Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Men at Their Best

Man at His Best was the title of an essay I wrote about a year ago reflecting on the depleted presence of men in Reform pews. The feminization of Jewish life has either neutered men or driven them to other safe harbors. It is the very same reason why hareidi men in Jerusalem are vociferous, aggressive and verbally abusive when it comes to the touchy subject of women prayer services (minyanim) at the wall. Religious ritual at the synagogue or the “kotel” happens to be the last bastion, the Jewish man’s last stand, and his last frontier where he can be a man. He really has no other place to go. Now, a study has come out on the status of Jewish men in the Conservative/ Masorati movement.

In this particular study certain assumptions were made which are disturbing. For one thing, the study underscores the positive outcomes resulting from the feminization of the Conservative movement, referring to themselves now as gender balanced or egalitarian. This study rejects the premise that men resisted this new “world order”. Had they objected the study asks why is it that these men didn’t fight back, thus concluding, “if men are becoming less visible…it must be for other reasons”. The author of the study misses the point. They didn’t fight back because they weren’t able to exercise their rights. They were neutered long before they were married, most likely by their mothers at the same time that they were circumcised by the mohel. Jewish men have been programmed to be more “sensitive”, more “compassionate” and less aggressive. In short the liberal agenda filtered down to the Jewish family, making it politically incorrect to assume a stance not consistent with liberal values and politics.

Another erroneous assumption made by the author is that men absent themselves from synagogue because of their “religious incompetence”. If men, the study suggests, are given the appropriate “tools” this too can change. The author oddly likens the unschooled Jewish male to an unprepared hunter about to forage in the woods for a kill. Before going out on the hunt the hunter has to check his list of tools (the author never refers to these tools as weapons). Fascinating it is, that the author compares the Jewish man to the hunter, which is odd, since Jewish men traditionally have never been hunters and almost runs counterintuitive to our Jewish DNA. We don’t hunt for sport (against Jewish law – tsar l’baalei chaim and bal tashchit), and reluctantly for sustenance since we were meant to be vegetarians.

One could even make the case that the author of this study seems to be subconsciously struggling with the degree of potency of his “male” identity and thus, not surprisingly chose the hunter as his metaphor. The hunter, in Jewish lore is the quintessential Esau, decried and discredited in the Bible as cunning, wily, aggressive, fearless and takes what he wants. This is the polar opposite of the early paradigmatic version of Jacob, understood as the delicate, sensitive spiritual figure decidedly scholarly, effeminate and dependent on others for physical sustenance.

No matter how many studies come out, the end result will be the same: the feminization of Judaism has led to the neutering of men driving him out from his place of gathering, his natural habitat, the beit kenesset (beit midrash). They have become passive aggressive, as manifested by their absence in the synagogue as well as other programs sponsored by the community. Hareidi men must hold out and keep at bay the feminization of their cultural enclave, the last frontier of the Jewish male. They are the last male Jewish hope.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Mixed Messages

Guilt is an awful thing to bear. Sexual guilt is worse. Sexual guilt among adolescence in Israel was the subject of a recent study under the auspices of Bar Ilan University and presented at a conference on “Challenges in Jewish Education”. Imagine: a conference was held in 2011 about a subject that was beaten to death in the 1960’s and 70’s. Novel perhaps about this conference was the focus on the orthodox community. Apparently orthodox youth may be sexually conflicted and repressed. Apropos, when I was in high school, preference was to go out with girls from Bais Yaakov without of course the knowledge or permission of their parents. In retrospect it would appear that they must have been profoundly conflicted, but it never occurred to us when “in the moment”. The depth of conflict and the psychological stress was and still remains beyond my comprehension. This study certainly is revealing.

Disturbing were some of the observations underscored at the conference regarding the attitudes of adolescence to sex. For example researchers discovered that orthodox youth were disgusted by “porn” believing that god didn’t create people for their bodies to be on display, which although is a silly argument (by the same token I can argue that if god intended men to be circumcised we would have been born that way) reveals deep seated issues as expressed in their conflicts: being passionately and inexorably pulled to and attracted to natural sex, but feeling guilty about those lustful feelings.

None of this is surprising to me. It isn’t my intention to be dismissive of this community or treat them in a cavalier manner. However one of the glaring problems with this segment of the Jewish community are the mixed messages that the adolescent community receives from their parents and community. On any given Shabbat one can readily see these young adolescent girls in their shabbes best: decked out in suggestive outfits, spiked heels and coiffed like upscale call girls. You have to wonder how in the world did their parents let them step out of the house like that, unless of course they approve, which means they are enabling them and thus reinforcing the mixed message. A few years ago I posted an essay on the thrill of attending a frum wedding. The exaggerated smorgasbord was barely outdone by the over the top parade of nubile eligible (and not so eligible) women sauntering through the smorgasbord as though they were there on display and in competition with the roast beef.

Another unfortunate mixed message has begun to emerge from none other than the ultra orthodox spiritual leadership: the rabbinic establishment, which has recently begun to permit elective plastic, cosmetic surgery such as nose jobs, breast enhancement, tummy tuck, buttocks lift, liposuction etc. Hitherto it was the opinion of the ultra orthodox rabbinate that there was no need to improve upon god’s handiwork. Apparently chanting “eshes chayil” to an unflattering nose or underdeveloped bosom was inappropriate to many within the community. The rabbis, in their dubious wisdom modified their previous p’sak to now assume that god’s handiwork may be improved upon by a nip and tuck here and there. So this new and improved mother of thirty something transmorphing into a “Barbie” albeit with a sheitel, has now become the new and improved version of the “eshes chayil”, a woman of valor and the new role model for her nubile adolescent daughter.

