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Will the Men be Alright?

Rabbi David Segal

Ki Tisa | March 10, 2009

Congregation Emanu El

When I decided to go to law school two years ago, I didn’t realize I would be in a minority. I’m not talking about being Jewish—I knew I’d be in a minority there. I’m not talking about being one of the few over 40 in a class with a median age of 25—I knew that came with the territory. And I was pretty sure I’d be the only rabbi in the class.

The minority I hadn’t thought about joining was men. The University of Houston Law Center is just under 57% women, and just over 43% men. This tracks with a national (and international) trend in higher education. In the last 50 years, as women began entering higher education in greater numbers, the gender gap not only closed but in many contexts even reversed. Women earn 3/5ths of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and they are a majority of medical and law students. Their numbers are growing in STEM fields and business schools.

This is a feminist success story. Investing in girls’ education and women’s empowerment has yielded a generational shift in women’s progress.

Of course, education is only part of the story. The #MeToo Movement revealed and began to address harassment and discrimination in the workplace, and no one would suggest that the work is done. There’s still a gender pay gap, with women making less than men to the tune of $0.82 on the dollar. During the COVID pandemic, more women left the labor market than men, in part because women still take on a disproportionate share of childcare responsibilities, made worse by the persistent lack of affordable childcare services. Women still face inequities in business: although they outnumber and outperform men in school, they’re still underrepresented in the board room and executive suite.

At the same time, by many measures, men are struggling. In his 2022 book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why it Matters, and What to do About It, Richard Reeves shares stats and stories about the challenges boys and men are facing.

Although it’s good news that the gender pay gap has narrowed, some of the reasons are bad news for men: adjusted for inflation, men’s real wages have not grown in 50 years. The number of men leaving the work force is steadily increasing, partly because globalization and automation have hit traditionally male blue-collar jobs hardest.

In men’s health, more bad news. During the first 18 months of the COVID pandemic, for every 100 middle-aged women who died of COVID, 184 middle-aged men died—nearly double. And when it comes to “deaths of despair”—a collective term for suicides and drug overdoses—almost 3/4ths are men. All these numbers are worse for poor men, and men of color.

Five years ago, the writer and actor Michael Ian Black worried about a link between boys and violent crime. Writing after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school shooting in Florida that killed 17 people, he wondered why it was so often boys pulling the trigger. He suggested that troubled boys have no outlet for processing their issues or sharing their struggles. Sensitivity to emotions and asking for help are still considered emasculating in our culture.

I know a little something about what he means. As a boy growing up in the 1980s and 90s, I wasn’t what you would call a guy’s guy. After a decent career in little league baseball, I shifted in middle school from sports to music. Piano and choir took up much of my after-school time. Although I did not, thankfully, experience any memorable bullying, the hierarchy of football jocks over choir nerds was a felt reality. The movie High School Musical was a little after my time, but it captured the feeling: the central conflict of the story is the protagonist’s forced choice between being a basketball stud or a musical theater star. Being a Disney musical, it deals in hyperbole, but there’s a kernel of truth in the notion that boys are told they have to be one thing, and not another.

Boys and men are under pressure from structural forces and many are struggling to cope, not knowing what it means to be a man, or even how to be themselves.

* * *

The Torah portion this week is a story of men struggling under pressure. In Ki Tisa, in the book of Exodus, we find Moses and Aaron confronting challenges they don’t seem fully equipped to face.

Moses leaves the people for 40 days and nights to commune with God on the mountaintop. There he receives the stone tablets, inscribed by the very hand of God. Why it took 40 days, we aren’t told. Neither were the Israelites, and they can’t cope with the absence of their leader for that long. So they gather against Aaron and demand “a god”—they need a leader, they say, to replace Moses and go before them.

And what does Aaron do? Stand on principle and call the people to keep the faith that Moses will return? No. He gives in right away. “Go get your wives’ gold jewelry,” he tells the men, “and bring it to me.” Then he casts it into a mold and fashions a golden calf, leading the people gravely astray.

When Moses confronts Aaron about his role in the crisis, Aaron denies responsibility. These people made me do it, he says. I threw their gold in the fire and “out came this calf!” (Exod. 32:24).

Aaron would like to avoid blame, but the people were out of control because Aaron let them get out of control. The verb פ.ר.ע. highlights Aaron’s failure (Exod. 32:25, faru’a and f’ra’oh). In another form, it means “to lead” and even shares a root with Pharaoh. But here it means “to let loose” or “cause to show lack of restraint”—the opposite of leadership.

As for Moses, he’s not exactly a shining example of leadership either. When he comes down the mountain with the tablets and sees the golden calf and the people dancing around it, he loses control. In a fit of rage, he hurls the tablets to the ground and shatters them. Then he burns the golden calf, grinds it into powder, and makes the Israelites drink it in their water.

But he’s not done raging. Next he rallies the Levites to his cause, commanding them to race through the Israelite camp slaying sibling, neighbor, and kin. This is Moses’s plan to get the people under control—a killing spree. Although he claims God commanded it, no such command appears in the text.

