As Miriam’s Cup Runneth Over, Jewish Men Go Missing in Action

Right Angles

By Noam Neusner

Published April 01, 2009, issue of April 10, 2009.
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The feminist project of rethinking the Seder has begun — and my home is its next front. My eldest daughter, who recently became bat mitzvah, received as a gift a Miriam’s Cup. I’m not wild about such feminist flourishes, but as a father of three daughters, I dare not oppose them even if I find them questionable, lest I risk exile in my own home.

Besides which, what difference does Miriam’s Cup make to me? If adding a symbol of femininity to the Passover table makes the Seder more meaningful for half of all Jews, some of whom are my own children, all the better. Less than a century ago, much was made of the bat mitzvah, and now virtually everyone does that. Times change, traditions change.

The fact that women — whether they are militant feminists or not — are bringing new symbols, literature and liturgy to Jewish life should be welcomed, even when their innovations are misguided and difficult to reconcile with Jewish tradition (as I believe they sometimes can be). After all, at least they care enough to bother to engage seriously with Judaism, bringing it new vitality and forcing a discussion over whether something we call “tradition” is really “sexist.”

The problem is that, in the more liberal denominations, there is no counterbalancing enthusiasm for grappling with tradition among Jewish men. Among the Orthodox, of course, men are still held to be the authorities at home and in the community. Within the Reform and Conservative movements, however, Jewish men are drifting to the margins. And they’re not being pushed.

The Reform movement’s rabbinical schools will ordain 43 rabbis this year — 30 of them women. At Jewish summer camps, youth groups and campus Hillels, girls are running the show. Go to the photos on your synagogue wall of confirmation classes. You will likely see a trend (besides the hair styles): With each passing year, the share of young men shrinks.

I attended an adult bar mitzvah ceremony for Jewish men a few years ago. The female rabbi who presided remarked how rare it is for adult Jewish men to find fresh purpose in Jewish learning and heritage. More typical, she observed, is the Shabbat where the moms take the kids to shul, and the dads play golf.

Some say that it is the feminization of Judaism that’s turning off men. But if Jewish men are opting not to take on the responsibilities of spiritual authority in many Jewish homes, it’s not the fault of the women. It’s the fault of the men.

In the Reform and Conservative movements, Jewish men are increasingly abandoning their responsibilities to be men, as understood by Jewish law and tradition. They are just giving up. These responsibilities, of course, come with significant pressure and demand real work, not to mention study and seriousness. Men have to show up and pray, and set an example of observance at home and in the community. Fulfilling these responsibilities might mean spending less time preparing for the fantasy baseball draft and more time preparing to run a meaningful Seder.

And what if Jewish men do not rise to the challenge — or, more accurately, what if they continue to shirk it? Is that necessarily a bad thing? Of course. Judaism — like all faiths — finds its fullest form in its practice by both sexes in union, without exclusion. Granted, that is easier said than done, but that is the ideal.

So this Passover, why don’t we Jewish men try acting like men. Instead of kvetching about Miriam’s Cup, let’s show what we can bring to the Seder table.

Noam Neusner is the principal of Neusner Communications, LLC. He served as President Bush’s principal economic and domestic policy speechwriter from 2002 to 2004.

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