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Bar mitzvah as a weapon against toxic masculinity

Faced with the challenges of contemporary society, we can use bar mitzvah to teach our boys a healthy model of manhood.
Deborah Stone
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Illustration: TJI

Published: 17 June 2024

Last updated: 18 June 2024

The Christian headmaster of my brothers’ Protestant prep school knew a thing or two about raising boys, and he envied the way the Jews do it.

“The Jewish boys grow a foot after their bar mitzvahs,” he told my father after watching one of my brothers called to the Torah. “I wish the rest of them had something like that.”

Jewish 13-year-olds are no plaster saints. If you look closely at the rows of boys attending a friend’s bar mitzvah, you may find them more likely to be searching the chumash for the dirty bits than following the service. You don’t have to look closely to notice the rowdy letdown at the parties.

But imperfections notwithstanding, Jewish boys have something that the rest of society urgently needs, as events of the past week have made clear.

Boys’ understanding of manhood is in trouble. Toxic masculinity is a widespread problem, fuelled by online influencers and cyberbullying.

Bar mitzvah is recognised as a seminal plank in building Jewish identity. We should also think about the messages it gives our sons about what it means to be a man.

On Friday, the eSafety Commissioner released a report warning that a small number of harmful voices are dominating online conversations about masculinity.

“Young men are also coming of age against a backdrop of complicated and contested public discussions about what modern-day masculinity means, potentially making the process of figuring out who they are and what they stand for more confusing and fraught,” eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant said.

The report identified online “himfluencers” with misogynist attitudes as having a disproportionate effect on boys’ understanding of what it is to be man.

The impact of such toxic masculinity was illustrated dramatically in a case just last week when about 50 girls from Bacchus Marsh Grammar, north-west of Melbourne, reported fake nude images of them circulating online. A teenage boy was arrested but released pending further inquiries.

Today’s young men grow up surrounded by strong women and messages of equality. Yet many are succumbing to a vision of masculinity that promotes the opposite: masculine dominance, the objectification of women, and the glorification of the alpha male.

The recent study tells us that the messages boys get from social media tell them that manhood is about power, fitness, wealth and superiority to women.

This online messaging is hard to counter and new moves to ban social media for the under-16s are unlikely to provide a complete solution.

Becoming a man in Judaism is about responsibility.

Toxic messages need to be countered with positive modelling and alternative definitions of what it means to become a man.

Jews have that alternative. A 12-year-old boy required to go through a bar mitzvah program learns that to become a man, he must take on responsibility in the synagogue, in Jewish practice and in the exercise of conscience.

The message of every bar mitzvah is clear: You are part of a tradition that you are expected to continue. You need to learn and work so you can reach a standard for participation in your community. Being a man requires you to accept responsibility for your behaviour.

I’m not naïve enough to believe that every Jewish boy hears, let alone internalises, these messages. But if bar mitzvah teaching is effective in any way, it’s hard for a boy to completely miss the point that becoming a man in Judaism is about responsibility, or that the standards they are expected to meet are about knowledge, skill and community – not physical or social strength.

Of course, there are other messages too, and some of these are more problematic. In most Orthodox contexts, where only men are called to the Torah, boys learn men have rights that women do not have. Even when girls are offered a meaningful alternative, there is a subtext that what men do is more important than what women do. Ergo, men are more important than women.

On the other hand, in contexts where women are called to the Torah and bat mitzvah mirrors bar mitzvah, boys learn that becoming a man looks much the same as becoming a woman. They lose the “man club” of the male-only minyan and gain a definition of community that includes women as equals.

Parents choosing a synagogue would be wise to think hard about which of these messages they want to impart.  

Bar mitzvah is recognised as a seminal plank in building Jewish identity. At a time when masculine identity is deeply troubled, we should also think about the messages it gives our sons about what it means to be a man.

We could incorporate discussing the story of Esau and Jacob or Cain and Abel to discuss contrasting models of manhood. We could include examples of toxic masculinity and online misbehaviour in our teaching about kavod (respect). We could ensure our sons know the stories of Deborah’s courage, Beruriah’s wisdom and Ruth Bader Ginsberg's tenacity, not just those of a bunch of male role models.

As that Protestant headmaster observed, we have a distinct opportunity in the tradition we have inherited.

But our children are as influenced as any other by the broader social and media culture. We need to ensure we are making the most of our tradition to communicate the messages we want our children to hear for our time, about gender as well as about Judaism.

About the author

Deborah Stone

Deborah Stone is Editor-in-Chief of TJI. She has more than 30 years experience as a journalist and editor, including as a reporter and feature writer on The Age and The Sunday Age, as Editor of the Australian Jewish News and as Editor of ArtsHub.


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