Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner
April 25, 2012
Twenty-two years ago, as a bright-eyed college graduate, I was deciding between studying in a Yeshiva around the corner from my cousins’ house in Crown Heights or going to Suburban Philadelphia, where I knew absolutely no one, but I could study with Art Green at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. I wish that I could say that I wanted to study with Art because of his scholarship in chassdiut. Or that I was enamored with his work in contemporary theology. But sadly, the reason I wanted to study with Rabbi Green was because he had written a few minor essays in the 1960s and 70s on casual sex and pot smoking. At the time I envisioned Art as some sot of rabbinic Jerry Garcia, a father figure who reeked of patchouli, vegetarian stew and the Baal Shem Tov, and who had the power to hand me keys to spiritual doors so that I, too, could one day be such a guru.
As a college senior in the #1 party school in America, the University of Wisconsin, I stopped into a video game arcade to take a passport photo, borrowed a friend’s computer to type out an essay, and I applied for admission at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. I flew to Philadelphia for the interview, took a train to Jenkintown, and was greeted by Howard Cohen, a student in his final year at the school, who served as my host. As we walked around the college building I thought that I had mistakenly landed backstage at an Indigo Girls concert. Or, to be more accurate, the Michigan Womyn’s Festival. Yes, there was a friendly Orthodox guy who worked in the library, but most of the students were women and they all appeared to be ten years older than me and in various stages of man-hating. At the time the popular feminist jewelry was the double-sided axe worn on a chain around the neck. What were these axes going to cut? It was a confusing symbol to a guy like me who was born and raised in the Bible Belt – Charlotte, North Carolina. After the interview and the news that I was accepted, Howard said that we needed to lift some beers to celebrate. This was a sentiment I could relate to. We walked into town, me wearing a yarmulke in public for the first time, in search of an open bar.
The only place that was open in Jenkintown was a dive that featured topless dancers. OK – that’s inaccurate. This place featured a singular topless dancer. So I found myself, four hours after getting into rabbinical school wearing a yarmulke in a strip club. Howard, wisely, ordered a six pack of beers and we went back to his porch and drank.
The next morning, I went to Rosenberg’s books and bought a leather-bound gold embossed artscroll siddur. I walked back into Howard’s house, showed him the book, and he said: “Why did you buy that?” I said that the explanations looked good. He gave me a look. One of those looks that says – “oy, have you got a lot to learn.”
Needless to say, when fall came around, and I got to meet my classmates, I was in for an eye-opening and wonderful experience. I joined a learning community that challenged me in multiple ways and I began to forge unexpected friendships that nurture me to this day.
But I am not here today to regale you with tales of rabbinical school. For anyone who does want to hear about my formation as a rabbi, my one-man show entitled Faster, Rabbi, Drill! Drill! still exists. The only caveat is that you need to own a working cassette tape player to listen to it. What I do want to focus on today is gender.
Twenty years ago, my thoughts about gender and Judaism were challenged and expanded in the presence of my teacher at RRC the late Tikve Frymer Kensky Z’L For those of you haven’t come across Tikvah in your studies, she was a true trailblazer. She received a doctorate from Yale in 1977 in Assyriology and Sumerology and was one of the first women to academically challenge the male-dominated world of Biblical Scholarship. She was the first woman named a scholar of distinction by the Jewish Publication Society. She gave some classes on her back porch. While her 8 year old son was jumping mushrooms on his Nintendo, she would recite the Gilgamesh epic in ancient Sumerian and simultaneously translate. In her class, we learned that the roots of Biblical Judaism were not to be found in patriarchy alone, but in a synthesis of feminine and masculine mythic idioms including lactating trees, fertility goddesses, and birthing stones as well as the warrior-Gods and storm gods of the region.
While many of us were busy writing new, gender-neutral liturgy, Tikvah was busy sharing four -thousand –year-old Hebrew amulet inscriptions for pregnant women. She loved to talk about ancient understandings of sexuality and probably the best moment in her class was when she was lecturing on circumcision and she said. “I’m not a very good artist, could someone come up to the board and draw an uncircumcised penis.”
It was a wonderful time in Jewish life in terms of feminist scholarship and new thinking about gender, sexuality, and Jewish ritual. Leslea Newman came to class one day and read us from her new book about Heather and her Two Mommies. We all had dog-eared copies of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. And every baby girl born in the community would be welcomed with a naming / foot washing / brit / new song ceremony that seemed to go on for five hours. Needless to say, towards the end of rabbinical school there were lively debates about the merits of Xena Warrior Princess.
And this discussion had an impact on theology. In the beginning of rabbinical school, I thought that what was best was to envision God as being totally beyond gender. I wanted more than anything for the Jewish God to be like the force in Star Wars. I could close my eyes and feel it and Rabbi Yoda could teach me how to use it to blow up the Death Star.
