Jewish Men Step Forward


Spirituality and the Land
Author Brian Michelson

Jewish men have been getting together for centuries but now some of them are doing it in slightly different ways. Melbourne-based rabbi Brian Michelson looks at one group of Jewish men who’ve been meeting regularly for the past three years.
Men, in many societies, have always congregated and conversed, in prayer groups, organised societies, in sporting clubs, in the pub and in the cafes. They gather to talk, to argue, and to learn. They discuss politics, sport and family. They have come to enjoy a camaraderie and the presence of other men. You can almost taste a palpable change when a woman enters the room. This is "man's territory"--women do not belong. By outsiders they are called misogynistic and chauvinistic and, in my opinion, the critics of these men are often correct.

The most cursory glance at Jewish texts and tradition reveals that men gathering for prayer and study is an ancient tradition. Jewish tradition is filled with stories of wise rabbis and learned men. Many works of fiction and movies have given us the image of serious students pouring over pages of the Talmud in their Yeshivah and in their synagogues. The seriousness and importance of male study has existed for generations and its importance taught from an early age.

      "A boy's first visit to a classroom and the first lesson he received were traditionally enveloped in emotion and ceremony. Dressed in new clothes, the child was carried to the schoolroom by a rabbi or learned man. There he received a clean slate on which the letters of the Hebrew alphabet or a simple biblical verse had been written in honey. The child licked off the slate while reciting the names of each letter, and afterwards he ate treats of honey cake, apples, and nuts--all aimed at making his introduction to his studies sweet and tempting."
Although this practice has, in modern times, fallen into disuse, it clearly expresses the value that Judaism has traditionally placed on learning and study--the study of young boys and men. Men's groups are not new; nor are they alien to Judaism and Jewish life. The lucky few are able to dedicate their lives to study and learning, but the vast majority of men, and their families, work very hard just to survive. Their time for study is nearly non-existent.

We must also realise that we no longer live in the shtetls of eastern Europe. The world in which we live is no longer the same world as that of the Talmud or the Jewish Codes. The Enlightenment forever changed the interaction of many Jews with the world in which they lived. The ghetto walls fell. For the first time, Jews ventured into the cultures that surrounded them.

Economic changes and industrial changes alter the way people looked at family life, Jewish and non-Jewish, and the role of the male members of the household. I believe that the very model that was used by Jewish men has changed. The ideal is, for most Jewish men, no longer the learned man; rather, it is the materially and financially successful man. Jewish men now dedicate their lives to seeking financial security and the economic comforts that they perceive in the broader community. Men no longer live to study--they live to work. Jewish study, as a child, is as important as it has always been; adult Jewish study has become a luxury only few can undertake.

The liberalisation of society and the growing desire of women for equality lead to many significant changes to society. Women in greater numbers than ever in history are working outside the home. Women are, rightly so, claiming their portion. These changes in women's roles in the last two decades have seen the growth and success of numerous "women's groups." As women were liberated and liberated themselves, they thirsted to claim their Jewish spiritual heritage as their own. They knew that their access to equal Jewish education had been denied simply because they were women. They undertook to discover their heritage in a way never done before. They set out to discover what it meant to be a Jewish woman in these modern times. Jewish women gathered all over the world to study, to discuss, and to pray together. They supported each other as they faced the challenges that the world offered them. They shared friendship and concern as the members of these groups expanded their knowledge of their Judaism and faced the changes that were occurring to the traditional family unit.

Women have sought to understand how these changes affected their lives, the lives of their families and friends and their lives as Jews. However, it was not only the role of women that was changing--the role of men was changing in ways that it had never changed before. Daphne Rose Kingmon, a psychologist from New Zealand, wrote: "In our [women's] quickness to focus on our own deprivation, what we have overlooked is that men are as oppressed by the male role as we have always been by women's. . . Since time immemorial men have identified themselves by, through and in terms of their work."

Three and a half years ago, a number of men approached me about the possibility of establishing a "men's group". Many of them had experienced, second hand, the benefits their wives or partners had gained from their exploration of their changing societal role and expanding their knowledge of their Judaism. These men realised that, although many of them had grown up in orthodox families, they did not have this same close affinity with their Judaism that they witnessed in their wives.

We began by studying the traditional obligations that a father has to his children. This was not only a study of the understanding of what it means to be a parent: it also gave us the opportunity to begin the important process of developing a sense of trust in the group. During the life of the group, topics have ranged from Talmud study, to the relationship we as men have with our children and our relationship as children to our own parents. We have shared our own experiences of what it means to be an "Australian man" and what we believe it means to be male Jews living in our society. We have discussed and shared our personal experiences with death and suicide. We have even discussed the purpose and value of our existence as a group, as we have been praised as much as we have been ridiculed. "Unlike the women's movement, which is largely outwardly directed, aiming at changing laws, societal structures, and people's way of thinking, the men's movement is inwardly directed." "The men's movement involves men gathering in large groups and small to consider what it means to be a man today." A Jewish men's group attempts to consider these questions from our tradition and common heritage. We come from all walks of life. We cover the socio-economic and educational scale. However, what we share is that we are all men and we are all Jews.

There are people who argue that there is no symmetry between women and men and so it is nonsense to have "men's groups" as women have women's groups. I have been told that since men have always been allowed access to Judaism that there is no need for an exclusively male group. However, my own experience with this group of ten to fifteen men leads me to disagree.

As a rabbi, I am often a witness to people trying to react in a way that they believe to be socially acceptable. I have seen men hold back the tears for fear of being viewed as weak. I have heard people after a funeral discussing how wonderful it is for a woman to release her emotions and how strong a man whose emotions do not seem to affect him. Australian literature, television and film are full of this message: real Australian men do not show their feelings. Exposing your "feminine side" is a sign of weakness.

One evening, I sat in the lounge room of a Brighton home as several men opened their hearts and were vulnerable in a group in which they felt safe. I watched as one member of the group leaned over to a particular man, put his arm around his shoulde

These observations are not simply my own. As I prepared to write this article, I contacted men involved with various men's groups around the world. A men's-only group, I was told, enables the men to feel secure and exchange ideas and feelings freely.

Men behave differently in mixed groups. Educational studies have been done on children showing that boys learn better in co-educational settings; however, almost no research has been done on the implications of single-sex groups on adult learning.

Is a men's movement within Judaism a backlash against women? No, but it is an attempt to use a successful model that women created. Men have witnessed the friendship and support that the women's movement within Judaism and our society have offered and they have said that we want this for ourselves, too. We don't want to work against the women's movement. We want to gain from their experience.

The influential American feminist, Gloria Steinem, wrote an introduction to a book of women's reflections on the men's movement. She said: "Make no mistake about it. Women want a men's movement. We are literally dying for it. If you doubt that, just listen to women's desperate testimonies of hope that the men in our lives will become more nurturing towards children, more able to talk about emotions . . . and less repressive of their own human qualities that are called 'feminine' and thus suppressed by cultures in which men dominate." A Jewish men's movement may not be the only way to answer this need, but for the men who sit, share and study with me once a month, I know it is a start.

Brian Michelson is a rabbi at Temple Beth Israel, Melbourne. He is the coordinator of the men's group that meets under the auspices of the Victorian Union for Progressive Judaism. A version of this article first appeared in "Generation".

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