Teaching Masculinity in an Age of #MeToo

Yaron Schwartz, Joshua Ladon

If we were to take masculinity to a doctor, she would likely diagnose it in need of significant social-emotional support. When we look at how men act publicly, be it politicians, soldiers, actors or athletes, we consistently see an aggressive masculinity, indifferent towards emotion, unempathetic, concerned with expressing their dominance over women and other men. This masculinity needs healing. It exhibits symptoms of great distress and pain.

Over the last several years, the Shalom Hartman Institute High School for Boys in Jerusalem has developed a systematic whole-school approach to teaching positive masculinity that strives to enhance the social-emotional growth of the young men in attendance. As an Israeli Orthodox boys middle and high school, it has unique contextual characteristics. While American middle and high schools generally organize along individual student schedules, in which students switch classes every period, in Israeli schools, students spend the majority of time in a single class cohort with a mechanekh—home room educator—who teaches a significant number of their classes. This allows for a more sustained conversation of communal values and group cohesion. Additionally, dealing with masculinity in an Israeli religious setting is informed by the intertwined questions of Zionism, Judaism and machismo. That being said, the extensive nature of the program, rooted in a deep philosophy and pedagogy of teaching a diverse masculinity, is informative. We hope to share these ideas in service of broadening the possibility of teaching healthy masculinity within the Jewish community.

This project emerges from the notion that men and boys, not just women and those who identify as non-cisgendered, are affected negatively by the way masculinity plays out in our society. That is to say, male sexism affects men as well as women or trans individuals. We argue for the teaching of masculinity in service of enabling boys to develop a healthier sense of self, allowing for a fuller sense of one’s emotions. While this approach offers a way to teach a masculinity that challenges the dominant expectations for how men should act, it is first and foremost focused on the social-emotional growth of boys.

To teach a healthy masculinity, it is important to understand the contradictory societal expectations for boys. In his article “Real Boys: The Truths Behind the Myths,” psychologist William Pollack identifies three myths about boys: 1) Boys will be boys, 2) Boys should be boys, and 3) Boys are toxic. The first myth, boys will be boys, tends to focus on the ways boys’ behavior, especially their physicality, is outside of their control and the control of the adults in their lives. Rather, when boys wrestle, break a window or engage in risky behavior, it is excused with this aphorism. Pollack notes that this adage is not said when a boy runs crying to his parent or brings a present to his teacher. (Quotations below are from Pollack’s article.)

The notion of boys will be boys has its roots in ideas about the way testosterone contributes to a natural inclination towards physicality, something that is not supported by scientific evidence. For example, testosterone has been tied to boys’ capacity to concentrate during a chess match. In contrast, Pollack argues, that while boys may enjoy certain types of play (large group, hierarchy of rules), the problem with boys will be boys is that it “allows us to shrug off a boy’s behavior when it crosses the line from active to aggressive.”

The second myth, boys should be boys, assumes that boys should act in a way that is macho and dominant, that boys should not act like girls. “As soon as a boy behaves in a way that is not considered manly, that falls outside the ‘Boy Code,’ he is likely to meet resistance from society—he may merely be stared at or whispered about… humiliated… get a punch in the gut, or… just feel terribly ashamed.” Learning about this begins at a very young age. It begins when we tell little boys to be a big boy or not cry. Telling boys to be boys hardens boys, teaching them to disconnect their emotions from themselves.

Finally, the myth that boys are toxic emerges from the first two but amplifies inseverity. Boys will be boys sees “boys as prisoners of their biological makeup,” and boys should be boys confines them to “a gender straightjacket.” Given these first two, we also tend to see “something inherently dangerous and toxic about boys—that they are psychologically unaware, emotionally unsocialized creatures.” With the increase of mass shootings perpetrated by lonely white men, this idea has become even more ubiquitous. As a result, we forget that boys need to play and experiment. While there are times we say boys will be boys, letting them get away with problematic behavior, at other times, we see boys as toxic, reacting to “boys’ childish exploratory play” as though it was “adult predatory behavior… as though he is a full-fledged aggressor.”

A full response to these myths recognizes that boys can be empathetic, especially when they are nurtured lovingly: “The power of love can dispel the myth that, in boys, nature and nurture are at odds.” For parents and teachers, this is an especially important point. Boys can learn through their parents and mentors how to express empathy, love and care. In addition to strong mentorship, we can support boys’ development by cultivating the notion that there is a diversity to masculinity, there are many ways to be a boy. This allows boys to transcend the fear they have of breaking the boy code and express a vulnerability. Through a fuller sense of masculinity, boys will have a greater capacity to be empathetic with their peers and themselves. Finally, these myths can only be combated if there is recognition that growth takes time, requires making mistakes and figuring things out.

