This week, Matt Lauer was fired from NBC’s Today because of allegations of sexual harassment. As you know, Lauer’s story is just one of many that have made headlines recently. These stories of powerful men abusing women highlight what is being referred to by some as “toxic masculinity,” a warped understanding of manhood that dangerously combines sex, aggression and power. While toxic masculinity is relatively new jargon, sadly, it’s jargon that describes an age-old problem: men using their positions of power to violate women. How horrifically timely it is that in this week’s Torah portion we read how Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah, is raped by Shechem, a powerful member of a neighboring Canaanite tribe:
Dinah, the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to look about among the daughters of the land. And Shechem, the son of Hamor, the Hivvite, the prince of the land, saw her, and he took her, lay with her, and violated her.” (Genesis 24:1-2)
Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times featured an op-ed piece written by Eldra Jackson III, who was released from prison in 2014 after serving 24 years. Jackson shared his thoughts on today’s toxic masculinity while sharing his own struggle with discovering what it means to be a man. I was struck by Jackson’s ability to look past the lurid details of the latest sexual harassment scandals and offer a solution to the plague of toxic masculinity. While some might scoff at his ideas, his desire to get us talking about this crisis and push us forward is uplifting. Rabbi Zelig Pliskin teaches that “a person who takes a walk of 100 feet and a person who walks 2,000 miles have one major thing in common. They both need to take a first step before they take a second step.” Jackson must be commended for taking a first step. He writes:
As a gang member, I immersed myself into a world of toxic masculinity. I saw victimizing others as not merely a choice but a right. If I wanted something, I took it. If someone was in my way, I knocked them down.
It is easy for me to identify with the mindset of the men who are being unmasked in this ongoing flood of stories, even though they have led their lives in a very different kind of context. I see the air of entitlement that comes from having power over others, the rush and euphoria of invincibility…
(While incarcerated,) I was invited to join a men’s group called the Inside Circle… (a group) made up of men who have been confined to a maximum-security prison, often for decades. They are men who learned early on to meet feelings of vulnerability with violence and force…The circle allows men to examine the most vile and horrendous deeds a human can perpetrate on another — without condemnation, judgment or justification. Instead, they are permitted to be curious so that they might locate the origins of their frame of mind.
I have often wondered if and how we as a society can put an end to our legacy of aggression and violence, in which men use their position to prey on others. The trickle-down effect is so pernicious that sometimes women even blame women.
Our collective groupthink reminds me a lot of the prison mentality — people just going along with something we all recognize is wrong so as not to stand out. I don’t know if men’s group work is a model that can bring healing to everyone, but I do know that it works for some of the most damaged of men.
I have witnessed transformation in the deepest, darkest bowels of society, among people deemed the most despicable of humanity. If change can occur under those circumstances, isn’t it possible outside?
Change is possible outside. It can start with our sons, our grandsons, our nephews. It can start with men speaking to other men – family, friends and colleagues. I don’t think we need a formal group to have these conversations. We men just need to talk about what it means to be a man. As we do so, we can’t be afraid to talk about how strength and power can be abused and, in turn, can turn masculinity into something threatening. At the heart of Jewish conversations about masculinity should lie the concept of the mensch. In German, mensch means man. For Yiddish speakers, a mensch is a man of the highest character. This definition captures the Jewish teaching that a true man is one who respects, honors and loves others. To be a mensch is to be the epitome of masculinity and so, while it might sound cliché, we men must push ourselves to be a mensch, challenge each other to be a mensch and teach our sons/grandsons/nephews how to be a mensch. This is how we can do our part to bring about an end to toxic masculinity.