Not surprisingly there is yet a new phenomenon among our young orthodox girls: eating disorders. In 1996 Dr. Ira Sacker studied ultra orthodox women and found that 1 out of 19 in his Brooklyn sampling had an eating disorder:

“Experts say the orthodox community is sending mixed messages to young women. Parents, matchmakers and potential mates want a svelte bride, but may shun a woman who divulged she has an eating disorder because of the stigma of mental illness. For arranged marriages among the ultra orthodox, the first question matchmakers ask is about physical appearance, including weight and the mother’s weight, which feeds the message that thinner brides are now more desirable, said Dr. Ira Sacker…”

It makes one wonder what the face of the ultra orthodox community will look like in another generation. After all, it is to the ”eshes chayil” the pillar of the Jewish family that we all look up to in holding together the values of “yisroel saba”. This study is indicative that they have embarked on a slippery slope and the matchmakers that Dr. Sacker referenced doesn’t help but rather hinders. Perhaps these ultra orthodox families ought to consider jdate.com or frumster.com or other social networking sites as alternatives to these misguided matchmakers. It makes you wonder if Mark Zuckerberg got it right when he developed face book?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Generation F

The Jewish Week (Generation F, Steven Lipman, December 28, 2010) carried an interesting, thought provoking article about the generation of Jews in their 20’s and 30’s who seem to be in search of their Jewish identity. Profiling a young mother, a Park Slope resident, Sher, was interesting although nothing revealing or earth shattering struck me. As a matter of fact, not all that long ago, the young alienated Jews 70’s and 80’s, struggled with the same issues. Then as now young people, beginning their own households were in search of a direction by which their families would be defined Jewishly. Then, they were referred to as “seekers”. And they were! It was the age of the Jewish Catalogue and other self-help books on discovering Jewish traditions and how to “do” Shabbat etc. While there is nothing groundbreaking in this article it does give a new appreciation to the opening line of Ecclesiastes “ein chadsh tachat hashemesh”, there is nothing new under the sun. What is revealing is the realization that there are so many Jews out there who are still Jewish, in spite of their parent’s generation (seekers); a somewhat lost generation searching for Jewish meaning.

With all the good intentions the article is flawed. It typifies the way institutional Judaism, such as federations and the denominations understand Judaism, and how people like Sher define herself through the prism of Judaism. For Sher as for Institutional Judaism, Judaism is defined as a religion like any other religious faith based group. As those religions offer the possibility of spirituality so too is Judaism expected to do the same. Denominational rabbis, in particular the reform and conservative pattern themselves in the same way, even referring to their work as a “ministry”. Judaism however, isn’t faith based, nor is it a religion, nor is its foundations spiritual. Judaism is peoplehood and covenantal. We are a nation, which happens to have folded within it rites and ritual by which we can express our fealty to god (for those who believe in god) and community. Up through the mid 19th century Judaism was accepted and understood universally not as a religion but as a nation. The Reform movement seeking entry and acceptance to the world at large, redefined Judaism as a religion, as any other religion. By doing this, they denuded Judaism to little more than synagogue worship and ritual, and in so doing removed the thorny issue of dual loyalty from the concerns of the overall gentile community.

One doesn’t have to believe in god to be a good Jew and a pillar of the community. One doesn’t have to believe in or attend synagogue to be a good Jew and an upstanding member of the Jewish community. One only has to read nineteenth century Jewish thinkers like Simon Dubnow, Asher Ginsburg and Isaac Peretz who argued the merits of cultural Judaism as the sin qua non of Judaism. Unfortunately, people like Sher have been taught to believe that prayer (personal, private or otherwise) is the means of expressing one’s Jewishness. That simply isn’t the case! To be committed to the Jewish community and to identify with worldwide Jewry is to epitomize a wholesome Jew. To identify with the values of the Jewish community is to find expression as a Jew. To educate one’s children in the history, art, literature, Hebrew language and customs of Israel and the Jewish people is to be a committed Jew. Attending synagogue, praying in language and style that doesn’t resonate renders the worshiper restless. Praying to an objectified god as though He was in the business of doling out and calling in favors must leave one wondering if this is what Judaism is all about. Defining ones Jewishness by synagogue affiliation and membership invariably leaves one in the state of perpetual search.

The perpetuation of the myth that Judaism is a religion of faith serves no one but those directly benefiting from it: rabbis, cantors and synagogue administrators. It is no wonder that Chabad is so successful in their work: they have reduced synagogue worship and membership to one facet of living Jewishly. It is no wonder that Shlomo Carlebach z”l, in his time was so successful in generating as generation of Jews that saw and felt the larger picture. We are a people, a nation with half of us living in Israel, and the rest of us living in the Diaspora. We aren’t exclusively seekers of things spiritual, but also of things cultural, social and political. There are those seeking and not finding spirituality in Judaism turning to other practices such as eastern meditative practices, Buddhism and Hinduism. That needn’t exclude these same people from staying within the Jewish community identifying totally and wholesomely with all things Jewish.

Generation F is no different than the flower children of the 60’s and their spin-offs, the “seekers” of the 70’s and 80’s. Seeking and searching, because they had been robbed of their birthright: understanding that being Jewish was something greater than anything religion had to offer.