid cult and thus slowly losing their own sanity.
The Gra said that to the degree one lacks knowledge of the seven wisdoms he will lack in knowledge of the Torah. That refers to the Trivium and Quadrivium: Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric,
Music, Astronomy, Arithmetic, Geometry. [The Hebrew translation of these in the חובות לבבות is not like modern Hebrew. הנדסה today is used to refer to Architecture. In the Obligations of the Heart it refers to Geometry.]
To subvert Torah many people pretend to be religious and replace Torah with religious delusions.
They distract people from real Torah. Anything as long as it is not Gemara, Rashi, and Tosphot or the worthwhile seven wisdoms.
I do not agree with redefining Torah to make it correspond to people's supposedly mystic delusion.
The trouble with the religious and their schools is they are on the forefront of every new kind of delusions. They try to hie it, but that is a fact.



How can you tell who is an expert in areas that you yourself are not an expert?

It may not seem like  a big deal but to me it seems an important question whom can you trust about a field you know little or nothing about?There is an essay by Steven Dutch about this. [Actually in his writings there are two essays about this. Who is an expert? and how do you discern an expert?] 
There seems to be a few focal points. And there is also a question of subject matter. An expert in Physics today is not the same thing as an expert in philosophy. In Physics, the more one knows, the more expert they become. In Philosophy (or in things like pseudo sciences like psychology), the more they know, the more stupid they become.

At any rate, the  focal points are: (1) Experts. (2) Talented amateurs, self taught. (3) Being yourself self taught--this was the old American value given birth to by the Old Frontier life style. (4) In yeshivas it is assumed if you know Torah fairly well then you know everything.  (5) Public opinion.
(6) Credentials.
My Dad (who made a lot of money on the Stock Market) said the best way to lose money in the stock market is to follow the advice of experts.

John Stossel had an opinion piece about this a long time ago. And Dr Dutch noticed that real experts when they venture into others areas seem to forget that those other areas also require many years of efforts to master

In any case each of these areas requires a whole essay in itself. The USA once was very much into the "self taught" thing. Later "experts" became the thing. After that "credentials" became the thing.

George Fox had the idea of listening to ones close friends and family is the best way and this has support from the Arizal {Isaac Luria.}

This above essay is just to give a brief account of the issues. To me it seems I never found out a good way to decide who is an expert. I had great parents and great teachers in high school and later in yeshiva and at Polytechnic University in NY. But all of that was simply a result of God directing me in good directions, not personal choice or any abilities of discernment.

When given a choice I usually choose badly. Only after a long time would go by I would see how my own choices tended to ruin everything. 

Sometimes the subject matter make the question who is an expert very easy. For example in Physics or Math we have no doubts. The standards are well established. There is no way to fake it. In other areas the subject matter makes knowing who is an expert almost impossible. And there are areas that are in between these two extremes.

The way in moral values seems to be simple. You start with prima facie evidence. The reason is that all reasoning starts with prima facie evidence or common sense principles. Then you work from there. If your conclusion is highly improbable based on some prima facie A then you have to decide which to reject A or B.  It seems to me the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule have prima facie validity. It would take something with more more prima facie validity to overturn any of them. And nothing can fulfill that condition. 

In any case since I have no idea who I am writing for let me try to be ore specific. For example at the Mir Yeshiva in NY the very idea of credentials was laughed at. Everyone knew that to have ordination was a guarantee of being an עם הארץ (totally ignorant of Torah). They way they knew who was an expert was that they themselves were experts and they had no trouble of telling whom was the best. That was obviously, Reb Shmuel Berenabum. 

The thing that all this leaves out is the fact that there are plenty of people who have something to gain by pretending to be experts and giving themselves credentials.   (That is they give to members of their cult, credentials. And most people are easily fooled by this trick.)  You need the ability not just to tell who is expert but also who has the most to gain by fraud and pretense.  

In any case the Lithuanian yeshiva world is generally very accurate in their assessment of the level of people. The great Roshei Yeshiva as a rule are in fact very great. Rav Shach, Rav Kinevsky were in fact very great Torah scholars and great tzadikim.


We know what legitimate Torah is

I noticed one very nice thing about Torah, and that is that we know what legitimate Torah is. There is very little (if any at all) ambiguity  about what is authentic Torah. And that makes it easy to detect what is phony and false.
Just for the record, just in case there might be some person who does not know:
The Oral and Written Torah  we know very well what they are. Two Talmuds, Tosephta, Sifra Sifri, Midrash Raba, Midrash Tanchuma.
We know what is legitimate and authentic halacha [Rif, Rosh, Rambam, Tur, Shulchan Aruch of Rabainu Joseph Karo.]
We know what are the authentic books of Musar  (Ethics) (Obligations of the Heart, אורחות צדיקים  שערי תשובה.)
And we know what are the authentic books of השקפה [- the world view of Torah]. The Guide for the Perplexed of the Rambam, אמונות ודעות of Saadia Gaon. [Joseph Albo and Abravanel also.]

And we know what is legitimate למדנות: books showing how to learn: R. Akiva Eiger, Reb Chaim Soloveitchik (חידושי הרמב''ם), Rav Shach (the Avi Ezri אבי עזרי), Reb Naphtali Troup.

What I mean by this is this: There might be some people that keep this better and some that keep it less well. But at least we have a clear idea of what is legit [legitimate] and what is not.