But then I read Howard Eilberg Scwartz’s gender discourse in God’s Phallus. And started to wonder if an invisible god is really the solution. Looking back at my copy of the book, I marked a passage which bears a re-read:
“feminist theorists argue that representation of a disembodied masculine God ends up supporting the association of masculinity with spirituality and, by way of contrast, denigrating femininity as being associated with the body. God creates by the word and not the body, masculinity is linked to intellectual and spiritual activity while femininity is bound to the passive functions of the body – the bearing and nurturing of children.
There are however, a number of myths in ancient Judaism that imagine God as having, or at least appearing in, human form….the idea of God’s body has enormous implications, not only for understanding how ancient Jews figured procreation, conception, masculinity, the male body, and the phallus, but also for feminist and analytic views of religion. How must the terms of this discussion change if God’s body is veiled rather than nonexistent? “
A year after I finished rabbinical school, Rachel Adler came out with her brilliant work Engendering Judaism. In her work, she offers a new paradigm for thinking about gender and sexuality, and most importantly, thinking not just about God’s gender or God’s body, but about Jewish practice.
In her words:
“The purpose of feminist Jewish hermeneutic is not to reject either text or law but to seek ways of claiming them and living them out with integrity. It keeps faith with texts by refusing to absolve them of moral responsibility. It honors halakhah by affirming its inexhaustible capacity to be created anew. “p. 58
That was twenty years ago. And for two decades now, we in Liberal Jewish circles have affirmed egalitarianism and gender neutrality, have taught that gender is a social construct, that gender is something artificially bifurcated, that gender is a performance. We do not think that there is something essential about being a man or being a woman. Male and female is not wired in our brains like some blue and pink software and gender is not in the hardware either. As we all graduated rabbi school, eager to transform liturgy and communal practice, we envisioned a world that was Gender free, gender neutral, post-gender.
And then we met teenagers. If you have not spent time lately with this fascinating sub-species of human, they tend to travel in packs, subsist on snack foods, communicate through cryptic digital clicks and spend a great deal of time covering up their various skin conditions with products extracted from botanical elements. Two of these creatures happen to live under my roof.
My colleagues and I had thought that gender roles were not as big a deal anymore for teenagers because we were diverted by news stories that seemed to point in that direction. We heard about the impact of Title IX on women’s sports. We knew that girls were doing better in middle school, even in math. Gay-Straight Alliances were making high school bearable for LGBTQI students. We had thought that things were getting better and then as we met teens that were struggling to conform to unrealistic gender expectations, we started to realize that things might actually have gotten worse in the last twenty years. We heard a lot of confusion from teens as well as stories of prescription drug abuse, eating disorders, date rape, an the messy business of “friends-with-benefits.” Things were certainly not getting much better for girls, things were getting much worse for guys, and LGBTQI teens were facing new types of harassment.
Looking at the generation, we asked: How did a group of parents who all went through school influenced by feminism end up raising teens who are struggling under the weight of gender expectations? Did they change? Did society change? What happened?
I think that things have, in fact, changed and I hope to discuss this with you today. In my current work, I have been thinking a great deal about how expectations for men have changed and thinking specifically about how the lives of teen boys in our community are impacted. Before I say more about that, I’d like to reflect for a minute on two changes that I see happening related to teenagers and gender.
The first element of change is related to the rise of niche marketing and new media. I remember reading a story in 2008 about how executives had decided that the Disney Channel was losing tween boys so they launched Disney XD, a channel for tween boys that would show more violent shows. Or as they said, more “action.” Teen Nick saw a similar opening in niche programs for tween girls. They added more “drama” Nintendo saw a new market and started to program video games specifically for girls, and developed successful new lines of games that encouraged girls to care for ponies or make sushi or make sushi for ponies while their brothers hunted down uni-browed terrorists. Rather than expand gender possibilities, the explosion of new media actually affirmed old gender lines. The result is that as we have seen the amount of screen time rise significantly in the lives of tweens and teens, we’ve also seen the emergence of fairly gender-segregated virtual spaces. With this has come a rapid rise of both reality television and pornography. These related genres solidify gender roles and give teens a constant stream of supposedly “real” men and women, straight and gay, who model what it is like to be a “real” man or woman. Rather than watch actors in sit-coms or dramas who can ridicule and subvert their gender roles, in reality shows teens watch non-actors who vie for popularity in highly gendered environments. For more than ninety percent of teens their primary source of sex education is hardcore pornography. This media is providing them with a steady stream of what it means to be a cool guy or a hot girl. Educators and parents are now stuck with the task of helping teens to think critically about a world where they are tuned into what Ariel Levy has dubbed “Raunch Culture.”
