Rosh Hashanah 5773: Creating a Holy Space for Men

In our Torah portion today for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we  encounter a family in distress. One of the first things we learn from this story about Abraham, Sarah and Hagar is that polygamy is a tricky business. And for those of us who are not in that situation, marriage and family is complicated enough.

This year a verse jumped out from the text and hit me in a way I had never noticed before. Abraham is distressed that Sarah wants to cast out Hagar and her son Ishmael, his first-born child. He’s torn between his wife Sarah and his mistress Hagar. He sees the tensions that are tearing his family apart. So Abraham turns to his best friend God for advice. And God gives him this powerful advice, words that resound through the ages: whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says. (Listen to your wife!)

What makes this so humorous?

Because it’s so true and because it’s so false.

Looking back on three thousand years of Jewish history, Jewish practice, Jewish text and Jewish thought, it’s hard to believe that Jewish men even heard women’s voices, much less listened to them. No one else seemed to notice that this was God’s will.

And yet, the words ring true to us today in ways our parents and grandparents could not have imagined.

33 years ago, in 1979, I wrote a letter to the Jewish Theological Seminary, seeking to apply to their rabbinical school. Having grown up in a Conservative synagogue, attended Hebrew school through my senior year of high school, attended Camp Ramah for 7 years, been active in the USY youth group, going to the Conservative seminary seemed a natural step.

The letter I received in return, in 1979, told me that I could come and study at the seminary and that eventually, JTS would ordain women. Unsatisfied with that option, I chose a different path to the rabbinate. Who knew what “eventually” really meant?

Just three years after I entered rabbinical school at RRC, the first woman was ordained in the Conservative movement, Rabbi Amy Eilberg. It all happened much faster than many of his could have dreamed.

It is remarkable how far we have come in the past three decades. The rabbinical seminaries are filled with women studying to become rabbis; in several schools women outnumber men. Women have taken places of leadership in Jewish religious and communal organizations. Jewish studies departments have embraced gender studies and the voice of Jewish women, once barely audible, is now heard loud and clear in Jewish commentary, Jewish history and Jewish thought.

Women have created new rituals to mark women’s life cycles, invented ritual objects like Miriam’s Cup and embellished existing objects like the tallit. We have explored God’s feminine attributes and spent plenty of time talking about being mothers, daughters, sisters and friends.

In our own congregation, it was not long ago that women were not allowed on the bimah. In 1991 HBT voted to count women in the minyan for the first time. Only thirteen years later, we celebrated 9 adult women on the bimah, becoming bat mitzvah as a group (with one beloved male among them) because they had missed that opportunity in their teens.

Our current temple president is the third woman to hold that post in the temple’s history. And many Jewish children growing up with a rabbi who is a woman may be wondering, “can men be rabbis too?”

In light of these dramatic changes that have taken place for men and women in Jewish life, reflecting the transformation of the broader culture as well, God’s advice to Abraham rings true: “do what your wife tells you.” Am I right? And to your credit, gentlemen, you do listen.

Now let’s look at the aftermath of this conversation between Abraham and God. The next time God talks to Abraham about doing something that he will find distressing (tomorrow’s reading)—taking his beloved son Isaac to the top of a mountain as an offering—Abraham doesn’t listen to Sarah. In fact, he doesn’t tell her at all. Instead, he sneaks out with Isaac early in the morning, without a word to his wife.

What is going on between Abraham and Sarah is a mirror of Jewish life in the post-feminist era. God has actually given Abraham bad advice. Sorry, ladies, but this is true. Because what Abraham does is avoid Sarah, so he doesn’t have to listen to her. That scenario is harmful to their relationship, it is harmful to their children, and most important, it is harmful to their own souls. Right after this story, Abraham and Isaac separate, each going their own way, and Sarah dies. None of them has a chance to listen to each other in the end.

After God gave Sarah the upper hand, Abraham abandoned that relationship. Today, as women’s leadership has grown in synagogues and in churches, men have fled. In the meantime, Jewish women have enjoyed the opportunity to explore and reshape and define our identity in this new reality. But who has helped Jewish men rethink what it means to be a Jewish male in this changing world?