In developing a curriculum to respond to these notions of masculinity within a Jewish school, we propose several steps rooted in a Gender Responsive Pedagogy (GRP), which is a paradigm that encourages educational institutions to strive for justice and full social equality as a holistic reality. Male sexism plays out in the smallest unit of interaction between two men and grows from there, between men and women, between a teacher and his students, and on institutional, structural levels. GRP assumes a need for the entire faculty and staff to be engaged in this educational project. It requires a pedagogy that transcends the distinction between informal and formal learning, and it proposes a new way of reading traditional texts. This type of process, when done is partnership with as many of the staff in school as possible, will enable an end to all types of discrimination and oppression that still exist, and will make all students feel truly loved and safe.

There are three key steps to building a curriculum in this mold. First, faculty and staff need to learn and think about their own notions of masculinity. At the Hartman Boys High School, the first step was to learn and discuss the material with the faculty in advance of any learning with students. Faculty learned most of the material for over a year before it was brought to students. Teachers needed to confront their own conceptions about gender and masculinity before they could teach these values. This project emphasized the role male mentors play in the lives of adolescent students, in shaping their notions about masculinity and helping them work out a healthier sense of masculinity among themselves.

Second, the curriculum should be built to engage both students’ cognitive and social-emotional faculties. Many social-emotional programs ignore the intellectual experiences of students. Students want a serious discussion of the issues that affect their lives and want complex encounters with Jewish sources with media sources, experiential learning and social-emotional activities. In the Hartman curriculum, for example, the seventh grade focuses on the bar mitzvah and its connection to gender. It investigates what it means to be a man according to media, with friends, religiously, as well as expectations of femininity. Throughout the six-year curriculum, there is no taboo that is not explored. To construct a healthy masculinity, we take seriously students’ questions and concerns about sex, body image, violence, friendship with girls, homosexuality, masturbation and pornography.

The third step cultivates students’ capacities to read texts (Jewish, secular, television, film) with an eye to the ways gender is taught in explicit and implicit ways. When one conceptualizes male relationships through the three myths of boys, it becomes difficult not to read the Jewish tradition through this lens. How much of the Talmud tells of the relationships between men and their students? Consider, as an example, a short story from Brachot 5b about Rabbi Yochanan visiting his student Rabbi Elazar who was ill:

[R. Yochanan] noticed that R. Elazar was weeping, and he said to him: Why do you weep?

Is it because you did not study enough Torah? Surely we learned: The one who sacrifices much and the one who sacrifices little have the same merit, provided that the heart is directed to heaven.

Is it perhaps lack of sustenance? Not everybody has the privilege to enjoy two tables (lots of food and great riches).

Is it perhaps because of [the lack of] children? This is the bone of my tenth son!

[R. Elazar] replied to him: I am weeping on account of this beauty that is going to rot in the earth.

[R. Yochanan] said to him: On that account you surely have a reason to weep. And they both wept.

In light of the notion that boys should be boys, what does it mean that R. Yochanan questions his crying? R. Eleazar is ill, lying down; one could imagine R. Yochanan simply entering and joins with Eleazar. This is a sad moment. But his discomfort is made evident through the series of questions he poses and the explanations he gives. Don’t be sad about not learning enough Torah, don’t be sad that you didn’t have enough food, don’t be sad that you didn’t have children (I buried my children!). R. Yochanan gives a litany of reasons not to be sad. Where does his discomfort with tears come from?

This is a text that highlights a view of masculinity that is suspect of male emotion. Only when R. Eleazar responds that he weeps that he will return to dust is there a transformation and the two can cry together. But even this is response is telling. He weeps over the loss of his physicality, a loss that is universal to all human beings. He does not express emotion over his fate, only the fate of creation. He cannot express his own regrets and desires.

This text is a short, simple tale of a teacher and his grown student. It is similar to many in the Talmud. It is also a text about how two men act and the capacity for educators to teach masculinity. While the traditional reading of the text focuses on how the Talmud shapes notions of Judaism, this lens shifts the focus of learning toward the way the texts continue to shape our notions of masculinity and how that plays out in the everyday lives of Jewish men.

The challenge in bringing this approach to a broader audience is that teaching about masculinity in an Orthodox Israeli boys school will be different than teaching about the topic in coeducational settings. This context offers a window into thinking about what it means to support boys as they become men and for raising a generation of Jews committed to cultivating safety and justice for all. First, it requires a deep commitment by the faculty and staff to engage their own thinking about gender. Second, it requires a pedagogical approach that transcends the cognitive-experiential divide. Third, it asks all of those involved to take seriously the way they read Jewish texts, using them not as explicit prooftexts but as pathways for larger questions about individual behavior and one’s role in society.

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HaYidion In These Times Winter 2019
In These Times
Winter 2019