Masculine and Jewish? A Critical Theory Critique of Male Flight from the Jewish Community

Reference: The Hornstein Program Blog

Hornstein School for Jewish Professional Leadership
Brandeis University

December 5, 2010

By Jimmy Taber

“As I reflect on my coming of age in New Jersey, I realize that I had always been in some sense more of a ‘girl’ than a ‘boy.’…I didn’t think of myself so much as girlish but rather as Jewish…I start with what I think is a widespread sensibility that being Jewish in our culture renders a boy effeminate. Rather than producing in me a desire to ‘pass’ and to become a ‘man,’ this sensibility resulted in my desire to remain a Jew, where being a sissy was alright.”[1]
Daniel Boyarin
Unheroic Conduct

The recent recognition of a gender imbalance in American Jewish communal life has sparked a panic within the community. According to Sylvia Fishman and Daniel Parmer, the American Jewish community has become “feminized,” driving men from organized communal participation.[2] Widespread efforts to reincorporate men into communal life have ensued. While well intentioned, current attempts to specifically involve men in the Jewish community are misguided as they serve to reify dominant gender power structures that undermine Jewishness as a positive masculine identity. Instead of seeking to validate white masculinity, a fundamental shift in Jewish male self understanding is required in order for Jewishness to be realized as a viable challenge to the dominant society’s patriarchy.

The Feminization of Jewishness

Prior to Jewish emancipation, Jewish masculinity was constructed within the context of the isolated Jewish community. As Melissa Raphael notes, “Jewish masculinity is not traditionally defined economically by a man’s being the main bread-winner or by macho physical prowess but by the prestige of his religious scholarship.”[3] While this understanding of masculinity stands in stark contrast to dominant masculine ideals, it did not conflict with Jewish males’ self conception because Jews were largely isolated from dominant European society. Jewish men could be both fully male and Jewish within the context of the Jewish community.

Following Jewish emancipation, the dominant European discourse’s application of feminine qualities to Jewish men began to become problematic as Jewish men were presented with the opportunity to assimilate and participate fully in greater European society. Judith Butler notes, “Becoming a man…requires a repudiation of femininity.”[4] For Jewish men this formula proved problematic as Jewish male identity had historically been constructed by the dominant gender discourse as feminine and thus incompatible and even antithetical to normative white masculinity. Otto Weininger’s study of male and female difference published just before his suicide in 1903 entitled Sex and Character exemplifies the conflation of Jewish and female identity in dominant European discourse.[5] As Sander Gilman explains, “Central to Weininger’s study of the relationship between the masculine and the feminine is the dichotomy between the Jew and the Aryan… (he) simply extended the category of the feminine to the Jew.”[6] Identifying Jews with women served to reify the Jew’s position as subordinate within both European racial and gender hierarchies. Intertwining Jewish racial and gender identities made it impossible for Jewish men to become full males in the European context and remain Jewish.

In traditional pre-emancipation Jewish communities, men were primarily responsible for communal continuity through the transmission of religious tradition through textual learning. As Jewish men sought to become members of the dominant European society they were “forced” to disassociate themselves from their Jewishness. Thus, the responsibility for Jewish continuity shifted to Jewish women. Paula Hyman writes, “Western Jewish communities adopted the dominant middle-class view that women were responsible for inculcating moral and religious consciousness in their children and within the home more generally. According to this view, women were the primary factor in the formation of their children’s Jewish identity.”[7] This shift of responsibility from men to women freed Jewish men to shed their Jewishness in favor of full male identities within the dominant society. Outside of Orthodox communities, traditional models of Jewish masculinity were widely abandoned in favor of assimilation.

Contemporary Understandings of Men’s Absence from Jewish Life and Efforts to Reengage Men

The lack of male participation in contemporary Jewish communal life is well documented, especially among the liberal denominations. In 2007, it was noted that within the Reform movement only 22-43% of youth group participants were boys and 33% of rabbinic students at Hebrew Union College were men.[8] Fishman and Parmer write, “Nationally, girls and women outnumber men in weekly non-Orthodox worship services, in adult education classes, in volunteer leadership positions, and in Jewish cultural events.”[9] Concern about the absence of men in organized Jewish life has become an issue of widespread communal concern.