[That does not stop phonies from trying to claim their delusions are legitimate. But what is good is that those who wish to know what is authentic,-- can know]

[There is debate about the Zohar. I do not think it is from R. Shimon ben Yochai. The words עם כל דא which is a translation of עם כל זה come up all the time in the Zohar. And עם כל זה is a phrase invented by the Ibn Tibon family of translators to say "although." Before the middle ages, there were a few ways of saying "although." One was אף על פי. Another was אף על גב. But none of the ways was very elegant. The first means "even on my mouth." The other means "even on the back." So Ibn Tibon came up with this more elegant way:  עם כל זה. And this comes up all the time in the Zohar showing that it was authored in the Middle Ages. 

In mysticism there is a threat to the essential
underpinnings of the holy Torah,  in the sense that they adhere to a view of spirituality that is fundamentally
experiential and subjectivist; and in more or less subtle language,  put forth the idea that there is, in these days, a new, charismatic, "super wakening" in the making, which will inevitably supplant the antiquated institutions of historical Torah. Those at the fringes  tend (nowadays, using very cautious language) to consider any questioning of
its hyper-delusions as, at best, a manifestation of a hardhearted "traditionalism" or intellectualism [חכמות], and at worst, a diabolical the unpardonable sin of slander against tzadikim (righteous people). 

In any case, the things which I think is important is to get through the entire Oral and Written Law, and after to concentrate more on עיון in depth learning.

If you do not have time for that then Musar [Ethics] is the best thing to concentrate on. The basic set of Musar books contains after all the main message of Torah fear of God, and good character. Especially the Obligations of the Heart חובות לבבות. But also the book of Rabbainu Yona {שערי תשובה} is very important. There are  few other Musar books from the middle ages which form the basic set of Musar. (The אור ישראל by a disciple of Reb Israel Salanter also is a very important book.)


best yeshivas

The two best yeshivas that I ever saw were both in NY. Though I saw lots of yeshivas in Israel and in many other places around the world I was most impressed with the Mir in NY and Shar Yashuv in Far Rockaway. The reason is these places were the closest thing I saw to learning and keeping Torah for its own sake. It was not just that they were both very much into learning "Beiyun"(--in depth) but also there was a spirit of "Torah for its own sake" that I never saw elsewhere.

[I have tried to express in a few essays what is unique and special about authentic Torah but nothing really gives the power and impact of learning in one of these two places.]
[The main thing about the yeshiva world is to learn and keep Torah. Since most people are far from NY, the best thing is to get your basic set of the Oral and Written Law, and just plow through them. The actual world of yeshivas itself tends to be very confusing because of the numerous cross currents. For those like me that simply do not want to know or hear about that it is best just to make your own spot a place of authentic Torah (מקום תורה) and do not be concerned what others are doing.] It might be a good idea to do research and to write  a paper on the yeshivas, and the yeshiva movement as it started with Reb Chaim of Voloshin. But the short and sweet of it is simple. There are places which are more or less devoted towards learning and keeping straight Torah. Some are better and some are worse but as long as straight Torah is their focus they are basically good. The trouble is the cults that pretend to be keeping straight Torah and they are very dangerous and ought to be shot on first sight.

What is straight Torah? The basic Oral Law is the two Talmuds. The basic set of Halacha is the Rishonim Rif Rosh Tur Shulchan Aruch of Rabbainu Joseph Karo. The best of the later achronim are the Pnei Yehoshua, R Akiva Eiger, and Reb Chaim Soloveitchik, and Rav Shach's Avi Ezri.

Great tzadikim   such as the Gra and Rav Shach  became more and more aware of the danger of counterfeit movements entering in and ruining genuine Torah as time went by, and they wrote specific warnings  about this. Other people have chosen to ignore the problem and thus indirectly caused many to fall. 
The cults teach and practice and try to bring people to their imitation Torah and succeed because no one of real stature combats the problem. False teachers was a problem addressed by Reb Nachman himself;- and though the movement founded on him is full of false teachers, still there is great importance in his lessons, -and this one among them. Fake Torah is much worse than no Torah.

One way the cults trick people is by camouflaging the belief being taught and until the subject is willing to accept it.

They claim to teach Torah. But think for a minute.

 Imagine a man with a bottle in his hand. There is a colored liquid in the bottle and there are many healthy ingredients in that bottle. There's water in it and and  excellent ingredients. But there happens to be an amount of prussic acid, and though it's a very small amount it can kill anybody who drinks out of that bottle! What's the point of praising the good ingredients when there is rank, lethal poison in the bottle?" The pseudo Torah cults add Torah to their poison to hide what they are actually offering. [The Sitra Achra, the Dark Side, imitates the realm of holiness but one with his eyes open can tell the vast difference.]

The major reason the Gra signed the excommunication was for this very reason. He saw the attempt to subvert the Torah. The main objective of cults is to break up your relationship with your parents and wife an children. They are scum pretending to be superior beings.

I heard a story today which hit home.  A woman was praying for her husband to repent on his bad ways for ten years with no result.One day it was suggested to her that she  should pray to be able to serve him and be a proper helpmate for him as the Torah requires. From that time on  she began to wash his socks and laundry and help him in other ways. And in fact he also began to change for the better

What was interesting to me was  that a prayer for someone to repent is not a bad prayer. It is much better that praying for some enemy's ruin and destruction.  Still apparently even to pray for a bad person to repent is not a good as wishing sincerely for oneself to love them and to wish to serve them.