Jewish men on the decline: is Judaism becoming too female-centric?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
June 24 2011 1:00 PM

The End of Jewish Men?

Some professors and rabbis are concerned that liberal Judaism is becoming too female. Is this a real crisis?

Jewish family.
Do Jewish men need to be won back to the synagogue?

In 2007, an organization called the Men of Reform Judaism published a Haggadah intended for men-only Passover Seders. It tweaked the familiar rituals. Instead of solemnly intoning the 10 plagues that struck ancient Egypt—frogs, boils, lice, and so on—participants are asked to recite the scourges of manhood: impotence, hair loss, prostate cancer. In the introduction, the authors explain their motives for the enterprise: "Men need the company of men, to be men."

For the most part, gender segregation in Judaism, like strict Shabbat observance and the renunciation of shellfish, is a practice left to the Orthodox. Egalitarianism is a defining characteristic of the religion's more liberal wings (Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative, among others). But the men's Haggadah is one of several recent initiatives designed for men and boys alone. The 2007 Reform biennial convention hosted a men-only prayer service. In 2009, a book titled The Modern Men's Torah Commentary was released. This year, an organization called Moving Traditions launched a curriculum for teenage boys called "The Brotherhood," focusing on the "journey to manhood."

All of these measures come as a response to a perceived "feminization" of liberal Judaism: declining male involvement in both the leadership and laity, among some Reform and Reconstructionist, and to a lesser extent Conservative, Jews. In 2008, Brandeis professor Sylvia Barack Fishman coauthored a monograph, Matrilineal Ascent/Patrilineal Descent, based on survey data and her own interviews. On a range of metrics, she found Jewish men to be less invested in their religious identity and less active in synagogue life than Jewish women. Women typically wish to marry within the tribe and raise Jewish children, while men often expressed hostility toward Jewish women and religion generally. Fishman declared this disparity a "crisis." Predictably, spirited debate erupted in the Jewish press and blogosphere. Does liberal Judaism really have a serious gender imbalance?

Judaism started out, of course, as an ultrapatriarchal religion. Girls were traditionally prohibited from studying rabbinic texts, and women were customarily barred from public roles. But Second Wave feminism rocked non-Orthodox Judaism. The Reform branch ordained its first female rabbi in 1972, the Reconstructionists followed in 1974, and the Conservative movement relented in 1985. Many women have been ordained since then. The numbers, however, show that men still dominate. About one-half of Reconstructionist, two-thirds of Reform, and a much larger fraction of Conservative rabbis are male. Looking at those figures, it's hard to see a crisis. Rather, it looks like progress: The rabbinate, after centuries of excluding women, is finally headed toward parity.

According to surveys and extensive anecdotal evidence, women do seem to be significantly more involved in the laity. Rabbis report that men are scarce in pews and adult education classes, and boys are known to flee after their bar mitzvahs. The North American Federation of Temple Youth consists of 59 percent girls and 41 percent boys. But this lopsidedness is not unique to Judaism. On average, American women are more religious than men. Whether this is a problem depends on your view of religion. If it's a universal human need, then men are tragically missing out, and religious institutions, including Judaism, may need to do a better job of engaging them. If religion is just another nourishing extracurricular activity, then perhaps worship is like yoga or reading fiction—simply something that plenty of men, but even more women, happen to do.

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In fairness to the handwringers—such as Fishman, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, and activist Doug Barden—the gender breakdown of young leaders suggests that the gap could widen over the long term. Since 2004, at the Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College, women have outnumbered men every year but one, usually by a substantial margin. (This year, for example, 25 women and 10 men graduated.) For cantors, the ratios have typically been even more skewed. Fishman and others worry that as boys see fewer role models, synagogue will increasingly be seen as a female space. This concern points to an unsavory reality: While women often clamor to participate in male-dominated institutions, female-dominated institutions are more likely to drive males away.

Even the Jews alarmed about "feminization" insist that they don't want to roll back feminist gains. Female participation is a cause for celebration, they say; it's male flight that is the problem. But if the former is in fact contributing to the latter, how can Judaism walk the fine line between male domination and male disengagement?

So far, the main attempts to attract boys and men have taken the form of male-centric activities like the Haggadah. These have ruffled some feathers. Men-only affairs bring to mind snooty clubs, anti-feminist groups like the evangelical Christian Promise Keepers, or "men's rights" advocates casting men as victims. Particularly in the context of Judaism's history, any activity that excludes females is inevitably fraught. But unlike the Promise Keepers, the proponents of this movement claim feminist sympathy. They cite Jewish feminism as a model for the movement: Just as feminists in the '60s and '70s found new ways to connect to Judaism, through their women-only study groups and female life-cycle rituals, men must now carve their own version of that path. The challenge will be to navigate sensitively a new landscape in which men may be minorities but not victims, losing dominance but not status—a disorienting scenario that is not limited to Judaism.

It's far from clear whether these male-oriented initiatives will succeed in luring boys and men back to shul. But it seems unlikely that they will threaten the hard-won egalitarianism of non-Orthodox Judaism. This impression is based partly on the content of the projects. The curriculum for the new boys' youth groups is concerned largely with interrogating male stereotypes. The Modern Men's Torah Commentary, for the most part, retains gender-neutral language, and imparts lessons about being a good brother, father, and responsible community member—in short, a mensch—not about exerting mastery over wives. Some contributors do indulge in sweeping generalizations (men care about achievement, women about relationships, etc.), but as often as not, these dichotomies are set up in order to urge men to embrace their feminine side. In the men's Haggadah, one of the "four questions" is, "Why is it that because I am a Man I have to be the bread winner?" This question seems a bit dated, but at least instead of reasserting the traditional masculine role, the authors are wrestling with it.

The other basis for the sanguine conclusion? Even if this faction did harbor sinister ambitions to revive male dominion, the women would never let them get away with it.

Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow is a writer in Somerville, Mass.

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