And you knew who you were then/Girls were girls and men were men.” So sang Archie Bunker — and for all we’re taught in Hebrew school, “then” might as well mean in biblical times as in 1950s America.
But Archie’s ideal does not reflect biblical reality. Deborah, Yael, Miriam, and Sarah are hardly demure “girls.” And, doubtless reflecting Israel’s self-perception as a weak nation surrounded by stronger ones, biblical texts frequently favor younger, wimpier, “effeminate” men over older, more traditionally “masculine” ones — Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, and so on. Indeed, in biblical text, “manly men” are fundamentally incomplete: To fulfill one’s Divine mission as a male hero, one must become, in a sense, female — or more specifically, to use a somewhat explicit term from queer theory and experience, by learning to bottom for God. Here, I will explore two examples, the person who gives Israel its name, and the one who is its most famous king: Jacob and David.
The patriarch Jacob begins his life as the quintessential femme. He stays home and cooks, he’s his momma’s favorite, he’s smooth, he’s a twink. Esau is a hunter, hairy and manly. He is direct where Jacob is cunning, strong where Jacob is crafty. And yet, as we all know, Jacob, not Esau, is destined to father the 12 tribes; the femme-boy becomes the ultimate daddy.
Obviously, to do so Jacob must be transformed — an event that takes place the night he wrestles with the “man” late at night (“angel” is a later emendation). In many readings of Genesis 32, this is when Jacob “becomes a man.” Like Henry V or Luke Skywalker, the boyish hero becomes everything he wasn’t before: strong, violent, a man, manly.
Lurianic Kabbalah, however, reads Jacob’s coming of age very differently: not as a rejection of his role as a “womanly” man, but an acceptance of it. (I am grateful to Rabbi Ohad Ezrachi for introducing these texts to me.) Following the Zohar, it understands Jacob’s relationship with his two wives, Leah and Rachel, as a tikkun, a cosmic repair or completion, of Adam’s relationship with his two wives, Lilith and Eve.
Both Jacob and Adam initially reject their hyper-sexualized and strong first wives: Jacob at first desires the “girly girl” Rachel, rather than the sexually assertive Leah, just as Adam desired Eve the Bottom, not Lilith the Top.
Until that night of wrestling. There are many readings of what went on that night. In some, Jacob’s wound is understood to be on the sexual organ, “leg” being merely a euphemism for the genitals (as in mei raglayim, “leg water,” i.e., urine). In others, the wound to his sciatic nerve is understood as the result of a sexual assault on the buttocks. But whatever went on, Jacob is indeed transformed by a sexualized encounter with a mysterious “man.” His new name, Yisra- El, means not only “Wrestles with God” but “God is victorious.” God wins, I submit. God is on top, I am on the bottom. And after this episode, everything shifts. Rachel drops out of the story (she dies shortly thereafter), we hear no more about Leah being undesired, and Jacob is able to embrace, literally, his butch brother Esau.
In short, a femme man is exactly who Jacob is supposed to be in order to repair what Adam had broken, and engender the people Israel. He need no longer fear the sexually assertive Leah; he can bottom for her, and fulfill his destiny as progenitor of Israel. He can be the agent of God’s action in the world because he has learned to bottom.
The story of David develops this theme more fully. David, like Jacob, is a femme: a beautiful youth who plays the harp and carries Jonathan’s armor. As brilliantly analyzed in Theodore Jennings’ Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel, David’s brief but passionate love affair with Jonathan prepares him for his destiny as God’s lover. In both cases, David’s role is that of the “armor-bearer” — universally understood in Mediterranean and Near Eastern literature as the younger, more beautiful, eromenos, or bottom — first to Jonathan’s erastes, and second to YHVH’s.
That David and Jonathan’s relationship was, in part, sexual is beyond serious doubt; that is part and parcel of the warrior warrior love convention. Saul knows this too, castigating Jonathan for choosing “the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness?” (1 Sam 20:31) and teasing David for having married two of his children, i.e. Michal and Jonathan. (1 Sam 18:21) And of course the young men cry, embrace, and kiss (1 Sam 20:41), and David famously laments that Jonathan’s “love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” (2 Sam 1:26).
