Is Men’s Spirituality Unique?

Sermon delivered February 29, 2008, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

How do you know we’ve reached the 21st Century? I’m offering a sermon on men’s spirituality tonight.

In pre-modern times, such a subject would be superfluous. Leaving aside the fact that the word “spirituality” was not part of the lingo, Jewish religious activity was almost exclusively a male affair in ancient and medieval times. To be sure, women had their roles, and their Jewish activities were critical to Jewish continuity. Nevertheless, what we would call “spirituality” was, in our tradition as in most others, created for all practical purposes by men for men.

Throughout most of Jewish history, men have been viewed as more “spiritual,” while women have been seen representing the physical side of life. We’ve all heard the stereotype of the woman who worked in the public sphere to support her family, so that her husband could spend his time studying Torah. Even if that particular model may be overstated, women have traditionally been seen more deeply connected with physicality, beginning with biological functions associated with child-bearing. Even sex was generally viewed as spiritual for men, physical for women.

Men, not women, would be found in the synagogue. While the modern Orthodox synagogue, retaining separation of men and women for worship, may feature a women’s section that is equal in size and almost equivalent in proximity to the bimah, older synagogues offer much smaller, more remote women’s galleries. Yes, women wrote poems for private prayer, techinot, which have rightfully received more attention in modern scholarship. However, in public, worship and study were masculine pursuits.

The idea that men were spiritual, and not physical, went well beyond the synagogue and study hall. To this day, when I shake hands with an ultra-Orthodox male, I almost always note that I’m not offered the firm grip that my grandmothers taught me so emphatically. The weak handshake is deliberate, meant to convey the notion that, for Jews, masculine power is communicated spiritually and intellectually, not physically.

That dichotomy goes all the way back to the Book of Genesis, to our ancestor Jacob and his twin brother, Esau. Esau is depicted as a hairy hunter. Jacob, on the other hand, is studious, hairless, and stays inside. Jacob becomes Israel, the progenitor of the Jews. Esau, on the other hand, embodies the gentile ideal of masculinity.

Now, I told you that tonight’s sermon would only be offered in the 21st Century, and I meant that literally. This subject would not have come up even a few short years ago, in the 20th Century. Then, three profound changes focused attention elsewhere. Let me address them chronologically.

First, beginning even before the 20th Century, modern Jewish women in advanced societies began to seek spirituality for themselves. One of the earliest motivations for reforming Judaism was that Jewish women were increasingly pursuing and finding spiritual fulfillment outside the synagogue. In Churches, Jewish women saw that they could be fully involved in public prayer, alongside men. Women of wealth and higher social status in Central and Western Europe particularly had access to Christian Churches. One of the first reforms, marking the beginning of Reform Judaism in Europe, was called the “family pew,” where women and men could sit together in services.

To be sure, men were not pushed aside by this innovation. However, in non-Orthodox Judaism, public spirituality would no longer be exclusively for men.

The second 20th Century phenomenon to impact significantly on men’s spirituality was Zionism. A significant part of the ideology of modern Zionism, and particularly of the intellectual father of labor Zionism, A.D. Gordon, was that the Diaspora had led to an unhealthy physical condition. Jews in Europe were forbidden to own or work the land. Pushed into trades or commerce, Jews were not engaged in the physical activities of agriculture or of military defense.

The return to Zion created a new image of Jewish men. The ideal of Jacob, physically weak, staying indoors and studying, was strongly rejected, in favor of the model of the strong male, working the land and defending it with military might. These Zionists rejected spirituality altogether, as they believed it to be deleterious to the health of the people and their nation.

The third development, of course, is feminism. Feminism is nothing other than the analysis that the world as we know it was previously shaped and defined primarily by men for men, and the conviction that our shared future ought to be shaped and defined by women and men for all of us. Who could disagree? As a result, women increasingly began to take leadership positions in synagogues, as lay leaders and eventually as Rabbis. The women’s movement focused on a gender-based spirituality, understandably seeking to find meaning in a tradition that too often had been closed to them. In early stages, at least, and arguably we’re not entirely out of that early stage, at least some of those spiritual moments would need to be for women only.

None of that is bad, of course. However, unintended consequences have resulted. In many synagogues, but not at Temple Beth-El, the worshiping congregation includes many more women than men. Also not an issue here, but particularly in suburban areas, men eschew Board leadership roles, leaving the management of synagogues to women. Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion receives far more applications from women than from men, particularly for the Cantorate and for professions in Jewish Education, but also for the Rabbinate. Jewish camps and youth groups tend to have unbalanced participation, with girls outnumbering boys, sometimes significantly.

Why would women’s participation push men away? That question is tough to answer, particularly for me, because we don’t have such a problem here. I do have one thought: Women have had to get used to breaking into largely male-dominated arenas. However, men have no such experience. If an activity is dominated by women, men probably don’t know what to do, how we can break in there, whether we will be welcome.

One area that has been affected at Temple Beth-El is Kol Simcha, our volunteer choir. Michael Malinas is passionate, but so far not as successful as he would like to be, about attracting more men to sing publicly at Temple. Of course, there is irony in my mentioning this phenomenon tonight, when we have been led so magnificently by a choir of exclusively male singers!

On the other hand, some stereotypes are turned on their heads at our congregation. We have a wonderful Sisterhood. Doubtless, it includes many members who are great cooks. They bake great kugel for Sisterhood Interfaith Shabbat and terrific chocolate sweets for Sisterhood Shabbat. And yet, if a meal is being prepared in our Temple kitchen, it’s much more likely to be prepared by Brotherhood. Temple Beth-El enjoys plenty of talented men in the kitchen, and, as you can see tonight, on the bimah.

So, what’s new in the 21st Century?

Jewish men today tend to be more comfortable with their masculinity. We feel less forced to negate our spiritual selves in order to be “real men.” We can work at our careers, outdoors or indoors, with or without a physical component, and still feel safe in our own male skin. We can sing at the Temple or cook at home, or vice versa, without wondering if we will be considered real men. Significantly, too, heterosexual and homosexual men are eager to work together toward common ethical, spiritual, social, and intellectual goals, without anybody’s masculinity being threatened. We have entered a post-modern age in which physicality and spirituality are more easily merged.

This weekend is perhaps a perfect example of the integration possible in Jewish men’s spirituality in the 21st Century. Tonight, our Brotherhood stands before us, leading us in prayer and song. On Sunday, this same Brotherhood will build a house as part of an interfaith Habitat for Humanity project. I note that folks from Congregation Rodfei Sholom will also be involved on Sunday, indicating that today’s Orthodox Jews also value physical means to achieve a spiritual goal.

May we ever engage our bodies, the physical gift that God has given us; with our spirits, the souls that God has breathed into us, to achieve a unique Jewish spirituality for each individual, as God created us, male and female.