Instead of pointing to the historical abandonment of Jewishness by Jewish men as outlined above, the lack of men in Jewish communal life is often understood to be the result of the increased role of women. Fishman and Parmer summarize this perspective as follows:

When it comes to gender equality or gender balance, contemporary American Jewish life is caught between a rock and a hard place: Traditional public Judaism was and is dominated by men, while contemporary liberal American Judaism, although supposedly egalitarian, is visibly and substantially feminized. Jewish activities from the broad grassroots to the elite echelons of liberal Jewish religious leadership have become devalued, a typical result of feminization.[10]

While Fishman and Parmer are correct that Jewish leadership and participation has “become devalued,” it is not a result of the increased participation of women, but the shift of responsibility for Jewish continuity to women and subsequent male abandonment of Jewishness in favor of dominant masculinity.

Current efforts to attract Jewish men to the organized Jewish community have focused on appealing to men’s sense of dominant masculinity. There has been a proliferation of programs exemplified by the Lincoln Park Jewish Center’s Cigar, Scotch, and Torah Group that specifically target men with the implicit assumption that Jewishness itself is not enough of an attraction.[11] By infusing elements constructed as exclusively masculine, such as cigars and scotch, the Jewish community is attempting to create a synthesis of Jewishness and masculinity that will root men in Jewish communal life. The idea is that men will initially come for the masculine “fun” and then come back for the meaning that Jewishness offers. This approach is problematic as it fails to recognize the fundamental incongruence between Jewishness and dominant masculinity.

Similarly, Moving Traditions’ Campaign for Jewish Boys [cf. Shevet Achim: The Brotherhood] represents a national effort to engage young boys in Jewish life. In the pilot stage, the program “seeks to reverse boys’ mass exit from and dissatisfaction with Jewish life.”[12] This program also utilizes dominant models of masculinity for engagement providing “content that…gives boys the opportunity to explore issues they care about, such as friendship, sex, power, money, and work.”[13] This approach is bound to reap limited success due to the flawed assumption that the flight from Jewishness can be stemmed by infusing dominant masculinity. As long as masculinity is constructed in opposition to the femininity of Jewishness, the two identities are mostly mutually exclusive.

Fishman and Parmer‘s research findings exemplify the Jewish community’s problematic approach to attracting men. They write, “Synagogues and Jewish communal organizations need to find ways to balance the moral principles of egalitarianism with the psycho-social needs of boys and men to spend meaningful Jewish time in gendered peer groups.”[14] Egalitarianism is not the root of the problem. Men are not uncomfortable with Jewishness because of the prominence of women in communal life. Jewishness as an identity is incompatible with dominant forms of masculinity. Consequently, “gendered peer groups” do not serve to address the root causes of the problem.

A Critique of Current Approaches and Recommendations

Current communal efforts to attract men to the organized Jewish community do not provide effective ways for Jewish men to build Jewish male identities because of the failure to create an explicitly Jewish alternative to dominant masculinity. If ethnic or racial Jewish identity is understood as inherently feminine, it is fundamentally incompatible with dominant masculinity. Thus, attempts to synthesize dominant masculinity and Jewish identity are bound to attain only marginal success. If, as Judith Butler argues, “Masculine and feminine are not dispositions…but accomplishments,”[15] the Jewish male’s abandonment of Jewishness can be viewed within the context of an active attainment of dominant masculinity. The question remains: What is meaningful about Jewish identity? Masculinity offers men a privileged position within a gendered society. Power and control are inherent within this identity. In order for men to abandon the privileges of masculinity, Jewishness must offer something compelling in return.

