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How to Raise a Jewish Feminist Son in 12 Easy Steps

Parashat Tzav 5779, Delivered March 22, 2019

This week, we celebrated the holiday of Purim. And as we do each year, when examining the different characters, we try to cast them in contemporary garb. Some dress Vashti in a white pantsuit. Some cast Mordechai as Hamilton. Haman as… No need to go there. And Ahashuerus as a sitcom dad: Homer Simpson or Family Guy’s Peter Griffin.

As our Midrash puts it: “Ahashuerus is… an unstable, foolish ruler. He sacrificed his wife Vashti to his friend Haman, and later on against his friend Haman to his wife Esther. Folly possessed him, too, when he arranged extravagant festivities for guests from afar, before he had won, by means of kindly treatment, the friendship of his surroundings, of the inhabitants of his capital,” (Ginsberg, The Legends of the Jews, 1138).

Ahashuerus is an unstable and foolish man, who gives ridiculous proclamations, to which his subjects match him with mockery. When looking at the Book of Esther each character leaves something to be desired. We wish Mordechai less self-righteous; Esther more direct. And I wish Ahashuerus was more of a man, less of a child. Because, as a man living in and raising a boy in a #MeToo world, I am tired of only encountering two primary models of masculinity, both of which I find toxic. There is the Haman-like perpetrator of evil, and there is the Ahashuerus-like bumbling leader, whose power is limited by his own ineptitude. Like the mother in My Big Fat Greek Wedding tells about her husband, “He may think he’s the head of the house, but I’m the neck. I turn the head where it needs to go.” Our culture today does not have a strong enough voice in what it means to be a capable man in a family, in a community, in society today.

Maybe it isn’t time yet for a call for positive masculinity. After all, we are regularly still learning about gross sexual impropriety on the part of male leaders. Yesterday, the New York Times published a piece in which several women accused Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt of a pattern of sexual harassment. Steinhardt’s impact on the Jewish community has been profound. If you, your children, or your grandchildren have gone to Israel on a Birthright trip, you have benefitted from Steinhardt’s giving. He’s also been one of the major donors to make Hillel International what it is today.

This is not the first accusation against Steinhardt. This past September, the Jewish Week also ran a piece about other women who had experienced similar behavior on his part. Reading these reports about Steinhardt struck close to home; I personally know three of the women who have come forward. In the #MeToo world we have to opperate under the presumption of belief. Like the motto If you see something, say something; if you hear something, you should believe that something.

We should not lose sight that this article was published on Purim, a holiday that celebrates a woman who spoke out to save her community. Jewish women in positions of leadership have stepped forward here to name behavior that is anathema to our values as a community. I admire their bravery, and believe that what they are doing is righteous.

Conversely, the reaction of several male leaders in our community is deplorable. About Steinhardt, Abe Foxman–the former chief of the ADL said, “Michael is very passionate, and he is passionate in everything, call it a passion, call it an obsession, call it a perversion. Some may. I don’t… It’s just the way it comes out, which may disturb people.” Foxman’s remarks track with the statement from Steinhardt’s foundation, who claimed that he is an equal opportunity offender. That his crassness is shared equally between men and women, as if that kashers his behavior.

Moreover, consider Patriot’s owner Robert Kraft, who is another generous member of our American Jewish community. Shortly after the Patriot’s Super Bowl win, prosecutors charged Kraft for solicitation.

Rightfully so, many have distanced themselves from Kraft. But not the Genesis Prize Foundation. This past January, they named Kraft the 2019 Genesis Prize Laureate, a prize which is dubbed the Jewish Nobel. As the Jewish community learned about the charge against Kraft, the Genesis Prize has stood by Kraft. They have also withdrawn from a coalition of Jewish organizations that has come together to work on ethics in response to #MeToo. Some members of the Genesis board have resigned over the organization’s decision to stand by him. Yet, the foundation’s statement after the charges was that they would be honoring Kraft for his impact in combating anti-Semitism and for being a close friend of Israel, making no mention of the criminal charge against him. These Jewish leaders see what we see, and say nothing.

The news of the improprieties (to put it nicely) of these two Jewish men portrays them as perpetrators. In this year’s Purim schpiel, Steinhardt and Kraft play the role of Haman; we should be slow to change that. Likewise, men like Abe Foxman and the silent, mostly-male board of the Genesis Prize pushes the archetype of the bumbling accomplice. Both fail in offering us models of how to actually lead in the world today. And so, when I think about the boy that I’m trying to raise to love his boyhood, who can I point to? The men in Esther’s world won’t do. Ahashuerus is too comical; Mordechai too moralistic for me.

Instead, I want to offer a 12 step theory about how to raise a feminist son. These were steps laid out by Claire Cain Miller, who writes about families for the Times. She writes that “We raise our girls to fight stereotypes and pursue their dreams, but we don’t do the same for our boys… Even as we’ve given girls more choices for the roles they play, boys’ worlds are still confined…. They’re discouraged from having interests that are considered feminine. They’re told to be tough at all costs, or else to tamp down their so-called boy energy.”

What can we do for boys today to raise them with good values, knowing what we know about the world in which they live? Here is what Miller suggests:

  1. Let the boy cry.

  2. Give him role models.

  3. Let him be himself.

  4. Teach him to take care of himself.

  5. Teach him to take care of others.

  6. Share the housework with your partner, especially when it busts stereotypes he will encounter.

  7. Encourage friendships with girls.

  8. Teach him that ‘No’ means ‘No.’

  9. Speak up when others are intolerant.

  10. Never use ‘girl’ as an insult.

  11. Read a lot about girls and boys.

  12. Celebrate boyhood.

Toxic masculinity has been with us for a long time. It is embedded within our tradition, but it is not our destiny. Paraphrasing Betty Friedan when she reflected on the success of The Feminine Mystique, if the feminist enterprise is to be a success then we need to not only think about how to elevate women into positions of leadership and to strive for pay equity; we also need to think about how we make space for those strong women to stand side-by-side with strong men. Gloria Steinem once said, “I’m glad we’ve begun to raise our daughters more like our sons, but it will never work until we raise our sons more like our daughters.”

Today we work to read Esther and Vashti as models for all Jews today. In both reading the Megillah and reading the news this week, I encountered only archetypes of masculinity that I would rather leave on the shelf. If #MeToo is to be a success, we need our boys to be a part of the solution. For that to happen, we need to give thought to who we want them to be, what models we want to offer up for them, just as much as we are considering that for our daughters.

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