What do the following things have in common?
- Sexual impropriety, harassment and rape in places ranging from the family home to the workplace to universities to whole industries to public spaces like streets and parks.
- Sexual abuse and molestation by priests and politicians.
- The trafficking of women and children around the world to impress them into slavery for purposes of prostitution, sweatshop labor and domestic servitude. As far back as 2000, our State Dept. estimated 50-100,000 women and children trafficked into the U.S. alone.
- Global warming, as caused by the release of too much carbon dioxide, pollutants and greenhouse gases from our processes of production, the use of those products, the refusal of many businesses to respond promptly and constructively to addressing the problem and the inability of many governments to likewise respond promptly and constructively.
- Company leadership that ignores – sometimes even hides – the potential and real risks associated with their manufacturing and products in favor of profit. Poisoned land and water sources; areas flooded with opioids and misleading information about them; assault weapons and ammunition. And, for those that are traded publicly, the blind eye turned by their investors until it is too late.
- Single parenthood that is either not chosen or not wanted and that often correlates with poverty and family dysfunction.
What do they all have in common?
Or, more specifically, men behaving badly. (Of course, there do occur cases of, within the list above, women guilty of the same things. But the proportional difference is staggering.)
Male Cultural Norms
Perhaps, even more specifically, the norms, values and behaviors our culture – very broadly speaking, of course – posits as ideal or desirable for men to attain.
Men are to be handsome, strong, powerful, wealthy and stoic. The world is a competitive one and they ought to be ready to compete . . . and win. They should rise through the ranks of their chosen field, making more and more money each year. With that money they should buy things that impress and take vacations that wow. They should rise early and return late, working excessive hours and traveling to other places, things which keep them from family, friends and community. They should watch football and basketball and hockey . . . if they aren’t good enough to play. They shouldn’t show weakness, which includes the vulnerability of emotions other than pride, power and satisfaction.
It is, all too often, a culture that prizes brawn over brains, might over right and the material over the spiritual.
Nature or Nurture?
Of course, some argue that men are just born that way. It is their nature to be assertive, aggressive, to compete, to strive. If they weren’t playing football they’d be mugging people on the streets. Men have, throughout history, been warriors and conquerors, foot-soldiers and fighters. There always have been “haves” and “have-nots.” We see the same thing in the animal kingdom. It’s just the way things are.
To some extent, there is truth in that. But if we settle for that, why have any laws, any limits? If might makes right, why send people to jail when they murder or rape?
The making of any person is an intricate weaving of nature and nurture – a reticulation whose strands cannot be teased out and whose design can not be quantified or the pattern predicted.
Humanity always has struggled with this challenge. We have not been satisfied to live savagely for at least four thousand years. That is why we have laws and culture and religion and education.
Jewish Male Cultural Norms
Most of us in the liberal Jewish world have assimilated ourselves so deeply into Western culture that we have adopted this view of masculinity. We have forgotten – or never knew – that Jewish culture has defined the ideals of masculinity far differently.
Where some cultures have celebrated the body through Olympiads and the waging of wars, we have defined it by intellectual discussion and debate in search of truth. Where some societies value aggression and conquest of the world around, we have valued prayer and reflection and conquest of the world within. Where some cultures define masculinity as hubris, we have defined it by modesty.
The ideal Jewish man, if there is such a thing, is one who is not obsessed with achieving wealth but in using it wisely and compassionately. He is concerned with justice and not just going along. He is more at home with a book or in a laboratory than in a cutthroat corporate boardroom or on a playing field. He’ll daven, or meditate, or learn mussar before he would go to the gym. Alongside building a career, he wants to build a home that is loving and stable, that is nurturing and protective, one whose table is graced by candles, wine and flowers on Shabbat and the discussion of things of moral import during the week. One in which he can be depended upon, who fulfills his responsibilities to his family in a loving and moral way.
And I don’t think those are such bad things.
This isn’t too say that there are no Jewish men who are abusers and alcoholics and thieves and murderers and slave traffickers. No. But it is to say that, in the ontological struggle between nature and nurture, our Jewish tradition has more to offer in moderating those dangers and desires than our current American, Western, culture does.
Values For All?
I know that my formulation above could appear to be sexist insofar as I’ve addressed it to men alone. Likewise, it could appear that I think these exclusive to Judaism and absent from other religions and cultures. I hope that isn’t the case and that certainly wasn’t my intent.
I’ve spoken from within the Jewish tradition because, as I like to say, that’s why they pay me the big bucks.
I’ve addressed men because that is a particular problem that I have identified and chosen to focus on. Because my observation is that too many men are falling too far short on too many things that are crucial to the well being and future of the human community. And that puts us all at risk.
At some later point, I might address Jewish images of what it means to be a woman, but I’m not sure that’s my place. And I’m not sure that it isn’t. And I know that, in this time of recognition of gender fluidity, the arbitrary binary of men and women is just that – arbitrary, and that many of these values are universal, no less appropriate for people anywhere along the gender spectrum than for men as usually understood.
My Conservative Message
This, then, is my conservative message (and you thought you knew me so well!).
The modern, liberal world has brought us a great many values we value, freedom and egalitarianism among them. Individualism, autonomy and human rights also. And I celebrate them all.
But we’ve lost quite a bit as well. We’ve lost traditions of community, spirituality and morality that ought inform us as to how we might best deploy our freedom, and what an egalitarian society might value beyond egalitarianism itself. We know how to focus on rights but we’ve forgotten how to fulfill responsibilities. We talk about human dignity but have forgotten how, in our day-to-day lives and in real, concrete ways, to respect it.
Some of our most pressing problems today might be ameliorated, a little or a lot, by a commitment to raising a generation of men with values quite different than those promoted today.
As it is written in Pirke Avot 3:1, Ben Zoma asked:
- Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.
- And who is mighty? One who can control himself.
- And who is rich? One who rejoices in what he has.
These are among the things towards which a Jewish man ought strive: wisdom, self-control and contentment.