Examples of the Jewish community seeking to construct alternative Jewish male identities do not exist on a widespread programmatic level, but glimpses of the power of embracing Jewishness as a challenge to masculinity exist within the Jewish community’s current efforts to attract men. While the Campaign for Jewish Boys’ curriculum focuses on utilizing dominant masculinity to engage Jewish boys, the organization has recognized, consciously or not, that boys who value their Jewishness are drawn to this identity through and alternative gender discourse.[16] Moving Traditions found in its 2007 focus groups found that for “’Jewishly-affirming’ teenage boys…Judaism provides some boys with resilience, an ‘alternative’ masculinity, and an opportunity to express a sense of self.”[17] Jewish boys recognize that this “alternative masculinity” provides meaning. Instead of attempting to reinscribe dominant constructions of masculinity, the Campaign for Jewish Boys specifically, and the Jewish community generally, should embrace Jewishness as an ethno-gender identity.

Ultimately, it is up to Jewish community as a whole and Jewish men as individuals to reevaluate the significance and value of dominant masculinity. Absent this self reflection, the current efforts of the Jewish community to attract men will only serve to reify the troubling gender power structures that have provided the impetus for Jewish men’s abandonment of Jewishness. As long as dominant masculine identity is privileged over Jewishness, Jewish men will largely remain wary of “coming out” Jewish. Jewish communal efforts should focus on illustrating the value and meaning of Jewishness as an identity in order to create a more complete community.


Boyarin, Daniel. Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Butler, Judith. “Melancholy Gender/Refused Identification.” In Constructing Masculinity, edited by Maurice Berger, Brian Wallis, and Simon Watson. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Fishman, Sylvia Barack and Daniel Parmer. Matrilineal Ascent/Patrilineal Descent: The Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life. Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2008.

Gilman, Sander L. “Otto Weininger and Sigmund Freud: Race and Gender in the Shaping of Psychoanalysis.” In Jews & Gender: Responses to Otto Weininger, edited by Nancy Anne Harrowitz. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.

Hyman, Paula E. Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History: The Roles and Representation of Women. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995.

Lincoln Park Jewish Center.
Lincoln Park Jewish Center. “Ode to Lincoln Park Jewish Center Cigar and Torah Night.”

Moving Traditions. “Campaign for Jewish Boys.”

Raphael, Melissa. “Standing at a Demythologized Sinai? Reading Jewish Feminist Theology Through the Critical Lens of Radical Orthodoxy.” In Interpreting the Postmodern: Responses to “Radical Orthodoxy,” edited by Rosemary Radford Ruether and Marion Grau. New York: T & T Clark International, 1999.

Shapiro, Rona. “The ‘Boy Crisis’ that Cried Wolf.” The Forward. January 5, 2007.

Weininger, Otto. Sex and Character. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1907.


[1] Daniel Boyarin, Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 3.

[2] Sylvia Barack Fishman and Daniel Parmer, Matrilineal Ascent/Patrilineal Descent: The Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life (Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2008).

[3] Melissa Raphael, “Standing at a Demythologized Sinai? Reading Jewish Feminist Theology Through the Critical Lens of Radical Orthodoxy,” in Interpreting the Postmodern: Responses to “Radical Orthodoxy,” ed. Rosemary Radford Ruether and Marion Grau (New York: T & T Clark International, 1999), 203.

[4] Judith Butler, “Melancholy Gender/Refused Identification,” in Constructing Masculinity, ed. Maurice Berger, Brian Wallis, and Simon Watson (New York: Routledge, 1995), 26.

[5] Otto Weininger, Sex and Character, (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1907).

[6] Sander L. Gilman, “Otto Weininger and Sigmund Freud: Race and Gender in the Shaping of Psychoanalysis,” in Jews & Gender: Responses to Otto Weininger, ed. Nancy Anne Harrowitz (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995), 104.

[7] Paula E. Hyman, Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History: The Roles and Representation of Women (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995), 24.

[8] Rona Shapiro, “The ‘Boy Crisis’ that Cried Wolf,” The Forward, January 5, 2007.

[9] Fishman and Parmer, 1.

[10] Fishman and Parmer, 1-2.

[11] Lincoln Park Jewish Center, Also see “Ode to Lincoln Park Jewish Center Cigar and Torah Night,”

[12] Moving Traditions, “Campaign for Jewish Boys,”

[13] Ibid.

[14] Fishman and Parmer, 77.

[15] Butler, 24.

[16] Moving Traditions, “Campaign for Jewish Boys,”

[17] Ibid.