From Feminism to Masculinism?

How will we once again learn to engage Jewish boys in Jewish life without alienating Jewish girls in the process?

by Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

I am a proud feminist. I have argued adamantly for increasing funding for girls in education around the world, against wage inequality, against domestic violence, for women’s social entrepreneurship in developing countries, against the problem of agunot, among other subjects. I also work to engage feminist sensitivities into my work, leadership, and interactions. I have become so engaged in the feminist narrative and sensitivities, however, that I have neglected to have any circles of support for understanding what it means to be a young man in the 21st century. I have decided now to seek to better understand my gender construction and role as well as my social identity.

One of the most important questions that arises when discussing my male identity is whether there can be a new type of “masculinism” that is not about stereotypical manliness, but about confidently embracing what it means to be a man today while also honoring the narrative, journeys, and rights associated with feminism? There are so many extremes when one tries to find a word or image that adequately exhibits this concept. On the one hand, we have the “macho,” testosterone-laden image ludicrously and extremely demonstrated by Russian President Vladimir Putin, riding shirtless on his horse, or taking part in amateurishly staged athletic events where he is the star, which matches his aggressive and reckless foreign policy. On the other hand, we have “effeminate” men who have been disparaged with derogatory names and characterizations. Today, “metrosexuals” enjoy a slightly higher reputation, although their exaggerated narcissistic aspects (e.g., obsession with personal appearance and material consumption) are still not attractive. We could use the word “gentleman” to describe the informed, intelligent, and thoughtfully ideal man, but this word tends to have an upper class or elitist connotation. We need a better term.

While boys have traditionally been afforded advantages that girls and women have not, there are areas where a male’s upbringing, emphasizing strength and self-reliance but downplays emotional needs, can be a liability. Recent studies of sexually abused children have found that boys are less likely than girls to report the abuse. Some potential reasons are that boys psychologically cannot understand the experience, considering their inability to cope with a situation where they are helpless and not in control, and, further, that their masculinity requires toughness and discourages them from seeking help. Also, since most abusers of boys (and girls) are male (older boys or men), there is often greater sexual confusion for boys. In addition, people are far more likely to be dismissive of adult female abuse of boys than they are of adult male abuse of girls, and the comparatively lighter sentences of women who abuse boys is a continuing indication of this attitude and approach.

From my perspective as an Orthodox Rabbi, I actually believe very deeply in gender differentiation. I believe that there is unique potential in women’s spirituality and in men’s spirituality and that gender is not spiritually insignificant. I’m aware that much of it is socially constructed (aside from the limited biological differences), but I embrace that Judaism for thousands of years has found meaning in our different narratives as mother/sister/daughter and father/brother/son. Sometimes, gender differentiation has led to abuse and that should always be rectified. Yet still, other times it positively contributes to a sense of structure, confidence, and healthy self-identity.

What are some of the unique emotional challenges and social pressures that men experience today? How has feminism affected notions of self-identity? What does it mean to explore one’s masculinity in the 21st century? These types of questions are often demeaned as being feminine on the one hand, or dismissive of feminism on the other.

Moving Traditions, a group that encourages Jews to expand the traditional bounds of gender, recently started a program for teenage boys, “Shevet Achim: The Brotherhood.” Through this program, adolescent boys are allowed to spend time in an honest and open “guy space” where hanging out with peers is coupled with serious discussions regarding masculinity and what being Jewish means to them. This program (initiated years after a similar program was developed for girls) was prompted by four research studies of boys in grades 8 to 11 that revealed a serious necessity to address the needs of Jewish boys after their bar mitzvah. Jewish teenage boys comprise less than 30 percent of youth participants in Hebrew high school, youth groups, and camp – this precipitous drop off in youth participation in Jewish activities and community is common for boys after reaching bar mitzvah. Societal pressures advance images of men as physically and sexually aggressive, yet emotionally repressed, and peer pressure often ensures that teenage boys remain alienated and confused. The studies sought to understand why Jewish boys dropped so many of their Jewish activities in their teen years. The findings included:

  • The boys identified with and took pride in their Jewish identity, but did not feel that activities after their bar mitzvah were compelling;
  • The boys’ Jewish identity helped them resist mainstream cultural stereotypes. For example, they wanted to achieve academically, felt comfortable showing affection and kindness to others, and showed awareness and concern for the outside world; and
  • With all the pressures of modern adolescence, boys did not want a Sunday activity to be high pressure or overloaded with work. They wanted an easier pace and some time for fun.

With these findings in mind, the program was designed specifically to focus on masculinity and its meaning as the boys move toward manhood. Male educators chosen to supervise the boys-only program must simultaneously interact well with teenagers, and make Jewish ritual relevant and compelling. In addition, physical activity must be included to maintain the interest of the boys and the spirit of enjoyable competition. Furthermore, the community plays an integral role in the boys’ development and is brought in for support throughout the programming.

Whenever I find or participate in a “men’s group” it usually means it has to do with sports, or getting in touch with our “inner caveman,” or involves the smoking of cigars or the imbibing of scotch. I know that might resonate with many, but, personally, I’m looking more for a serious community that encourages and supports intellectual and emotional exploration. I don’t watch football, drink beer, speak demeaningly or objectively about women, particularly “like” cars, enjoy staying in my “man cave,” or complain about my blessed family life. For those of us who don’t participate in these comically stereotypical male activities, what does it mean for us to pursue our intellectual, spiritual, and moral pursuits as men? How will we be deeply sensitive to the feminist narrative while developing our own distinct identities as men? How will we once again learn to engage Jewish boys in Jewish life without alienating Jewish girls in the process? The search continues…

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder &President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.