Shabbat Shalom. First off, I want to express my gratitude to three men who made it possible for me to wake up in Minnesota. Lon Rosenfeld, who called me in my office in New York and said that I had to come. Rabbi Kravitz, who welcomed me to the bima and to Minnetonka with open arms, and my friend from college Donovan Hart, who let me crash on his sofa. Donovan is not Jewish – but he and his wife Rama and their children are members of the Unitarian Church that bought Adath’s old building – and apparently the place still smells like gefilte fish.
I want to start with a few questions addressed to the middle school students who are here that I want you to answer to yourself. In your mind or your heart.
I know that you are all highly intelligent. You know that as Anya steps forward for her bat mitzvah it is a ritual about becoming a Jewish woman. That it is a recognition that one is no longer a child in the Jewish community. You also know that on a physical level, the body is maturing and preparing for procreation. Not that we encourage that sort of thing. Please wait til grad school.
You also know that religiously, the bat mitzvah is taking hold of the responsibilities outlined for adults in the Torah – to lead a life that honors the traditions, rituals, and ethical teachings of Torah within a community of shared responsibility.
But I want to ask you — what does it really mean to go from being a girl to being a woman?
What challenges do you need to face?
What experiences do you need to have?
What do you need to learn?
What do you need to feel?
And this brings me to my topic. What does it mean to go from being a boy to being a man? In the ancient world, I imagine that answering this question was much simpler. Want to be a man? Go kill a bear or a lion. Gut it, and wear the fur. Nobody will mess you. Or better yet, go kill some big man from that tribe we don’t like across the valley. Wear a necklace made of his bones. We won’t question your manhood.
So much of Jewish tradition has been defining Jewish man against the savage. Our patriarach Yakov, whose name is Yisrael – the name of our people, sits in tents, cooks lentils, and listens to his mother. His brother Esav…he goes out and kills things. We trace our line back to Yakov. But after we were enslaved in Egypt, and Jewish men had to come back to reclaim our ancestral lands in Israel, we looked to our warriors, to Joshua, and later to David. We began to think differently about who we were and what kind of men we needed to be in the world. We became poet-warriors, we built cities. We expanded our borders. But then we were exiled from our land. So we adapted. For over two thousand years, Jewish men focused not on military power, but on law and poetry and diplomacy and medicine and trade. Most Jewish men found ways to succeed without being like other men. After the pogroms in Eastern Europe in the 1880s, we started to rethink everything. The men of Europe were threatened by us, some of them wanted to expel or to even to destroy us. So at the start of the Twentieth Century, very bookish-guys like Max Nordau started encouraging Jewish men to become “muscle Jews” to return to Olympic competition. Early kibbutzniks embraced this machismo…this return to the poet-warrior type Jewish man of King David.
Meanwhile, Jewish men in America were thinking about what it meant to be an American man. White American men were quiet. They didn’t express emotion. They were independent, tough, cowboys. Some of us tried to be cowboys. And we looked at African-American men. They had style. They were cool. They could dance. Some of us tried to be like them. And then came feminism. Women started doing things that were once reserved for men. And all of a sudden, guys didn’t know what we were supposed to be like. Were we supposed to share our feelings now? Were we supposed to censor our thoughts now? Was being cool still cool? Were we supposed to be more feminine?
A year ago, when I first started working full-time on the idea of a national program for Jewish teen boys, I realized that a lot of guys are just plain confused about what they should be, as guys.
Is a guy supposed to express his emotions or be chill?
Can a guy have friends that are not men?
Is he supposed to be tough or to be sensitive?
Should he hide his love for his mother or his father?
These are extremes, of course, but they all raise the larger question: What are the gender expectations that we have created in the various worlds that we inhabit and how are they limiting, stifling, suffocating, our potential to be fully human?
And more specifically, how are these expectations damaging young men, at a time when young men are seeing men behaving badly in politics and sports, are questioning their academic abilities vis a vis the smarter girls, and feeling like men are in decline? Today many men are socially isolated. They do not have friends. They feel more confused about their role as men than ever before.
I am the father of two teen boys, both of whom have very strong Jewish women in their lives. As my sons are playing Halo Reach on their Xbox, watching smosh TV videos on their laptop, and watching ESPN sportcenter, they are thinking about what it is to be a man. A year ago, it became clear to me that young men needed a positive, male-affirming approach to manhood. They need to have the space to think about what it means to be a mensch and the Jewish community can provide that space for every bar mitzvah boy.
