Most of Jewish literature is an internal conversation by men and for men. While this approach often leads to problematic outcomes - without women’s voices as a moderating influence chauvinism, sexism, and discrimination have crept their way into our tradition - there are sometimes benefits to this type of discourse.
I’ve been a part of powerful male spaces. These include my camp bunks, team locker rooms, and even therapy groups. When these spaces work well, men open up in a way they usually keep hidden. They remove their armor, exposing their vulnerabilities. These conversations open up a dialogue on a fundamental question that is most productively asked among peers: what does it mean to be a man in this world and what does it mean to be “masculine.”
From very early on, Judaism has been asking this same question.
The Talmud tells the story of two rabbis who could not be more different. One, whose name is Reish Lakish, is the quintessential Roman soldier. Embodying traditional notions of masculinity, one might imagine him tall, strong, tan, and handsome. Dressed in armor he would walk proudly, ready to defend his ideals with violence. The other rabbi, whose name was Yochanan was Reish Lakish’s foil. He had long hair, delicate shoulders, and a sweet demeanor. He was a man who was not afraid to cry, who valued time alone, and loved deep and personal friendships.
The two rabbis meet over a misunderstanding:
One day, Rabbi Yoḥanan was bathing in the Jordan River. Reish Lakish saw him and jumped into the Jordan, pursuing him [thinking he was a woman. At that time, Reish Lakish was the leader of a band of marauders]. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to Reish Lakish: Your strength is fit for Torah study. Reish Lakish said to him: Your beauty is fit for women. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: If you return to the pursuit of Torah, I will give you my sister in marriage, who is more beautiful than I am. Reish Lakish accepted upon himself to study Torah. Subsequently, Reish Lakish wanted to jump back out of the river to bring back his clothes, but he was unable to return, [as he had lost his physical strength as soon as he accepted the responsibility to study Torah upon himself]. (Bava Metzia 84a)
What is amazing about this text is how subversive it is. The hero of the story is not Reish Lakish with his rippling muscles and gruff demeanor. It’s is the soft, delicate Yochanan. The story involves a “manly-man” rejecting ingrained notions of masculinity, laying down his weapons and choosing learning and friendship over power and domination.
Their story is just one example of how Jewish texts subverted traditional notions of maleness. As one of my favorite scholars, Daniel Boyarin writes:
Where Roman culture despised the submissive male, both early Christian and early Jewish cultures valorized him. Both early rabbinic Jews and early Christians performed resistance to the Roman imperial power-structure through "gender-bending," thereby marking their own understanding that gender itself is implicated in the maintenance of political power. (From Homotopia: the feminized Jewish man and the lives of women in late antiquity).
In essence, the Jewish people couldn’t be more “manly” than their Roman neighbors. Their enemy had cornered the market on power, might, and violence. Knowing they could not compete, the Jews rewrote the book on masculinity, redefining it. Jews would no longer dream of growing up to be Reish Lakish. Instead they would aspire to be Yochanan.
This redefined ethos found it’s way into the way our rabbis read the opening of one of the most troubling sections in our Torah, found in this week’s portion, Parashat Naso. This week we read about the Sotah. The specifics of the ritual are outside the scope of this essay, but in short, if a husband suspects his wife of going astray and committing adultery and she denies his accusation, she can clear her name by drinking a concoction containing water, a bit of earth, and a dissolved parchment with God’s name. If her belly distends she is guilty and punished. If nothing happens, she is cleared of these charges and returns home.
However, not every man is eligible to make this accusation. The saga begins with an overture:
Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: If any man’s wife has gone astray and broken faith with him in that a man has had carnal relations with her unbeknownst to her husband, and she keeps secret the fact that she has defiled herself without being forced, and there is no witness against her—but a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself; or if a fit of jealousy comes over one and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself—the man shall bring his wife to the priest. (Numbers 5:2-5)
Contained in this passage is a grammatical oddity. While most translations begin with the words “if any man’s wife…” that’s actually not what the Hebrew says. The word ish (man) is doubled. Read hyper-literally “any man” actually says “when a man-man’s wife…”
As they they often did, our Rabbis understood man-man as an opportunity to explore definitions of “masculinity.” They read it as “when a man, who acts like a man, suspects is wife of going astray…” Using this grammatical oddity as a jumping off point, they present numerous definitions of who this "man" is:
While some of these definitions fall into the traditional “Roman” definition of masculinity, i.e. a strong man who refuses to be cuckolded and has the authority to drag his wife before a priest, there are numerous other interpretations that break the mold and challenge our understanding of how one might act like a man:
In the Zohar, being a “man who acts like a man” means being pure and faithful. Seeing inspiration from the proverb “Drink water from your own cistern, flowing waters from your well” (Prov 5:15) our Rabbi understood that only someone who was faithful to his wife and who did not seek out other woman would be an acceptable voice to bring this charge against his wife. Hypocrisy would not be tolerated (Zohar Naso 3:124a)
Another teaching sees a “manly man” as having temperance and self control. As the Talmud teaches:
Meir would say: Just as there are different attitudes with regard to food, so too, there are different attitudes with regard to women. With regard to food, you have a person who, when a fly falls into his cup, he throws out the wine with the fly and does not drink it. And this is comparable to the demeanor of Pappos ben Yehuda with regard to his wife, as he would lock the door before his wife and leave so that she would not see any other man. And you have a person who, when a fly falls into his cup, he throws out the fly and drinks the wine. And this is comparable to the demeanor of any common man, whose wife speaks with her neighbors and relatives, and he lets her do so. And you have a man who, when a fly falls into his serving bowl, he sucks the fly and eats the food. This is the demeanor of a bad man, who sees his wife going out into the street with her head uncovered, and spinning in the marketplace immodestly, and with her garment open from both sides, and bathing with men, and ignores it. (Talmud Gitin 90a, Numbers Rabbah 9:12)
Though this text remains problematic, seeing women as chattel and keeping the husband in control, it was still very progressive for its time. The Greek hero lets his passions control him. The side effect of his who of strength is anger, impatience, and jealousy. But a real man, teach our Rabbis, is someone who is neither overly jealous nor overly meak. He is loving and patient. He listens and trusts. A true man doesn’t have to be macho to be manly.
Though not every answer our Rabbis give about gender is a good one they have something to add to our discourse; they model the notion that though society may tell us one thing about being a man, together we can deconstruct existing beliefs about masculinity and redefine it for our age. If they had permission to do so, they so should we.