The women in headscarves pouring into Jerusalem's Shalva Center on Wednesday morning outnumber the kippa-wearing men three to one. No one would have imagined that they were taking part in a conference called “Man male father – masculinity between uniqueness and personal acceptance,” dealing with men’s changing role in the modern world.
The Hiburim (connections) enterprise of the Beit Moria NGO, together with the Ministry for Religious Services’ Jewish Identity Administration, wished to show that even in the religious-Zionist and Conservative (Masorti) community, men's roles have changed, without resorting to "feminism" or other secular terms.
The conference’s unstated goal is to see whether a more liberal discourse can be adopted without going all the way. Whether the change in gender relations, if there is one, can be restricted to inside the home rather than in the public sphere.
Most of the 150 or so participants are staff members of the NGO, which conducts workshops on relationships and parenting. After an icebreaker game, the women in the auditorium are each asked “what her man should be.” The most prevalent answer is “my friend.” Lower on the list are “finance minister,” “the practical one in the house” and “the one who makes me laugh."
The men, in contrast, are asked about their own role. “Understand and be supportive” is the most common answer, whether this is how they truly feel or if it is just what they are expected to say. The options range from adhering to the old, traditional masculine image and the readiness to tear off the macho label and accept traits once seen as “feminine."
The main event of the conference consists of two rounds of lectures of about one hour each, and offers four options. Participants can choose “ways to train a man to be the man women look for,” ponder on “the male-female nature in couples’ dynamics” or learn how to “integrate parental and partner needs simultaneously" – or go back in time.
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Rabbi David Berkovich lives in Shiloh in the West Bank and teaches at a women’s seminary in the settlement of Ofra. He has been teaching Talmud to women for 45 years, so the 15 men in the room – a majority – is a change for him. The women who choose Berkovich’s session, rather than the one on training the man, learn from him that “The secret of the male's sperm conceals the blessing of abundance at life’s foundation.” Unlike the woman, who carries the fetus in her womb, the man is cut off from the experience of birth, he says.
For about an hour and with much quotation of scripture, Berkovich lectures on male empowerment in the spirit of the Torah. The man’s difficulty to overcome his urges stems from the fact that his urge is divine. The man is the one who wants to expand throughout the world, but he must deal with the need to be with one woman, in one relationship, with one family. “The millions of sperm cells he ejaculates express the depth of his personality,” he says, “and having urges is also a demonstration of God’s will."
The discussion of the issue, which touches on sexuality even if indirectly, is still taboo in certain circles of the religious-Zionist community, and viewed as something that could arouse forbidden passions. But Berkovich says that society is becoming increasingly open. His goal is to make men recognize their equal responsibility in creating life, and thus deepen their family values.
Man is measured not only in relation to himself, but also – perhaps mainly – by his relations with the other sex. Yael and Ari Lev Or, relationship coaches, have come to teach a woman how to be “an Israeli lady.” What does that mean? “To train a woman to awaken the hidden masculinity of the man she is dating." There is only one man here, compared to Berkovich's 15, and only here because of his wife, who painstakingly writes every piece of advice down, hoping to spread the word in one of the NGO’s 15 branches.
Yael prides herself on the 350 couples she and her husband have married – one of the more recent ones after just three weeks of courting. When Ari asks the women what the man’s role is, he receives a volley of answers – “to help,” “to support,” “to provide,” “to give security.” When he asks what the woman’s role is, he only hears “to be a woman."
“You see,” says Yael, “they know what a man should do but not so much what their job is.” The comment evokes peals of laughter, but fits in with the lecture’s theme. If the question of whether men's roles have changed was posed in that auditorium of the Shalva Center, then at least within the relationship between them, the man remains a man and the woman remains a woman.
Under the guise of practical advice, gender is flattened out to its thinnest. The man is the conqueror, so the woman’s way to him consists of presenting problems he can solve, “dropping a handkerchief,” distributing medals and the like. Women are advised to preserve feminine mannerisms even when they throw out the garbage, because you never know who's watching and what they might see.
Through a pentagon with five vertices labeled "adult," "parent," "child," "woman" and "man," the lecturers tell the participants of a sort of mapping they did for a female army officer, in which they found her feminine side to be “weak.” They describe how they trained her to develop her “womanly aspects” and suggested ways to bring her femininity to an environment as masculine as the military. What were once shouting matches with a commander became calmer relations the moment she expressed a lack of knowledge – he started offering her help. “The power of fragility,” Yael calls it.
The conference ends with a conversation between Dr. Gilad Landau and Rabbi Lior Engelman, who came to prove that “men can talk for hours,” and discuss the friction between postmodernism and religious society. “Today, reality is different,” says Engelman. “And the challenge is to understand how I, as a man, see my place in the world, when the world is shifting." He urges people to talk about everything, even on men’s contemporary place, because “things we don’t talk about maintain stereotypes, and in the end they say the man is a failure, the woman is right and the father is deficient."