When I was thirteen, I was clueless. On the plus side, I had stopped giving wedgies to my little brother and I had survived my first phone call with a girl. This is back when people talked on the phone. Not text – actual talking, on the phone. On the negative side, I was bored in school, I was too short to make the basketball team, my friends from the track team and I sat around playing on computers (the Vic 20 for those who remember) and I was up most nights worried that I didn’t have any underarm hair.
But that is all fairly superficial. On a deeper level, a lot was going on. I lived in a state of fear of “cool guys” in my school. To prove their coolness, they physically abused the weaker guys in gym class, and although I wasn’t on their list of number one targets, there were times when I was ridiculed and harrassed. Maybe what was worse was watching other kids, like the tall an awkward kid Joey, getting beat up and not really being able to do anything about it. I was unhappy, but I did not have the language to express my unhappiness. I found a few friends, but they were not close like my friends from elementary school. And although I liked girls, I had no idea what to say to them when I was actually, like, standing next to one of them. They were all so smart and witty and judgmental and I was probably wearing the wrong shirt.
So maybe bar mitzvah shouldn’t be at thirteen. Maybe it should be sixteen, or eighteen. Maybe twenty-one.
Why thirteen? What do we mean in the Jewish community when we say that you are an adult at thirteen?
The concept of thirteen as the age of adulthood began in the Talmud. The idea sprung from a legal question: Whose words are valid? If a child makes a promise, say, for example, that they promise to water your apple tree while you are on vacation, and then fails to keep that promise, are they liable for damages? Do they have to pay you for the lost apples? The rabbis determined that at age thirteen, a person should be able to back up their words. If you say something now, you understand what it means and what it requires of you. You are liable. So parents at a B’nai Mitzvah are released – as it says in the blessing, she’petarani mai onesh zeh , you are released from liability and punishment that falls on your child’s shoulders.
But there are other reasons for the age thirteen. There is a midrash that says that Jacob, the tent dweller, and Esau, the hunter were indistinguishable for their first thirteen years. At thirteen, Jacob developed the spiritual sensitivities that we label as “yetzer hatov” a selfless sense of goodwill. Esau remained in the place of self-satisfaction, he remained all yetzer harah – a bad will.
What does it mean that Esau cannot break from his boyhood tendencies?
Think of a two year old boy whose Thomas the tank engine has been cruelly stripped from his hands by, say, some other two year old. He will likely scream, cry, bang the floor, throw something, until he gets what he wants. Until we are thirteen, we are basically throwing a long temper tantrum. After thirteen, when we are throwing a temper tantrum, we are kind of on automatic pilot from childhood. But something is different. What is different? At thirteen, we start to see a bigger picture. It is the age when we step outside ourselves and begin to reflect on our childhoods. And deep inside, we can think about where we are hurt, and if we try, we can find what it is that we want to say.
At Moving Traditions, the Jewish organization that I have the honor to work for, we focus exclusively on the coming-of-age period – what happens between the ages of 11 -18, those seven dangerous and adventurous years. My colleagues and I have trained over 1,000 mentors across the country – educators and volunteers – to ask these questions to teens and we hope to train many more.
So what kind of men would we like young men to be? Our goal is not to throw away traditional male ideas such as toughness, independence, loyalty, or calm and just produce young men who are really nice and like to share their feelings. Our goal is not to make men more masculine or more feminine. In fact, we think those categories are not helpful. Rather, our aim is to inspire teen boys to expand their definition of what a man should be. Men should be both tough and fragile. Men should be able to be aggressive and to be peaceful. Men should know how to be quiet and how to be expressive. Maimonidies taught “A man should not be to quick to be angry or to slow. A man should not be too proud or too humble.” The righteous path is to understand your inclinations and to understand how you must grow in order to obtain balance.
I conclude with a question: Is 13 the right age to begin this work? I think it is the perfect age. At 13, young women and men are saying goodbye to childhood and beginning that journey to adulthood. It is a moment both of loss and of promise. We celebrate that moment, we celebrate it today, and we say – as a community – “we are there for you.” Shabbat Shalom.