Jewfem Blog

Some questions I've been getting

Now that I’m on the last leg of my three-week book tour, the dozens of comments and questions that I’ve heard in different communities are starting to play over in my mind, some issues repeating themselves and others new and stimulating each time. Here are some of the issues that have dominated discussions, along with my responses:hbi4

Is there a difference between younger and older men?

A common assumption is that younger men are more “flexible” in their thinking than older men, and that the gender problem in Orthodox Judaism can be attributed to generational differences in attitudes. Actually, my research did not validate that finding. Anecdotally, some of the most open-minded men I interviewed were retirees and those with some of the most ossified ideas about women were in their thirties. Although I assumed this to be merely a counter-intuitive finding, it was actually explained to me by a discussant in Boston – my uncle, Hy Kempler, a 78-year old psychologist who, in his retirement, is researching identity shifts in later life. His research, which he published with the Harvard Adult Learning Institute, found that many people in later life experience significant shifts in identity and ideology, and find themselves opening up to ideas and lifestyles that they would not have in earlier years. Whether this is because burdens of childrearing and providing can be overwhelming, or whether we start out life with rigid expectations of perfections only to discover as we live life that such ideals are elusive and perhaps unhelpful – it is not entirely clear. But what is clear is that the idea of generational differences that view “young” people as more open and flexible than “older” people is an assumption that is not necessarily valid.

Maybe this is more about Israelis than Americans

Several people told me that some of the descriptions of the “Be an Orthodox Man Box” reflect more Israeli norms than American norms. This may be true to a certain extent. For instance, expectations of a prayer service that does not exceed 90 minutes is clearly an Israeli thing. Also, descriptions of army service as part of the construction of a masculine identity are also clearly Israel.

That said, I think that despite these slight differences, I think that there is far more overlap than difference overall. For instance, even though the word “hafifnik”, referring to a kind of “slacker” who comes late to services and does not care about precise performance, is a Hebrew slang word, the attitude of annoyance with the hafifnik-type has crossed through pretty much every synagogue I encountered. The communal narrative around those who come late, who don’t layn well, who don’t bother with mincha, or who just aren’t attentive enough to detail, took place in shuls in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Melbourne, Jerusalem, and Modi’in.

Moreover, I think that as people are traveling more and communicating more, cultural differences are starting to blur. I interviewed men who started a shul in Chicago but moved to Jerusalem, who hail from Jerusalem but were part of a minyan in Boston, who spent time in NY and LA but eventually joined Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem, who lived for a while in Jerusalem but then moved to Australia, etc, etc. The cultures are traveling and it’s getting harder to say that a cultural behavior belongs to a particular place.

However, I would also add that I hear men’s criticism that the box is not precisely their experience. Many men have told me that they found themselves in pieces of the box but not all of it. My response to that is that I’m happy to be corrected. I am merely opening the conversation, to help men ask themselves the question about how they were raised to believe that they need to “be a man” and how this “being a man” informs communal life. My goal here is to get men talking about this, to promote communal and organizational openness and wellness – and that means asking themselves what kind of box they may find themselves in.

When it comes to correcting layners, aren’t women also doing that? Why is that a masculinity thing?

I do not think that women are pouncing on layners the same way men are. But where women are, it means that women are taking on the box of masculinity, performing the ritual with the formulations and expectations that men impose on one another. It’s a set of behaviors like men’s competitiveness in sport, using sports as an instrument to prove one’s worth vis a vis other men. The pouncing on layners has that sport quality to it, the same kind of men proving to one another that they are the ‘best’ or that others are NOT the ‘best’. It’s a cultural style rooted in the man-on-man gaze, and when women do it, they are simply entering a man’s culture without necessarily questioning the value of that culture.

But what about halakha? Isn’t being “perfect” part of the halakhic demand?

Those who have studied this issue at length have assured me that not every mistake in layning must be corrected, and that the communal pouncing often reflects a misreading of halakha. Knee-jerk responses to incorrect layning may have less to do with halakha and more to do with an OCD-type of masculinity that is increasingly dominating Orthodox discussions of religiousness, especially around gender issues.

More than that, we have a fundamental halakhic precept not to shame another in public – “kol hamalbin pnei haveiro….” – that if a person causes another to be so shamed as to turn white, it is as if he has murdered that person. So the question of halakha has to be taken in context – correct pronunciation of a vowel, for example, versus a Torah offense equivalent to murder. The Orthodox community needs to have a broader and more humane conversation about halakha, one that placed the human experience at the center, one that seeks to build compassionate communities.

This research also has applications to Jewish life beyond Orthodoxy

Absolutely! The entire “boy crisis” in the Reform movement is about these very same issues. It’s about cultures of Jewish masculinity that make it difficult for men to be led by women, to be in places that are female-dominated. Jewish men are socialized into being in charge and being in control and being powerful leaders. This is not an Orthodox thing but a Jewish thing. Look at the federations system and the gender wage gaps and leadership gaps. Jewish men are socialized to be in charge. As soon as women take on roles that were once “male”, many men step back, afraid of being labeled out of the box. Like every other men’s club in history, when women step in, men feel at a loss with their own definitions of masculinity and retreate. In shul, this is also combined with relief – as in, okay, let the women do all this, let it be a woman’s thing. Privileges associated with leading services are sometimes less apparent than privileges associated with communal leadership. What is clear is that the discussion about the role of masculinities in Jewish life has barely started to take place, and is desperately needed. Men are acting out of struggles with masculinities, and this is affecting many aspects of Jewish life.


If you have more questions or comments, please write to me. I am really very happy and even excited to continue talking about all this.

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