Yet the story is ultimately about neither lust nor court intrigue. Ultimately, it is David’s destiny to be God’s eromenos even as he is Israel’s erastes, and he must train for both roles. David stands between two lovers, God above and Israel beneath. (Invoking theosophical Kabbalah, David is malchut, the receptive-feminine-bottom for all of the Godhead, who in turn transmits the Divine influx below.) As king of Israel, David must play such a dual role in order to at once rule (over Israel) and be ruled (by God). And in order to do that, he must learn how to “carry the armor” of another man.
Jacob and David are surely the Bible’s two greatest heroes: one the father of a nation, the other the outstanding king of it. Yet in stark contrast to what we today might expect of our male heroic figures, both become heroes when they learn, in sexual or sexualized encounters with other men, how to fulfill their destiny as bottoms. This is not to say that David and Jacob were “gay,” a contemporary term that has no echo in biblical text. Rather, our Jewish heroes are, to use a loathsome but apt phrase, “pussy-boys,” because only in this gender-fluid space can they be at once the tops of a nation and the ultimate bottoms for God
Jay Michaelson is a columnist for the Forward, The Huffington Post, Zeek, and Reality Sandwich, and the executive director of Nehirim: GLBT Jewish Culture & Spirituality. His newest book is Everything is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism (Shambhala, 2009).
BOYS? WHY BOYS?
Moving Traditions launched with programs for Jewish girls — for Rosh Hodesh groups and Bat Mitzvah celebrations. The organization’s newest program is called “Campaign for Jewish Boys.” Lilith editor in chief Susan Weidman Schneider asked MT’s founder and chair, Sally Gottesman, “Why?”
SG: We know that boys and young men participate in Jewish activities less than girls do. One Hillel director told us that 80% of people participating in his campus’s non-Orthodox programs are women.
SWS: Of course, there wasn’t the same worry about participation when the numbers were overwhelmingly male! But what do you think is the reason now for this skewing?
SG: Men are dropping out, but not because women have come in—that’s a canard! Women enter a field when the men are leaving. Take the rabbinate. Is it that women start to play in the game and then men leave? No. Men used to become rabbis because anti-Semitism kept them out of politics and CEO jobs. As that changed, being a rabbi wasn’t as appealing. I think first a field becomes devalued and then women can come in. Judaism had already become devalued.
It becomes cyclical: fewer men participate, so it becomes less popular for other men, and then the next generation of boys has fewer role models of men participating.
SWS: What will help boys and men see Judaism as valuable? Yourresearch has found that Judaism provides some boys with resilience, and with an “alternative” masculinity.
SG: We need to provide space for boys to meet separately from girls, the way we make it available to girls and women to explore what Judaism has to offer. We want to find activities that draw on Judaism and give boys the opportunity to explore issues they care about––friendship, sex, power, money, work. …
One of our ideas for Moving Traditions was to do something with fathers and sons. We found that, for fathers who were not comfortable with their own Jewish identity, even though they wanted to spend time with their sons they did not want to do it in a Jewish context. A place where you’re not comfortable is the last place you want to spend time with your son.
SWS: I’d bet that some of these dads fear they’ll be less adept at Jewish activities than they are at work, or at play. There’s an unfamiliar language, strange rhythms. Why put yourself at the bottom of the class? It’s easier, it seems to me, for women to admit to ignorance. You can blame it on sexism or the lack of opportunity. The system is at fault. What’s more, there’s so much offered for women––adult bat mitzvah classes, challah-baking demonstrations, lectures on Bible women, the works––so remediation is readily available. Will Moving Traditions offer some of this to men and boys? For women there’s the excitement of making discoveries, inventing new rituals. What can you imagine will elicit this kind of enthusiasm for men?
SG: A couple of examples: Right now, Brit Milah [bris] has changed because of Simchat Bat, the naming ceremony for a newborn daughter. Families are doing a bit more, not just having the mohel come in. Introducing the foremothers — Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca and Leah — into the liturgy has suddenly got men thinking about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in relation to these women — not just as isolated male figures.
SWS: The classic question used to be “What do women want?” Is there some danger — now that the focus is on what men and boys want — that progress on women’s issues will be halted?
SG: I think that feminism is about helping women and men become full human beings, and we are inching slowly towards this.