Many years ago, I was on an NCSY Shabbaton in Highland Park, NJ. I was staying at the home of a young rabbi and his family (their daughter was on the Shabbaton). The young rabbi shared a very good anecdote. When he was about to take his final examinations for semichah, one of his Rabbanim approached him and asked him if he knew all six parts of Shulchan Aruch. This semichah student knew that there are only four parts and he was taken aback. But the Rabbi who asked him this saw that and he explained. Aside from the main four- Orach Chaim, Even HaEzer, Yoreh Deah, and Choshen Mishpat- there are two others. They’re called Seichel and Derech Eretz. And if you don’t have those two, then whatever you’ve studied of the main four means nothing. The simple message was that no matter what, you have to be a mentsch.
The word “mentsch” is a German word that literally means person or human being. That term is a neutral term. But when it became a Yiddish term, it gained a more positive connotation. The Yiddish word refers to an honorable and respectable person. Someone who acts with Seichel- common sense- and Derech Eretz- respect and dignity- is a mentsch. There is no separate female term because both men and women can be mentschen.
No one is born a mentsch. Children have to be taught how to be mentschen and they can all learn with the right examples. The saying “boys will be boys” is fine when it’s used in reference to a stereotypically masculine thing that is harmless, such as an obsession with football. But when it comes to how they treat others, that saying is wrong. Instead, we should be remembering that “boys will be whatever we teach them to be.” If we teach them to be mentschen, that’s what they will be and they will treat others with Seichel and Derech Eretz.
Baruch Hashem, I have a lot of mentschen in my life. On the masculine side, there are my husband, my father, my father-in-law, my other male relatives, and our male friends. My husband and I are trying to teach our children to be mentschen. While I do consider myself a feminist, I have no patience for male-bashing. There are too many men out there who really are mentschen and who don’t deserve to be vilified based on their gender.
Ironically, there are Jewish communities who have taken male-bashing to a different level. They claim that men and boys are incapable of being mentschen, especially when it comes to women and girls. How do they do this? By allowing policies that don’t allow photos of women in publications.
“What on earth does that have to do with male-bashing?!”
The official reasoning behind these policies is that they’re trying to tighten up on tzniut. But the statement made is that no matter how tznu’ah the woman is, even her face is too un-tzniut to be seen because it will provoke impure thoughts for the men. This implies that the men cannot control themselves.
On behalf of all male mentschen out there, EXCUSE ME?!
True mentschen know how to control themselves. Yes, they might find the women attractive, but they know that they have to look past that and see the real person. They also know if that if this is difficult for them, they can get therapy and learn effective strategies to make it less difficult.
On the feminine side, we mentschen know that it’s not right to shove our physical features in a man’s face. We dress tastefully to look our best and reflect our personalities and give the men a real person to see. But the male mentschen know that there’s only so much that we women can do and that they have to do their share. After all, tzniut is just as incumbent on men as it is on women.
To all the male mentschen out there, keep up the good work and don’t give up. To all the male mentschen in my life, know that I’m proud of you. And to all mentschen out there, male and female, let’s not let anyone infantilize us or belittle us.