A second factor is related to a decline in what I would call social intimacy. Robert Putnam’s work in the late nineties described how communal organizations were breaking down in the U.S. Since that time, the rise of online social networking has certainly increased, but the amount of time that teens spend with friends in what was once called hanging out, away from parents, has been in sharp decline.
This has particularly been a problem for teen boys, a dynamic beautifully chronicled in of NYU professor Niobe Way’s Deep Secrets. She writes about the decline in intimate friendships among boys as they go through high school, and the sense of loss and isolation that many boys feel. Couple this with a world in which boys are losing out to girls academically and fewer boys are going to college and boys are spending increasingly more time than girls online and you get a picture of the challenges that we have with today’s teen boys.
Those are changes that I see in the wider world – but now I want to focus specifically on the Jewish community.
Within the Jewish community, the prominent role of men in nearly all aspects of Jewish life outside of traditional Orthodox circles has gradually diminished. While leaders of most major organizations and synagogues remain men (a glass ceiling that I would argue still needs to be shattered), the vast majority of participants are women. Moving Traditions’ research has shown that this drop-off begins for young men at age fourteen and continues throughout young adulthood. Recent studies by the Cohen Center at Brandeis University (notably by professors Len Saxe and Sylvia Fishman) have found that young men are underrepresented in youth groups, summer camps, Israel trips, social action initiatives, Hillels, and ultimately under the chupah. Sylvia Fishman cleverly coined the term “patrilineal descent” to describe how men have slipped away from Jewish volunteer and philanthropic circles and Jewish communal life in general. Those of us who have taken on leadership roles in the Jewish community might ask: How are we failing so many young men?
While participation rates for young women have also declined in liberal Judaism, they have not declined as much as those for young men. The contributing factors that led to this growing gender imbalance in Jewish life are numerous and some of them are factors that we should celebrate. In the last three decades, barriers of prejudice breaking down in politics and in once closed philanthropic circles led men to pursue opportunities outside of the Jewish world. As America embraced a multicultural ethos, many Jewish men left behind their ethnic affiliations. They preferred an emerging secular globalism to what seemed like an outdated, provincial and religious worldview.
But another factor needs to be mentioned, one that is difficult for men and women to talk about. The changing roles of women in American society at large and the Jewish community in particular have had a profound impact on men’s participation. Here I want to be very careful. While it is critical that we do not project a “cause and effect” approach that blames men’s lack of involvement on women’s empowerment, I think that we need to acknowledge that the growing leadership of women in liberal Judaism is part of the equation. The majority of men under age thirty have grown up with almost exclusively female religious teachers in Hebrew School. In hundreds of communities that are not male -led 1,000 member plus congregations, there are many young men who have only spent time with female rabbis and cantors. What is more concerning though, is that young men in many congregations rarely see men who are devoted to Jewish learning and even fewer who care about Jewish liturgy and prayer. The impact of this lack of male mentors on teen boys has yet to be studied, but if it is like any other activity that becomes weighted to one gender, concerns for the continued participation of the other gender – here young men – are warranted.
At the same time that these mixed signals about men have emerged in liberal Judaism, Chabad rabbis successfully populated nearly every American zip code and offered a clear role for Jewish men. Reaching out to all Jewish men to “wrap tefillin” or “make a minyan” has affirmed the unique value of Jewish men offered by traditional Orthodoxy. The messages stand in contrast to one another: Liberal Judaism says “come and be equal in our welcoming congregation” and Orthodoxy says “we need you specifically because you are a man.” While we have no statistical evidence yet regarding the power of this draw to Chabad or other outreach movements, we imagine that it is double-edged. Some men see these efforts as unwanted proselytizing and others feel that they are needed as men by the Jewish community and welcome the opportunity to try Orthodoxy. While most men who participate in activities with Orthodox outreach rabbis do not hold the same theological views as these rabbis, they do feel comfortable learning with them and feel as if their contribution is valued.
Given that men often feel comfortable when other men are involved in social activities and that many crave to be accepted by a community of men, how can those of us outside of the traditional Orthodox outreach world think differently about engaging men?
Although I use the word engagement I have to admit that I have an aversion to the term. I prefer to think about our role as educators and as community builders in another way and ask “What are we offering men? Or more practically, does what we offer men speak to the needs, both social and spiritual, that they have currently identified in their lives and does it have the power to warrant communal obligation and commitment?”
That is the conversation I hope to spark today. It will force us to ask:
What do men need?
Do men need something that is special to men, or should we change what we do for everyone to engage men?
Is thinking about gender separate space a good thing at all? Are women’s groups and men’s groups a model we should move away from?
Should we begin to think of gendered groups in terms of three – female, trans, and male?
I hope that today we will have a chance do seriously tackle these questions and to learn from one another.