Healthy Masculinity: The Best a Mensch Can Be
When the #MeToo movement began in 2017 – when countless women and non-binary individuals came forward as survivors of sexual abuse and assault – the notion of “toxic masculinity” became a widespread point of discussion.
Maya Salam of The New York Times defines this term as “what can come of teaching boys that they can’t express emotion openly; that they have to be ‘tough all the time’; that anything other than that makes them ‘feminine’ or weak.”
Taking note, Gillette recently released a new ad campaign addressing toxic masculinity. Titled “The Best a Man Can Be,” it encourages men to respect and stand up for women and inspire healthy masculinity in the next male generation.
As a Jewish man who understands the devastating effects of toxic masculinity, I felt it necessary to explore what it means to create a healthy masculine culture; to be “the best a man can be” – or, in Jewish terms, the best a mensch can be. To do this, I consulted a few amazing Jewish women leaders who righteously illuminated me.
Rachel Hall, the Union for Reform Judaism’s program manager for Audacious Hospitality, emphasizes that masculinity is not inherently toxic, and that healthy masculine energy is a good thing. She says,
“There are positive attributes to masculine energy. Strength, both physical and emotional, confidence in yourself, giving yourself the benefit of the doubt, [and] feeling knowledgeable.”
Hall acknowledged that while men should aspire toward these traits, it is equally important to “separate masculine and feminine from gender,” as people of any gender can and do embody both masculine and feminine characteristics.
When asked about how to be a better mensch, Rabbi Megan Brudney of Temple Beth El, Bloomfield Hills, MI, quoted Mishnah Avot 4:1: “Who is wise? One who learns from every person” – meaning that healthy masculinity means being humble and strong enough to address our personal “blind spots.” She says:
“I think non-toxic masculinity entails accepting that your (male) experience is not the only one, or the default one, or the correct one, and that if and when [someone of a different gender] shares their differing experience with you, to actually consider taking it seriously as another truth.”
Rabbi Miriam Terlinchamp of Temple Sholom in Cincinnati, OH, agrees:
“I think the biggest issue around male toxic energy is a lack of self-reflection, that often we’re in places where we all think we’re equal and we’re all sitting at the same table…and yet, the idea that we’re all operating from that same space is often untrue.”
Rabbi Terlinchamp further emphasizes the importance of listening to people of differing gender identities and “to believe them instead of saying, ‘I’m not part of the problem.’” She says:
“[T]he lack of reconciliation around the problems in toxic gender identity resides in our inability to see we’re part of the problem…that there’s work to be done inside first in order to manifest it outside.”
Healthy masculinity also requires us to understand that showing emotions do not make men weak. “All too often, basic human emotions are policed in the name of being tough or macho,” says Taylor Baruchel, a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “But I would argue it takes a lot of strength to respect and love yourself and your emotions, as well as not be threatened by those around you. It can be a lot harder to love.”
It is this commandment to love others (v’ahavtah l’reacha kamocha) that Baruchel argues is the core of healthy masculinity:
“I would argue that to truly be acting in love requires a base level of respecting…[that] each and every human being is made in the image and likeness of God [and] has a spark of the Divine deserving of love and respect.”
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz of Agudas Achim Congregation in Coralville, IA believes healthy masculinity can be achieved by overcoming internalized oppression, which originates “from a place of not loving ourselves and not holding ourselves to a higher moral standard and not seeing that potential in ourselves.”
Rabbi Hugenholtz explains:
“[The] patriarchy hurts men…I’ve seen good men be affected by that or hide parts of themselves because they didn’t fit the picture of what a man in our western society culture is supposed to look like…I want to believe that although the problems in our society with toxic masculinity are very endemic and systemic, that we all have an opportunity for t’shuvah (repentance) and tikkun (repair). I’m a religious Jew, so I have to believe that.”
As someone who wants to be “the best a mensch can be,” I am tasked with the sacred duty of unlearning toxic traits enforced by misogynistic culture and to curate a healthy masculinity based in strength and confidence, as well as humility, self-reflection, and universal love.
Like Rabbi Hugenholtz, I love men and I believe deeply in men. I know that we, as men, are capable of being so much better than what toxic masculine culture enforces – and that we can embrace healthy masculinity and create a safe, just world for people of all genders, for generations to come.
Learn more about the Union for Reform Judaism's effort to embrace our diversity and reach out to those currently not engaged in Jewish life by visiting urj.org/audacioushospitality.