I must confess that I have sometimes taken men for granted. Years ago, I offered a heartfelt sermon commenting on my relationship with my own mother. Probably very moving to a lot of women in the congregation, while many men slept through it, or wished that they had.

The truth is, we are all limited by our experiences. That is why I am inviting you to help us find more ways for men of all ages, from our growing teens to our oldest adults, to tell their stories. We need a safe place for men to discuss what it means to be a Jewish man today, to be a father, husband, partner, son, brother, mentor, friend. We need an open space for men to share – yes sharing! -- how to take care of yourselves. In other words, we need to create the same kinds of programs and offerings for men that we have successfully provided for women. With that intention, I would like for all of us to consider what HBT might offer to empower men once more to find meaning and comfort in congregational life. What can empower men as well as women to find their place in our community? What would we gain by giving men permission to re-enter the synagogue on their own terms?

One: O Brother, Where art Thou?

Our son Yonah surprised us, and surprised himself, last fall, when he joined a fraternity in his freshman year of college. Concerned about the image of fraternities, their reputation for binge drinking, and the dangers of hazing, we were gradually won over. What we came to appreciate in this particular Jewish fraternity was the power of the friendships Yonah  developed among his brothers. In the process, Yonah has learned new lessons about leadership and responsibility and loyalty.

But of course, a lot of fraternity life is about fun too. After all, we don’t expect boys and men to spend all their time in serious pursuits. In fact, we find in the Hasidic traditions of the 19th century that fun was also a spiritual pursuit, as in the following anecdote:

 [The Hasidim] laughed and played cards. There was a rumor, that didn’t stop, that in a box at the bottom of the Holy Ark, with the Shofar and other religious objects, were a bottle of spirits and some playing cards. And when asked about this, they replied in a rather poetic way, “These are the angels that emanated from the Shofar.”                       (Quest for Authenticity, p. 199)

Fun can include sports, or going to the shvitz, or playing golf or playing poker. A colleague has urged me to organize a men’s softball team at HBT, to join the Boston Jewish softball league. Is this what you are looking for?

Two: Can you hear me now?

I recently purchased a copy of Rabbi Jeff Salkin’s collection, The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary. The notion that men need a commentary of their own may raise eyebrows—after all, aren’t all the commentaries of the past 2000 years written by men?

Just as the Jewish Women’s Torah Commentary provided new insights into Torah, drawn from the lives of modern women, so this volume draws on the lives of men today. Delving into Torah study, all of us can discover aspects of our lives, our relationships, our work and other responsibilities. When we study Torah together, we encounter meaning and awaken a sense of purpose. The ancient teachings in Torah have the capacity to illuminate our lives.

Popular culture denies men opportunities to open up and speak honestly. Yet many men I have spoken with yearn to explore questions about personal relationships, careers and professional lives, God, Torah and Israel. How can our Jewish lives help navigate the pressing issues of fulfilling responsibilities and being expected to produce constantly? Can we all learn to look back on our lives with compassion and gratitude, transforming our regrets to revelations?

Three: Man Up!

What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a man in today’s world, where fathers are expected to work long hours and to be home for the family? Women understand this struggle to have it all. Can we open a discussion of how men struggle too?

Is there a difference between the expectations for men in popular culture and the goal in Jewish culture for a man to be a mensch?

In the Talmud (Ta’anit 4a), we read, “any sage who is not as hard as iron is not a sage, as the verse states ‘a hammer that shatters rock. (Jer.23:39). Nevertheless, a person should train himself to be gentle, as the verse states, ‘remove anger from your heart.’ (Eccl. 11:10)


Encouraging more male engagement is an investment in our future generations. Jewish boys are looking to the men of our community to demonstrate what it means to be a Jewish man.

Four: You’ve Got a Friend or, The Rise of the Bromance

Forget magic elixirs for long life. Instead, make a friend. Substantial research has demonstrated that the support of a network of friends assists in healing and extends life. Isolation kills.

Women know this well. We have lunch and coffee dates, we take walks and work out together. We bring food and plant flowers when a friend is ill.

Men’s friendships do not look like women’s friendships, but they are just as essential to health. Not only physical health, but spiritual health. Friendship was one of the most important elements of Jewish male culture in the past.

