Becoming a Man

When I was a teenager, I had two posters on my bedroom walls — one of Samantha Fox, the ubiquitous “pin-up girl” of the mid 1980s; the other was the iconic picture of James Dean walking through Times Square alone, collar up, cigarette dangling from his mouth.

One represented what I wanted; the other, what I wanted to be.

That picture of James Dean showed me everything I thought I needed to know about being a man — he was alone, aloof, shoulders rounded over to protect himself from the cold, cold world. Truth be told, it was not the healthiest model of masculinity, but it was the mid-’80s and I had outgrown Mr Rogers, so the pickings were slim.

Unbelievably, the images of masculinity available to us now are, if anything, more toxic now than they were in the mid-’80s.

Where Rambo and the Marlboro Man were fictional, emotionally stunted man-children, our daily news is now full of stories of real-life emotionally stunted man-children. We have an emotionally stunted man-child in the White House, fighting over twitter for playground dominance with nuclear weapons. We have become dulled to the reality of men massacring people in schools, churches and movie theaters, and from Penn State, to Ohio State, to the Catholic Church to the Boy Scouts, the effects of men acting with dangerous cruelty dominate the news.

Scholars have come to talk of a “toxic” version of masculinity, a set of socially regressive traits that value domination, devalue women and prioritize the threat of violence, particularly against anyone seen as “deviant.”

Of course, naming some masculinity “toxic” doesn’t denigrate all masculinity any more naming some rain as “toxic rain” denigrates all rain. Not all masculinity is toxic — sociologist Michael Kimmel talks of traditional masculine virtues, such as physical and moral strength, a sense of purpose, a commitment to act ethically regardless of the costs, self-reliance, reliability, responsibility and more. Those are virtues that all of us – men and women alike – might be well served to cultivate.

But when we think that strength of our wallets or our biceps is everything and emotions are a sign of weakness; when sexual conquest and the capacity for brutality are the yardsticks by which we measure ourselves and others, when supposedly “feminine” traits, such as emotional vulnerability or empathy are signs of being a wuss, then we are talking about a toxic version of masculinity.

We — and I’m talking to the men here — might be tempted to pat ourselves on the back because perhaps we haven’t committed sexual assault. Or we might be tempted to disregard toxic masculinity as a women’s issue, something marginal to “real” life. But toxic masculinity impacts all of us — those of us who suffer its most violent incarnations, and those of us who feel pressure to live up to a destructive understanding of what it means to be a man.

Sadly, though, toxic masculinity is not a new phenomenon. Consider King David, among the most venerated leaders of the Jewish people. He saw Batsheva bathing on a rooftop, decided that he wanted her, summoned her, raped her and then had her husband killed in an attempt to cover up his crime. King David might very well be the primordial example of toxic masculinity.

In many ways, we live in a different era now, and perhaps, if Batsheva was around today, perhaps she’d be the leader herself and not just the object of the leader’s desire. Indeed, there are more women running for congress and governors’ mansions this year than ever before. However, as the formal barriers to women’s participation in public life are falling, the societal backlash is getting ever more intense. Recently, the New York Times documented how women who run for office are facing ever more brutal abuse. Sexist, racist and anti-Semitic abuse has driven women from the campaign trail, including Kim Weaver, an Iowa Democrat, who was faced with constant death threats and dropped out of her race against Republican Representative Steve King, well known for his occasional embrace of neo-Nazis.

When we talk about this sort of toxic masculinity, it’s tempting to think that it’s something that happens out there, far away. But as the author Jackson Katz put it “perpetrators aren’t these monsters who crawl out of the swamp and come into town and do their nasty business and then retreat into the darkness.” They are a product of communities and cultures which permit, enable and protect them. To put it more sharply, they are a product of our permission, our enabling and our protection.

We have to talk about toxic masculinity — we have to talk about it because some days, we open the newspaper and it is literally every story on the front page. We have to talk about toxic masculinity because we send our children into the world in the care of others, and so we have to teach our children to be mindful of boundaries which those who care for them should never, ever cross. We have to talk about it if we intend to become better people and better communities.

This summer, I had the opportunity to learn a remarkable 13th-century midrash at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem with Professor Elana Stein Hain.

