May 22, 2019

Today I Am a Man

All of five feet tall in his stiff new suit and shiny shoes, he can barely be seen over the bima. In a cracking adolescent voice, he announces, “Today I am bar mitzvah. Today I am a man.” Yes, you are. But what do you know about being a man? A Jewish man? What can we tell you?

His haftarah describes the miraculous birth of Samson. Born a nazir [a holy ascetic] and blessed with superhuman strength and a voracious id, Samson’s life is the diametric opposite of righteous self-denial. He is impulsive, undisciplined, unreflective, violent, lustful, vengeful and vain. Samson is testosterone personified. He shamelessly pursues his lusts for women, mercilessly murders Philistines to settle his personal scores, cavorts with Philistine prostitutes and is finally betrayed by the sultry Delilah, whose wiles he cannot resist.

Hollywood loves this character. In 1950, Cecil B. DeMille’s “Samson and Delilah,” starring Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr, won six Oscars. In 1996, there was a remake for TV with Elizabeth Hurley. Hollywood loves Samson because Hollywood loves testosterone. This summer alone will bring us “Pearl Harbor,” “The Mummy Returns,” “Planet of the Apes,” “Jurassic Park 3,” “Tomb Raider,” “American Pie 2,” “Kiss of the Dragon,” “The Animal” and more. What does our bar mitzvah boy learn of masculinity from American popular culture? TV offers him WWF wrestling and “The Man Show.” On radio, he will find Howard Stern and Eminem. In sports, business, video games, even politics, our bar mitzvah boy finds Samson’s spiritual descendants.

The Jewish tradition thought differently. Though Samson was a biblical judge inspired by God, the sages of Jewish tradition found his character troubling. Only in his sad fate do they find morality: “Samson rebelled against God through his eyes, therefore the Philistines put out his eyes,” Talmud Sotah teaches.

The sages read Samson as “The Shadow,” the dark underside of an ideal Jewish masculinity. Samson is a loner; each of his feats is done by himself and for himself. The Jewish man, however, lives a life enveloped in family and community. Samson is a warrior, his power measured in body counts and his heroism displayed in bloody battle. To the Jewish man, violence is an anathema. The Jewish man becomes a hero by mastering Torah and mending the world. His aggression is sublimated into Talmudic debate, his prowess demonstrated in self-control, his valor proved in gemilut chasadim [acts of compassion].

Samson uses women until, in the end, a woman uses him and destroys him. The Jewish man embraces an ethic of kiddushin, the holiness of true intimacy in marriage enabling him to create a family that affords him immortality.

For almost 20 centuries, this was the ideal of the Jewish male — scholarly, gentle and pious, but also meek, passive and weak. In 1903, Chaim Nachman Bialik, future poet laureate of Zionism, was sent to report on the Kishinev pogrom. He was shocked by the vicious slaughter. But more, he was appalled at the meek submission and impotence of the community’s men. In his poem, “Be-Ir ha-Haregah” [In the City of Slaughter], he denounced men who could not defend their wives from rape and their children from murder. Bialik and his Zionism overthrew the tradition’s ideal of gentle masculinity. They revisited Samson, reveling in his confidence and power, his physicality and vitality. The literary masterwork of Vladimir Jabotinsky, father of Revisionist Zionism, was his play “Samson the Nazirite,” which became the core of DeMille’s screenplay. (Jabotinsky is credited among the film’s writers, even though he died nine years before it was released.) Zionism promised a New Jewish Man — natural and free, strong and unafraid.

After the Six-Day War in 1967, we hung posters of Moshe Dayan in our bedrooms. Here was the new Jewish masculinity — cocky, brave and strong. After ghetto and Holocaust, here was a Jewish man to be proud of.

What we seek for our young Bar Mitzvah boy is a new paradigm of Jewish masculinity. We seek a synthesis of the old and the new — the gentleness of the tradition’s model wedded to the strength of the Zionist ideal. We pray for him a heart dedicated to mending the world and hands capable of bringing down the pillars of idolatry and evil.