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Is Judaism becoming less appealing to men? Outside of orthodoxy, women appear to run almost all congregations, even though men continue to dominate the rabbinate. Mainstream Judaism has become profoundly feminized in many senses of the word.

You may have heard about the moving story of Alysa Stanton, who made history last year by becoming mainstream Judaism's first black female rabbi. According to The Forward, Rabbi Stanton of Congregation Bayt Shalom in Greenville, NC, is the shul's only paid employee--not including the cleaning person and groundskeeper--and her job is part time and without benefits. The synagogue is deeply dependent on its volunteers for its survival. "The women run this congregation," Eugene Plotkin, a longtime member, told a reporter. "They do more than any of the men will ever do."

I had this story in mind as I read The Modern Men's Torah Commentary, a wonderful new collection edited by Jeffrey K. Salkin, a rabbi, author and all-around kibitzer on Jewish matters. At first glance, a men's Torah commentary sounds a bit like a burger guide for meat-eaters or a celibacy guide for nuns: It belongs in the Department of Redundancy Department. But think again about Bayt Shalom. In my limited experience, outside of Orthodoxy, women appear to run almost all congregations, even though men continue to dominate the rabbinate. Mainstream Judaism has become profoundly feminized in many senses of the word. In many respects, this was a valuable and necessary response to the previously unexamined sexist assumptions of the tradition and the lessons feminists taught us about almost every aspect of our society.

Even if this transformation had been seamless which, of course, it wasn't, men would have reason to re-examine the Torah in light of the new interpretations by what is now two generations of feminist scholars and theologians. But the reasons go far deeper. According to Salkin, with whom I recently met in New York City, one of the myriad crises of contemporary Jewry (again, non-Orthodox) is the fact that men are increasingly taking a pass and allowing women to assume almost all its responsibilities.

Why? Salkin's answers are largely hypothetical, but they all point to the development of what I would call "Kumbaya" Judaism, which, personally, as a guy, I find deeply distasteful. (When I see a rabbi reach for a guitar or, worse, a recorder when I'm at some kid's bar or bat-mitzvah, I know it's time to go for a walk.) "There are more poetics, more prayerfulness and inwardness in Judaism," Salkin says. Women are allowed to engage these issues, but when men do, it's a violation of our inherited notions of masculinity. As Daniel Parmer, co-author with Sylvia Barack Fishman of a 2008 Bran-deis University study titled Matrilineal Ascent/Patrilineal Descent: Gender Imbalance in American Jeivish Life, puts it, "Boys and men as a group are not attracted to feminized Jewish activities and environments. To the extent that we want a noncontroversial Judaism, men will shy away."

The idea for a collection of commentaries on the parashot addressed exclusively to men grew out of Salkin's belief that while "we don't know what will attract men back to the synagogue, I think helping men see diemselves in Torah at least invites this process. We've deprived people of the ability to struggle with the words, and I think men want to engage in that struggle. Men in particular would find a Judaism that is spiritually entrepreneurial to be challenging and exciting." Women are as likely as men to engage in intellectual struggle. In fact, some of the major intellectual voices in the Jewish world today belong to women, he notes. Even so, men, Salkin insists, "like to learn and engage the world through debate. That's a particularly male learning style."

And while the quality of the articles varies rather wildly, the conceit at the heart of the collection works, sort of. Take, for a random example, the parashah of Yitro for the Shabbat during which I am typing these words, the commentary by Rabbi Dan Ehrenkranz, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. It focuses on the relationship between Moses and his father-in-law Jethro, and the (often implied) sacrifices both as a father and a husband that his unsought leadership role forced on Moses. "Did Moses give his wife (wives) and children the same quality of attention he gave his leadership tasks? Was he as engaged when he interacted with them as he was when he spoke to God?" These are not the typical questions that most rabbis ask of this parashah, I'm guessing.

But I said, "sort or For the following week, as it happens, Rabbi Donniel Hartman of Jerusalem's Shalom Hartman Institute looks at Mishpatim, and for 97 percent of the discussion does not address himself to the particularistic needs of men at all. In his penultimate paragraph, he writes, "In summation, the Torah is attempting to create men who, in their interactions with others, are governed by a sense of responsibility to act not in accordance with their own interests, but rather in accordance with the needs, hopes and aspirations of others. ... To live within the space and to help create it is what it means to be a Jewish man."

Well, yeah, rabbi, but how would any of this change if one inserted the letters "wo" before "man"? Insofar as I understand his arguments, the answer is "not at all." Perhaps this speaks well of the implied egalitarianism of contemporary Judaism, but it demonstrates that the neatness of the division with which Salkin seeks to attract men to the Torah is not always there. And neither, therefore, are the answers to the larger questions implied by the crises of Jewish men. Then again, this religion is about nothing if not asking questions. Thing is, the number of us doing the asking is growing smaller and smaller, and the questions themselves are growing more desperate.

Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and City University of New York's graduate school. His latest book is Why We're Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America.
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Title Annotation:OPINION
Author:Alterman, Eric
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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