In ways that are incredibly uncommon for medieval texts, the fable focuses on the life of a woman, and her challenges and triumphs as her own person, not as an appendage to a man. This is not a well-known text; when I first learned it, in a room of 200 rabbis and rabbinic scholars, not a single one of us had ever heard of it.

It’s a long story and at points a disturbing one; I’ll tell only the beginning of it now, though the full version is available here.

A man leaves for a long business trip and asks his brother to look after and protect his wife while he is away. Now, it might jar our 21st century sensibilities to think that a woman alone needed a man to look after her, but in the 13th century, that would have been an unremarkable statement of fact.

The brother-in-law however, does not protect her; far from it. He came to her each and every day and saying, “Submit to me, and I will do whatever you need and give you whatever you want.”

She consistently refuses, and then he tries to rape her by force. She screamed a great and bitter scream, but nobody saved her. While her screams were not effective in summoning help, they did — at least momentarily — scare off her attacker, who fled.

When the rapist recognizes that the woman will not submit to his will, he musters the power of government to exact his revenge. He hires two men to falsely testify in court that our heroine had “loose morals” and was having an illicit affair with a servant. The court, abandoning any pretense to the proper procedures painstakingly prescribed in the Talmud, sentences the woman to immediate death.

They take her to the execution chambers and stone her, burying her under a heap of stones, as is the law for one who has been sentenced to death. Miraculously though, she doesn’t actually die. After three days under the pile of stones, she is discovered by another man, who, together with his son, is traveling to Jerusalem to find a teacher of Torah. They encounter our heroine, weak and battered, but alive, and when she tells the man her whole tragic story, something remarkable happens. He believes her. He believes a woman, a woman who accuses a powerful man of sexual assault, who proclaims her own innocence, even in face of a court which wrongly found her guilty.

He calls her “my daughter,” he protects her, and most remarkably, he hires her to teach Torah to her son. This man not only believes in her innocence, not only does he believe in her virtue, but he believes she is an appropriate teacher of Torah for his son. Needless to say, it would not have been a common thing for there to be a female teacher of Torah in the medieval era.

The story goes on from there, and while I won’t tell the rest of it here, I’ll tell you this – there is a happy ending, but neither because she marries that man, nor because she becomes a mother, the classic happy endings for tales and fables. The story is remarkable, in part, for its focus on the woman and her hard-won mastery over her own life.

So, now let’s unpack this story a little bit. This tale, as is common for medieval midrash, doesn’t assign names to any of the characters, male or female. But we have one woman interacting with five men or groups of men:

  1. The brother-in-law who repeatedly attempted to rape her,
  2. The men who did not save her,
  3. The men who offered false testimony in court,
  4. The men of the court which sentenced her to death and finally,
  5. The man who hired her as a teacher for his son.

There is something we all, women and men alike, need to learn from all five of these actors.

First, the rapist. At one level, the lesson is simple- don’t rape people. Actually though, the real lesson is more nuanced. Don’t use the power you have – physical, political, financial or otherwise – to force people to meet your needs. Don’t, as TV personality Matt Lauer did, install buttons so you can lock the door behind women who come into your office. Don’t, as Bill Clinton did, use legal or professional power structures to punish those who refuse your advances.

Next, there are the men who did not save her when she screamed. They come to teach us that we cannot stand idly by — not when people are actually being assaulted, and not when masculinity turns toxic, reducing women to objects for male gratification, even conversationally. Consider the infamous Access Hollywood tape, where Trump bragged that he could grab women wherever and whenever he wanted. Think not of Trump, but of Billy Bush, the other voice on the tape, who laughs along with Trump’s joking about rape. The men in this midrash, who turn a deaf ear to our heroine’s screams, are coming to teach us that when confronted with toxic masculinity like Trump’s, the appropriate response is not to turn a deaf ear and laugh along. The appropriate response is to say “Grab her? Are you some sort of mentally deranged loser? Never mind the fact that you are married – you can’t ask her out like a normal person?” I doubt there are many men who have not heard someone – a friend, a colleague, a cousin, ourselves — talk about women as objects. Will we stay silent the next time?