Rabbi Simcha Bunim taught, “every person should have a reliable and beloved friend to whom he can tell the secrets of his innermost heart, even his shameful actions.”

Five: Deep in my heart I do believe

The last thirty years have also been a time of renewed attention to Jewish spirituality, mining our tradition for modes of spiritual practice, infusing them with a contemporary sensibility. As we have explored mystical texts, experimented with chanting and meditation, we have discovered that women and men have different approaches and responses to spirituality.

The chanting of a men’s group will be different from women’s chanting. Some men will feel more comfortable trying out a practice like meditation or yoga among other men, rather than in a mixed group. Others find deeper meaning in text study, poring over Torah stories or learning to chant from the Torah itself. Still others seek spiritual uplift in acting in the world for justice, in the tradition of the prophets. All of these, and more, can be gateways for men to reinvent the Jewish man.

Rabbi Bunim once said “A wise man is a heretic, a man with a good heart is a hedonist…a frum person who prays a lot is bad for society.” And they asked him, “If so, what is good for a man?” The answer was “All three together.”

Six: What’s missing?

You tell me. What’s missing in your life? What is missing from our community dialogue, our congregational experience?

Several men in our community have already expressed interest in forming a men’s group here, where the men in our community—men of all ages, with all your diverse religious backgrounds, personal needs and life stories—can create a place for honest conversation and questioning. We have information to share with you about upcoming men’s retreats, including one at the end of October. Perhaps we can even bring that energy into planning our congregational retreat in May. I hope that this is only the beginning of the conversation.

Seven: Building the platform

I came to a deep understanding of the importance of listening to many voices during our summer Tikkun Olam trip to Limestone, Maine. I was surprised, and then honored when Mark Horenstein, who manages to oversee our work and also help train us, invited me to take a crew and build the platform for a small porch. A few years ago, I had neither the skills nor the imagination to take charge of any construction project. To build something from nothing requires more than knowing how to use a power drill or circular saw. In addition to skills, one needs a vision of what you are building and a plan for how to get there. And I needed a team.

Mark supplied me with a sketch of the four by four porch. We had on hand the two-by fours and two-by-six boards, the stringers to hold up the treads for the steps, and all the deck screws we could ask for. And he assigned Gilad, who already knew something about construction, and Annika, who had never used power tools before in her life, to work with me. And throughout the work, the homeowner, Julie, was never far, ready to provide another drill or hold a piece of wood or offer her opinion.

As we worked together for three days, measuring and cutting and drilling and pounding and measuring again, board after board coming together to form a platform, then the bricks to keep the wood posts off the ground, then the steps, and finally the railings, the beauty of the porch was revealed. The sturdy structure. The smooth, level surface. The symmetry of the lines and the elegance of the angles.

Yet the real beauty was found in the process: listening to one another, inviting each other to take turns with the tools, sometimes arguing over the best way to address a problem, brainstorming ways to deal with our mistakes and then trusting each other to do their very best. The key to that platform was that we worked as a team, each of us contributing in our own way, with our own skills, through our own perspective.

Our synagogue is that platform.

Jewish feminism promoted inclusion in our synagogues and in the broader community, creating welcoming space for interfaith families, gays and lesbians, multi-racial families, people with disabilities. This rainbow of Jews gives us pride in our congregation. At a time in our country’s political history when some would seek to restrict women’s choices, we strive to empower women and men together.

Our goal is to listen attentively to everyone’s voices. We will surely notice that we do things differently. God’s advice to Abraham, listen to your wife and do what she says, is only half right. Listening to each other is the essential foundation for a good marriage, and also for a healthy community. Listen to each other. Hear the different voices. Then, together, we will make decisions that we can all live with.

Rabbi Kerry Olitsky, in his short book of essays From Your Father’s House… Reflections for Modern Jewish Men, writes, “Men and women must learn to work alongside one another without getting caught in a struggle for power. Women must welcome men’s contributions, and men must be willing to risk giving women a measure of control. Each must be open to learning from the other and to accepting a variety of ways of arriving at the common goal of building a community with God at its center.”

May we continue to create that kehilla kedosha, a holy community, kulanu yachad, all of us, together.

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Rosh Hashanah 5773



Posted on May 25, 2014 .