Address to Hebrew Union College - JIR in New York

Posting my February 23rd address to the faculty and staff of Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. To listen click here.

Gender Trouble: What We Are Teaching Boys About Being Men and Why It Matters

Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner

Address to Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion
February 23, 2012

First of all, I want to thank Rabbi Shirley Idelson for extending the invitation to be with you today and to thank Rabbi Carol Bailin who is a board member of Moving Traditions, and whose exhibition Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age will be opening March 6th at the JCC of Manhattan. With the permission of the teachers who are hear today, I want to share a few thoughts about the Torah portion. 

I am the kind of person who believes that the gender lens is a necessary perspective when reading any part of the Torah. Or at least that is what I thought before I started to review this week’s parsha. Planks and lumber and sockets and joints… it is a cross between Ikea and Home Depot. It is Lego Land meets Shinto Shrine. Not only is the parsha not about gender - it is not about living beings. It is about the mishkan, a physical structure made of wood and melted metal and various fabrics and the most exciting part is a pair of gold winged angels that remind me either of Ceasar’s Palace Casino or Valentines Day iconography. As my daughter would say, there is not much “drama” to draw from. And then, in yet another episode in my rabbinic life of Saved-by-the-Aggadah, I learned that the creation of the Mishkan actually has an allegorical meaning that is profoundly gendered:

Commenting on the verse “And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). the Midrash in Exodus Rabbah 33:1 tells a story. A king has a daughter who he is marrying off to the ruler of another land. When the king’s son-in-law wished to return to his own country with his new wife, the king would tell his son-in-law: “I cannot say to you, ‘Don’t take her,’ for my daughter is now your wife. However, I ask of you that you wherever you go to live that you have a chamber ready for me that I may dwell with you, for I cannot leave my daughter.” So too, the Midrash explains that God said to Israel: “I have given you a Torah from which I cannot part, and I also cannot tell you not to take it. But I request that wherever you go, make for Me a house in which I will be able to dwell.”
Now we have some rich and rather intense gendered imagery to play with. Some initial thoughts: First off, the Torah has just become a young woman, in this case the King’s daughter. The Mishkan in this allegory is a room set aside for a man that exists in relation to this woman. Wherever this woman travels, the Mishkan, the chamber, must be near her.

But isn’t it ironic that the daughter, who is symbolic of Torah, has no voice? She has no divrei torah. Only the father speaks, and while he grants freedom to his son-in-law, the young woman remains an object, or to be more accurate, a desired object. In the back of my mind I see a masculine God played by James Gandolfini who grants partial freedom to his daughter, but ultimately does not let her out from under his shadow.

These are all the initial ideas that dance in my mind when I read the text with a gender lens. But this is not the Torah that I want to teach. My goal this morning is to suggest a different gender lens with which to read this text. One that is related to the lives of daughters and sons today and one which will tell us something about the meaning of Torah and Mishkan.

But before I proceed, I want to say a few words about how I started thinking differently about gender and Torah.

Twenty years ago, when I was a young rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, I had the great fortune to study with 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. In Tikvah’s class and at her occasional storytelling sessions on her back porch, 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.

That was twenty years ago. And for two decades now, we in Liberal Jewish circles have taught that gender is a social construct, that gender is something artificially bifurcated, that gender is a performance. And you know what, it is all true. There isn’t something essential about gender. 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 want to suggest that yes, the world is changing, and I want to speak specifically about how teen boys are dealing with those changes.  

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 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.

What does this have to do with the Jewish community and how we raise men?

We have an opportunity. More than 70% of Jewish boys have a bar mitzvah, and most of them do so with the support of rabbis, cantors, and educators.

My own sons went through this recently. They learned about a social action requirement, they learned how to give a dvar torah, they led services and leyned Torah. But while they briefly discussed adulthood, they were never asked what it meant to be a man or what it meant to be a Jewish man.

What happens during that year and the next is the time when we have the power to provide guidance for our community’s teens and to give them peer-centered skills that will help them during their most dangerous years. In the past year, I have seen how the right mentors can teach them that guys have more emotions than anger, that having a six-pack is not going to bring them true happiness, that there is a difference between kissing someone and kissing with someone. How we train mentors and how we reach teen boys will be part of the lunch hour discussion that I hope that you’ll join me for as I speak a little bit about the work that Moving Traditions is doing with girls in over 100 Reform synagogues in the U.S. and with boys in over 20 reform communities.

But now it is time to return to the Midrash. A father marries off his daughter. The son-in-law moves her to his Kingdom. The father-in-law says “build me a chamber” so I can dwell with you.

I want to read the text from a gender perspective that is not philosophic, or political, but is deeply feminist. One of the great insights of second wave feminists was the argument that we must dredge through the personal, the embodied and messy stories, on the path to get to the universal. To quote the brilliant Rachel Adler: “I choose to walk through stories searching for the waters of salvation: the hidden springs of laughter that well up once we are willing to relinquish the suffocating security of the dominator or the smoldering grudge of the victim.”

So, I’d like to read this Aggadic text not as a rabbi or a scholar, but simply as the complicated guy that I am, to walk through my own story for a moment.

My beloved, Lisa, grew up very close with her father. The more I got to know Mel, my father-in-law, the more I appreciated hanging on the back porch with him and drinking beers or shooting hoops with him in the driveway. Even though golf is not my thing, playing golf with Mel was a delight. He would always ask me how work was going and help me with the challenges it brought. He called me boychik. He was proud of me. He wanted me to be happy. Then I watched Mel face a long battle with lung cancer that included a decade of chemotherapy treatments and three brain radiations. During that time, he wanted to be near Lisa and our children as much as he could. We lived an hour away.

“I ask of you that you wherever you go to live that you have a chamber ready for me that I may dwell with you.”

We set up a comfortable bed for him downstairs. His last Yom Kippur he stayed with us and rested on that bed. Through Mel’s many visits, and our visits to see him and my amazingly resilient mother-in-law, I got a picture of what kind of father I want to be to my daughter, and I got to think about what kind of grandfather I might be if I merit grandchildren someday.

Approaching the text this way, as a man, Torah and Mishkan are transformed. I am the son-in-law in the aggadah and Torah is the wisdom I benefit from each day that I am fortunate enough to deepen my relationship with the person in this world who knows me best. And G-d knows that revelations happen in the conversations that are the most difficult to hear. My Torah and I are in dialogue. Mishkan is the place I set aside for the visits with my mentors, living and gone, who guide me and push me to be a better partner and father, brother, son, and friend. On my journey they are with me as long as I take the time to ready the chamber.

I want to conclude with a few words of theology.  The aggadah is a story of a God who feels the pain of distance and articulates the desire to be close again. It is a story of a God who once built a home for us who is now heartbroken and lonely and calling on us for company.

Many of the teens in our communities are feeling the pain of distance and longing for a closeness that they once felt. Our role as rabbis and teachers is to build the space, the Mishkan, for them to gather and to reconnect with Torah. May we each merit the opportunity to contribute to such a tent.