Third, we come to the men whom the rapist hired to offer false testimony in court. They come to teach us to not aid and abet those who abuse others from within their toxic masculinity. In Ronan Farrrow’s expose about Harvey Weinstein’s, he described a culture of complicity at the Weinstein Company, with lots of people throughout the company fully aware of Weinsteins’s behavior but either looking the other way or actually assisting him. Weinstein would routinely set up meetings with women late at night, usually at hotel bars or in hotel rooms. And, in order to make these women feel more comfortable, he would ask a female executive or assistant to start those meetings with him and then leave after a little while. The women who worked for Weinstein served as honeypots to make the victims feel safe. Now, perhaps we haven’t served as a “honeypot” to facilitate toxic masculinity, but perhaps we’ve made excuses for someone saying, “that’s just the way men from that generation are,” or “did you see what she was wearing? She was basically asking for it.” We cannot aid and abet, even passively, those who do harm.

Now, we come to the court, which abdicated its core responsibility to protect the vulnerable from the predations of the strong. Many of us are familiar by now with the practices of the Catholic Church, which protected abusers, shifting them from parish to parish in order to protect them. Sadly, the impulse to protect not the victims, but the perpetrators of toxic masculinity, is alive in the Jewish community as well. The Ramaz School on the Upper East Side is one of the most prestigious institutions in the Modern Orthodox world. Its leader, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, officiated at Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner’s wedding and was listed by Newsweek magazine as the most influential Orthodox rabbi in the United States. He also turned a blind eye to multiple instances of sexual misconduct by educators at the school. In a letter which accompanied an independent report on widespread sexual misconduct the Ramaz Academy, the chairman of the board wrote that there were “instances in which the Ramaz administration could have done more to protect our students.” We who have positions of power – as leaders of institutions, as directors of schools, as public servants — have a responsibility not simply to refrain from imposing toxic masculinity on anyone else, but to protect the most vulnerable from its worst effects.

After that dismaying litany, we come to the last man in the midrash. This is the man who was traveling to Jerusalem to find a teacher of Torah for his son. He did a few things that I want to raise up as examples of healthy masculinity, virtues we should hope to see more of in ourselves, our community and our leaders.

First, he’s looking after the education of his child, which is not something we can take for granted, even in this day and age. According to the 2017 Modern Family Index, women are three times as likely as men to manage their children’s schedules. Even when families try to buck the trend, societal expectations remain strong. Not long ago, I left a message at the orthodontist to make an appointment for one my kids. About an hour later, I got a call from my wife, saying the orthodontist office had called her about scheduling. “I left them the message,” I said. “Why did they call you?” “Funny you should ask,” my wife said. “I asked them the same thing. They said they figured you were at work and didn’t want to disturb you. I told them I was at work too. The appointment is next Tuesday at four.” Healthy masculinity means carrying the mental loads of our households — the shopping lists, the doctors’ appointments, the endless barrage of school performances.

Second, our non-toxic man calls our heroine “my daughter.” While that might sound creepy to our ears, in the context of the 13th century, he was accurately perceiving the power differential between them and using the power he had to protect her. He was, perhaps consciously, obeying the most frequently repeated command in the Torah – to protect the most vulnerable in society. Healthy masculinity means recognizing that society often gives men unfair advantages and using those advantages to lift others up, not keep them down.

Finally and perhaps most remarkably, he believes this woman — he believes the story she tells and even more, he believes that she has the skills and the virtue needed to teach his son Torah. To put this in some context, this would be roughly akin to me walking over to Downstate Correctional on Red Schoolhouse Road, hearing a prisoner proclaim his own innocence, and then inviting them to come and teach in our Hebrew school. We, as a society, routinely don’t believe women. There are the formal ways we don’t believe women — in most legal systems, women were categorically prohibited from offering testimony until fairly recently and even today, our government insists that many claims of domestic abuse by asylum seekers are fraudulent and the president claims that accusations of rape against his Supreme Court nominee are exaggerated. But there are also the informal ways we don’t take women seriously — not about their bodies, about their experiences, about their lives. in the book Women and Power, by classicist Mary Beard, she reprints a cartoon in which a bunch of people are meeting around a table. The man at the head of the table turns to the lone woman at the meeting and says “That’s an excellent suggestion. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it??” Healthy masculinity means being more concerned with being callous or cruel than we are with being gullible or heroic.

