Harvey Weinstein. Al Franken. Anthony Weiner. Jewish men behaving badly. Is there something in the history or liturgy of Judaism that can explain such conduct, or help Jewish men avoid such misbehavior and act more like mensches?
Those were among the questions at the core of “Who Is a Man?” a discussion group that was one of more than two dozen subjects explored this past weekend during the 18th annual Feast of Jewish Learning, a free night of learning and community at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.
David Waksberg, chief executive of S.F.-based Jewish LearningWorks, noted that about 500 people attended the event, which also included sessions on subjects ranging from Tu B’Shevat to the ethical boundaries of artificial intelligence research to a discussion about “Israel and Palestine on California Campuses.”
Jewish LearningWorks was one of the presenters of the three-hour program, along with SPARE (South Peninsula Area Rabbis and Executives), Lehrhaus Judaica, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and J. The busy night concluded with an after-party featuring beer, soft drinks, kosher snacks and conversation.
Rabbi Chaim Koritzinsky of Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto opened the “Who Is a Man?” session by saying his inspiration for the discussion came after then-candidate Donald Trump described his lewd taped comments about women as “locker-room banter.”
“I want to create more spaces for synagogue talk for men,” said Koritzinsky, who recently led a similar discussion at an Etz Chayim men’s retreat.
Sixteen males — ranging from a teenager to senior citizens — attended the men-only session, including two rabbis besides Koritzinsky. They agreed to allow a reporter to observe the session as long as none of their names were used in this article (other than Koritzinsky and co-leader Mo Fisch, a Jewish educator).
Koritzinsky went around the room and had each attendee, in these days of #MeToo and nearly daily accusations of sexual abuse and harassment, explain why he was there.
I want to create more spaces for synagogue talk for men.
“I’m here because of Harvey Weinstein. How could you be Jewish and do that?” one asked. Another said: “Men are getting the short end of the stick these days.”
Others spoke of a safe space for “man talk,” or of learning how to model good behavior for their sons. One asked whether Jewish men were worse than others.
Koritzinsky chose biblical passages, such as Psalms 34:15 — “Shun evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it” — that focus on the responsibilities of men. One group member said Jewish texts promote a man’s good relationship with his mother as an essential trait, and said that provides a solid example to follow in modern times.
But several of the seminar attendees pointed out that Judaism’s forefathers, some of whom had multiple wives or treated their wives as property, were not good role models. As one participant said, “There’s very little in our society we can learn from these guys.”
Another added: “I think there’s something seriously deficient in the Torah. Ninety-five percent of the time we only have the man’s perspective. For only men to talk about this is deeply incomplete. We have women’s voices only in special cases.”
“The critical thing is to hear women’s voices,” another attendee agreed. “Unfortunately, in the Torah, that scarcely ever happens.”
Fisch, a Jewish studies teacher at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto, said after the session that he “noticed there was some disgust in terms of the negative models.”
“It is OK to be a good man and not do what our ancestors had done and maybe create new narratives,” he said.
Over the course of one hour, the group debated whether putting responsibility for a good relationship on men is disempowering to women, and on whether genetics or environment is to blame for role modeling that often assigns Jewish women to the kitchen instead of to engineering jobs.
Koritzinsky passed out a sheet on which each attendee was asked to choose a woman he interacts with on a regular basis and describe their relationship — and then examine how he would want that relationship to change, and what actions or behaviors could help in that evolution.
“I wanted to create a safe space for men to reflect, to share and to hopefully leave taking action in terms of how do we want to act in the world as men and to use Jewish texts as an entry point,” Koritzinsky said, adding that the next step would be to include women in the discussion as well.