Both Aaron and Moses are cautionary tales. As Michael Ian Black wrote, “The man who feels lost but wishes to preserve his fully masculine self has only two choices: withdrawal or rage.” Aaron withdraws; Moses rages. Both have disastrous consequences for the people around them.

* * *

For many boys and men today, social and structural changes are causing a similar crisis of withdrawal and rage. Richard Reeves proposes three solutions.

First, to address the educational achievement gap, redshirt the boys. In other words, hold boys back a year relative to girls, to give their slower-developing prefrontal cortexes time to catch up. Reeves admits this idea treads on political thin ice, because the Left tends to downplay biological differences between boys and girls, while the Right tends to downplay everything but biological differences. The science is still emerging, and we should be open to exploring it.

Second, to address the work force issues, get more men into so-called “pink collar” jobs. Just as efforts to recruit more girls and women into STEM fields are working, we need corollary efforts to recruit men into health care, education, administration, and the like. Public funding is a challenge, but so is stereotyping. In Gloria Steinem’s recent book, The Truth Will Set You Free, But First it Will Piss You Off, she wrote:

Women are always saying, “We can do anything that men can do.” But men are not saying, “We can do anything that women can do.” (Quoted at Reeves, 151)

When you picture a nurse, a secretary, or a teacher, whom do you see? For some of us, our preconceived notions need to change.

Third, equalize childcare. Expand family leave for all parents. Encourage and enable fathers to take on a symmetrical role in raising kids. Employers will have to be more accommodating, and fathers will have to be more proactive. Reeves sees “asynchronous symmetry” as the goal, because the balance of child rearing responsibilities at any given stage of family life may not be equal, but it should equalize over time. As he explains, “Just because moms are better at breastfeeding a 3-month-old does not mean they are better at making dentist appointments for a 13-year-old” (Reeves, 176). (And through the miracle of pumping and bottle technology, dads can nurse babies too.)

There’s definitely no one size fits all. For example, although I’m happy to do most of the cooking in our household, I have a severe mental block against planning the meals for the week. Just give me a shopping list and tell me what to make!

Every family will juggle this differently. The point is, it needs to be a cooperative, intentional process. (It's important to acknowledge that much of this discussion slants heteronormative. But LGBTQ people and families have a lot to teach the rest of us about making intentional choices about identity and family balance.)

I’m not a social scientist, so I can’t say how well these three proposed solutions will work. But at least it’s a serious attempt to name the problem and address it. What I am fairly sure about is that underlying every policy proposal is the need to end stigma against boys and men who are figuring ourselves out and not conforming to outmoded expectations.

What gives me hope is what I see among many men I know: embracing fatherhood as caring and presence, not just breadwinning; intentionally if imperfectly juggling work and childcare with a partner; sidestepping inherited orthodoxies about gender roles. What gives me hope is the next generation, already growing up with a more expansive universe of assumptions about what men can be and do—not to mention a more fluid sense of gender itself.

* * *

What gives me hope, too, is that even Aaron and Moses showed signs of being a different kind of man.

Some commentators are kinder to Aaron than I was before. They think Aaron did the best he could in an impossible situation. If he had resisted the people’s call to build them a god, they might have killed him and done it anyway. So he made a calculated choice to try to appease the people long enough for Moses to return (Rashi on Exod. 32:2; Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 45:4). When he saw the people worship the golden calf, he declared “a festival of ADONAI” (Exod. 32:5)—a faithful attempt to keep the people’s worship directed to God, not the calf (Chizkuni on Exod. 32:5; Or HaChaim on Exod. 32:5; Rashi on Exod. 32:5).

So too for Moses. When he broke the tablets at the sight of the calf, the midrash says he acted not out of rage, but care. He knew what was written on those tablets—thou shalt make no graven images!—and worried about how harshly God would judge the people (Midrash Tanchuma, Eikev 11:1; Rashi on Exod. 32:19). He cast the tablets aside like a concerned attorney ripping up a damaging contract before it could be signed, to protect his client from liability.

Moses also showed compassion for his people when God reacted to the golden calf by announcing a plan to annihilate the people for what they did. “Let not your anger blaze forth against your people,” (Exod. 32:11) Moses pleads with God. Here is a man whose care moved even God to renounce rage. Where was this Moses when his own rage blazed forth against his people?

Maybe these two men were backed into a corner, lost control, and responded with withdrawal or rage. Or maybe they were struggling leaders who acted as best they could out of faith and care.

Probably we all have these possibilities within us. To show up as our best, we have to make choices—but good choices require support. That’s something feminism has always understood: For women to make their own choices about career, family, and self, they need support—from family, community, public policy.

It shouldn’t surprise us that men need that support, too. When Judith Plaskow published her foundational work of Jewish feminism, Standing Again at Sinai, she dedicated it to her son, Alexander. The dedication page bears a quote that feminist theorist and poet Adrienne Rich wrote in 1976:

What do we want for our sons? . . . We want them . . . to discover new ways of being men even as we are discovering new ways of being women.

This hope, this promise, remains unfulfilled almost 50 years later. May we live to see it fulfilled, may we work to fulfill it, for the sake of our sons and daughters, and the men and women they will become.

Shabbat Shalom.

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