Those five groups of men gave us some models of masculinity from the 13th century, some healthy, some not. Of course, there are more recent models as well. This past spring, I was the improbable coach of the Beacon Destroyers, a Little League team of seven to nine-year olds. Now, hitting a baseball is one of the most frustrating things a person can try to do. Really good professional players get a hit only about a third of the time, and Ted Williams, arguably the greatest hitter ever, got on base only about 40% of the time. If you go up to bat, odds are against you getting to base. More than any stance or grip, learning to hit is about learning to manage frustration, which is not a skill that 7-year olds are known for. So, more often than not, a strike out would be followed by tears. When a kid collapsed in a puddle of frustration, some good, caring coach, who volunteered his time to help these kids learn, would – with only the best intention – tell the kid to “man up” or “put on his big boy pants” and go back to the dugout. These coaches aren’t at all evil people — they are simply voicing our cultural expectations of boys.

But what exactly were we telling these boys when we told them to “man up” or “put on their big boy pants”? We are teaching them how to perform their gender. Boys don’t cry. Boys don’t get carried away by their emotions. Boys don’t show weakness. Social coding for gender is everywhere — the clothes we buy, the movies we watch, the sports we play or don’t. We are always operating within gender norms, teaching and learning from each other how to perform our gender. It’s increasingly clear that many of those lessons do more harm than good.

For the well-being of our kids, and for the wellbeing of people they love now and in the future, we don’t need to teach boys to repress their emotions, or be ashamed of their tears. In a world of pain, honest tears are often the only appropriate response.

I want to come back to the two posters in my teenage room — Samantha Fox behind the door and James Dean over the dresser.

In many ways, they were the same poster. The Dean-esque man I was trying to be – cool, distant, aloof, fundamentally solitary, needing nothing from no one — could only relate to women as objects of desire, two dimensional caricatures with cleavage. A man modeled on James Dean couldn’t acknowledge his own needs and so couldn’t take seriously the needs of anyone else.

That is, of course, what makes pin up girls — and their 21st century digital descendants – so attractive. It’s not the made-up faces or the airbrushed bodies; it’s that they lack any need which might interfere with their constant availability to fulfill male desire. They are always available, always ready. Whenever I wanted, I could close my door, and there was Samantha Fox, winking at me. In all those years she was on my wall, I never once heard her say, well, anything. She was a silent poster, waiting for me.

There is nothing wrong with conventional masculinity — I plan to keep losing at poker, watching Mission Impossible and singing along with Bruce Springsteen in my minivan. And let me stress, there is nothing wrong with folks who are biologically male, but don’t embrace conventional masculinity in terms of dress, behavior, sexual orientation or anything else.

I don’t look back at teenage me with anger — I didn’t commit any egregious sins then that I need to repent for now. I absorbed the masculine values and norms of the culture around me and tried to live up to them.

But thank God, I inherit not only mid-’80s American pop culture — I — and all of us — inherit a tradition that says that in a place where there are no righteous people, you struggle to be a righteous person. We each struggle individually to be the best person we can be, and we are shaped by the culture in which we do that struggling.

I look now at us in this room and the children downstairs, including my own son and daughter, and I want us to shape a culture for them and for us which valorizes the heroes who lift up the vulnerable, act ethically regardless of the costs, and live lives of dependability, reliability and responsibility. This here is my small effort to shape our culture — in my immediate community and in the larger Jewish community — to be a little healthier, a little less toxic.

May we all merit to create such a culture and live in it.

This is a modified version of the teaching for the first day of Rosh Hashanah 2018 at Beacon Hebrew Alliance.

About the Author
Brent Spodek is rabbi at Beacon Hebrew Alliance in Beacon, New York. He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and a Fellow of the Schusterman Foundation. He previously served as the Rabbi in Residence at American Jewish World Service and the Marshall T. Meyer Fellow at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York. Brent has been recognized by the Jewish Forward as one of the most inspiring rabbis in America, and by Newsweek/The Daily Beast as "a rabbi to watch." Brent holds rabbinic ordination and a masters in philosophy from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was the first recipient of the Neubauer Fellowship. Prior to entering the rabbinate, he attended Wesleyan University and worked as a daily journalist in Durham, NC. He lives in Beacon with his wife Alison, a professor of environmental chemistry at Vassar College and their two children, Noa and Abraham.
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