Toxic masculinity, previously only known to regulars in women’s studies classrooms, has made it into the headlines again, prompted by the Gillette advert, a short film entitled We Believe: the Best Men Can Be.
With responses ranging from praise to outrage, the film drew public attention to the fact certain aspects of society’s image of masculinity can have a negative impact on women and men, boys and girls.
Our Jewish tradition is not immune to providing examples of masculinity that can be damaging. Laws focusing on women’s modesty, as well as sexual purity, have been misused throughout time to restrict women’s freedom.
The Tanakh provides us with graphic descriptions of abuse of women: the rape of Lot’s daughters and of Dina, the little-known 13th child of Jacob, as well as, most horrifically, the deadly abuse of the unnamed concubine in Judges Chapter 19.
Yet, if we study the reception of these stories and our interpretive history, the narratives were always presented as warnings about how not to behave, rather than glorifying an image of man who can control woman without bounds.
Joshua Wolfsun for Lilith magazine wrote that the ‘Nice Jewish Boy’ is a well-defined, masculine archetype prized for having opposing characteristics to those associated with toxic masculinity.
Instead of promoting feats of physical strength, decisiveness, and violence, the Nice Jewish Boy is thoughtful, studious, sensitive, successful, and a caring provider.
Daniel Boyarin, Aviva Cantor and others have shown this image is not new, but has deep roots dating back to the Talmud and even earlier.
So in terms of what the Jewish community can do to fight toxic masculinity, the answer is perhaps rather simple: promote the image of the Nice Jewish Boy to wider society just as Gillette has attempted to do.
But we must also make sure to tackle some of the underlying misogyny of the Nice Jewish Boy. Namely, that the purpose of these characteristics is to achieve the goal of acquiring a woman and therefore becoming a successful man.
The reward of being a Nice Jewish Man is far greater than getting something (or someone) – it is helping to create a more just society!
- Rabbi Lea Mühlstein serves Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue