We boys did not know how to comfort other boys, an example of a culture of male toughness, silence, and violence.
I still have a vivid memory from high school of a PE class where a guy got the wind knocked out of him. He fell to floor pretty hard and hit his head; he lay there having trouble breathing and holding his head. When he regained his breath, he gasped loudly and then started to cry. Not just cry but sob. I remember being shocked at his reaction and not really knowing what to do. Several girls in the class went over and sat down by him and calmed him and talked with him. The son of the wrestling coach who was in the class, a senior, said to him, “That’s ok, tears are just weakness leaving the body.”
I froze at that moment, as did most of the guys. Unlike the girls who offered presence and empathy, we boys didn't go to his aid, except for the coach’s son who tried to comfort the injured boy about his “masculine status.” He affirmed for him that crying is ok “because it is just weakness leaving the body.” Don’t worry about crying, next time you’ll be tougher, and by extension, more masculine. We boys did not know how to comfort other boys, which is just an example of how men pass down normative notions of masculinities that enforce a culture of male toughness, silence, and violence.
In the Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 5: 63a, we encounter two stories about the amount of time that it is acceptable and preferred that a man leave his wife and go off to study Torah in yeshiva. The first story is of Rabbi Akiva who lived from 50 CE–137 CE in the land of Israel. It relates that he gets married and then departs for 12 years to study, but ends up being gone for 24 years. The rabbis present Akiva as a man who they perceived as extremely righteous, so much so that he acquires 24,000 students and becomes very wealthy. He is held up as an ideal.
This story is immediately followed by another story:
“Rav Yosef, son of Rava, was sent by his father to the study hall to learn. They agreed that he should sit for six years in the study hall. When three had passed, the eve of Yom Kippur arrived and Rav Yosef said, “I will go see the members of my household (meaning my wife).” His father heard and took a weapon, as if he were going to war, and went to meet him. He said to him, “Did you remember your mistress?!”
There is a lot that could be discussed in these texts, but because it is Father’s Day, I want to focus on the ways in which masculinity is being passed on and enforced in the text. The first important thing to note is that Rav Yosef lived from 280–352 CE, roughly 150 years later than Akiva and in Babylon. By that time we already can see that Rava’s son (Rava being one of the most cited scholars of the Babylonian Talmud) is only going to study for six years, not twelve like Rabbi Akiva. After only three “short” years, Rav Yosef decides to return home to be with his wife, if even only for one night, and yet his father is incensed. He is so angry, in fact, that he arms himself. We can almost hear Rava saying, “Look at my weak son! I am going to kill him! Already I compromised and gave him six years and he can’t even go three! What a weakling! A real man can abstain from his wife for twelve years and dedicate his life to Torah. Look how far we have fallen from that generation.”
Like today, the Rabbis of blessed memory had their conceptions of what a proper man should be and do. Masculinity then as now is a socially constructed concept. In fact, academic language today around masculinity and femininity speaks of “masculinities and femininities,” because different cultural contexts highlight that different cultures have varying social constructions of these ideas. For example, within the Jewish community alone today we have multiple conceptions of an ideal man; there is the nice Jewish boy who will grow up to be a doctor or a lawyer, we have the yeshivah scholar, and we have the Israeli “new Jewish man,” who works the land just as well as he fights in the army. All of this proves that masculinity is a social concept, and that what makes one a man in society's eyes is whether or not one can perform and live up to the social standard. Often, this is damaging. Many men and boys who can’t or don’t meet these standards are thus considered weak and effeminate. When we project these expectations onto our sons, or subtly reinforce them, we do damage to them and to our society. Damage to them by telling them that they aren’t good or masculine enough, and damage to society by teaching that in order to be masculine, they have to not be effeminate or like women, implying that emotions stereotypically associated with femininity are bad and not manly.
There are, however, other pictures of a healthier father–son relationships in Jewish tradition and healthier ways of demonstrating what a man can be. I will share just one example. There is a story of the famous hasidic rebbe, Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer, more commonly known as the Baal Shem Tov or Besht, who lived from 1700–1760 in the Ukraine. The very short story is as follows: “A Hasid came to the Besht and burst into bitter tears. “Rebbe, Rebbe, what am I to do? My own son has strayed from the path of true righteousness!” The Besht blessed the Hasid and said, “Love him…” With a heavy sigh, the Hasid insisted, “Oh Rebbe, he has already fallen so low!” To which the Besht replied, “Then love him even more.”
This story provides us with several lessons about healthy masculinity. The first is that when the Hasid opened up to the Rebbe, the Besht didn’t tell him to toughen up and stop crying. Instead, he listened and he blessed the man. He was able to join with him in his emotional state and share in his sadness and despair. He is also extremely wise in his advice. His advice does not affirm the father’s conception of his son’s wickedness; rather, it is for the father to love his son as he is. When the father is insistent that it is too late, the Besht too doubles down and says, no, you need to give twice the love. We have to love our children as they are, and that means letting our boys express their emotions and cry, and we have to join with them, not tell them to toughen up. We have to teach that love and recognition of people for who they are is the proper way to be in relationship.
My hope for this Father’s Day is that we can as fathers love the other men and boys in our lives for who they are, and that we can teach our sons that love isn’t weak. In our day it seems much easier to hate than it does to love. It takes strength to love, and love is strong.