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Models of Masculinity
by Susan Reimer-Torn
WOULD ANY ATTEMPT to profile the Jewish male lapse into an irritating stereotype? Probably. But the rabbis of the Talmud do not flinch from examining issues of masculinity, and their portrait of the ideal male has left an imprint on Jewish cultural assumptions to this day.
Some aspects of their profile come as no great surprise: The rabbis are generally low on testosterone-fueled behavior and defy the Roman masculine ideal of aggression and brutality, distinguished by physical conquest, that they confronted living under Roman rule in ancient Israel. The ideal Jewish man, rather, is a master of intellectual challenges, excelling in his devotion to text, to piety, to self-restraint, to character. Heroics come down to discovering a new fine nuance of law.
Yet the rabbis were not fully at ease with their chosen version of masculinity. Their sense of well-being was easily threatened by gentiles, by women, by their own yetzer hara, i.e., lusts or “evil inclinations." The aggadah (storytelling aspect of the Talmud) is delightfully unguarded when telling of the struggle the greatest rabbis had with their own sublimated passions — and their urges, once activated, were not necessarily for women.
Here is a dashing story (from Bava Metzia 84a-b) of the meeting of Rabbi Yokhanan — known as the most beautiful man in all of Pumbedita (a city in ancient Babylon, near modern Fallujah, famous for its rabbinic academy) — and Resh Lakish, the town’s boldest bandit (variously described by scholars as a gladiator, a thief, and a sheriff):
One day Rabbi Yochanan was swimming in the Jordan. Resh Lakish saw him and jumped into the Jordan after him. He [R. Yokhanan] said: "You should use your strength for Torah." He [Resh Lakish] said: "You should use your good looks for women." [R. Yokhanan] said: "If you return to Torah, I will give you my sister (for a wife), who is better looking than I am."
[Resh Lakish] accepted this offer. He tried to do a return jump to retrieve his weapons and was unable.
He then learned Tanakh and studied the Talmud and became a great man.
One day, they were arguing in the study hall. "A sword, a knife, a dagger, a spear, a sickle and a scythe, from which point are they susceptible to ritual impurity? From the time that they are completed."
When is that point of completion?
[R. Yokhanan] said: "When they are forged in the fire."
Resh Lakish said: "When they are rinsed with water."
[R. Yokhanan] said to him: "The bandit knows his trade."
[Resh Lakish] said to him: "And how did you benefit me? There [when I was a bandit], I was called the master, and here I am called the master."
[R. Yokhanan] said to him: "I helped you because I brought you closer under the wings of the Divine presence."
Rabbi Yokhanan became depressed. Resh Lakish became sick. His sister came crying to Rabbi Yokhanan.
She said: "Do it [i.e., forgive Resh Lakish or pray for him] for the sake of my son."
He said: "Leave your orphans; I will revive them" (Yirmiyahu 49:11).
She said: "Do it because of my widowhood."
He said: "The widows should trust in Me" (ibid.).
Resh Lakish passed away. Rabbi Yokhanan was very pained by his passing. The rabbis said: "Who will go and help calm Rabbi Yokhanan? Let Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat go, for he is sharp in learning."
He went and sat in from of Rabbi Yokhanan. Every time Rabbi Yokhanan said something, Rabbi Elazar cited a supporting Tannaitic source.
Rabbi Yokhanan said: "Are you like the son of Lakish? When I said something, the son of Lakish would ask me twenty-four questions, and I would respond with twenty-four answers. As a result, learning increased. And you tell me a Tannaitic support. Do I not know that I say good ideas?"
He walked, and tore his garment, and wept.
He said: "Where are you, son of Lakish? Where are you, son of Lakish?" He was crying out until he lost his mind. The rabbis asked for mercy on him and he passed away.
Who started it all? I’m not sure it matters. Rabbi Yokhanan, beardless and beautiful as a young woman, is bathing in the rushing waters of the Jordan River. (Somewhere in the Talmud it says that the Jordan River when it flows through Babylon is wider than the Tigris and more furious than the Euphrates. I am not sure that the real Jordan even flows through Babylon, but we are buoyed and tossed in the currents of metaphor.)
I imagine Resh Lakish stands on one bank of the river flanked by his bullying brigand of thieves. He glimpses longingly at the naked Yokhanan. (Many interpreters suggest that Resh Lakish took him for a woman, but the text does not state that plainly. To the contrary...) On the opposite bank stand the disciples of the impossibly alluring young sage. Resh Lakish strips and jumps into the waters to be close to the object of his desire. Rabbi Yokhanan asks the thief to consecrate his strength to Torah; the thief chides the rabbi that his beauty should be devoted to womanizing. (Again, many interpreters suggest that Resh Lakish was saying, "You're so beautiful, you ought to be a woman." But the plain text...)
There is an instant bond between the two men — and almost immediately, the son of Lakish is no longer able to leap, not even to retrieve his own weapons. He is “reborn” by immersion in these waters, but as a man devoid of the physical prowess that has marked his life thus far. The analogy to Jacob, transformed into Israel but injured, lamed, from his wrestling match with the angel on the banks of a river in the book of Genesis, is obvious. To become a mentsh, in both stories, a man must have his physical manhood somehow subdued.
Resh Lakish is lured into a life of study by the promise of Reb Yokhanan’s knockout sister in marriage. But we already know that to him the compelling figure is another man. The lives of these two men merge meaningfully for many years, until their pact is ruptured in a quarrel over a fine point of law. In that argument, Yokhanan mocks Resh Lakish and drags up his bandit past. Resh Lakish, in turn, disses him with a "What makes you such a bigshot?"
In her book, A Bride for One Night, Ruth Calderon refers to Rabbi Yokhanan’s anxiety about his own masculinity, a vulnerability that comes up frequently for the feminized men in the aggadah. She says, “Rabbi Yokhanan and Resh Lakish are examples of the dichotomous image of the Jewish male, the opposite poles of pulchritude and power. They represent too, a tension that might exist in the heart of the individual man.”
Resh Lakish is the swashbuckler, the outlaw, who leaps across rushing rivers and intimidates with his phallic sword. Yokhanan is the outstanding scholar, the impeccably groomed metro-sexual, the somewhat emasculated, award-winning good boy. There is a highly charged attraction between these polarities, whether between two mutually enamored men or within the conflicted breast of a single being. Both interpretations seem valid. In what way, I wonder, does a contemporary Jewish man recognize himself in this dichotomy?
THE QUARREL OF TWO SCHOLARS, on the surface, seems minor, even superficial. The disputed question is: At what point are metal weapons and tools regarded as completed in their manufacture and thereby liable to becoming ritually impure? Yokhanan says it is when they are taken out of the furnace, while Resh Lakish insists it is only when they are tempered by being dipped in water. The two likely disagreed many times about such technicalities over the years. Why does this quarrel escalate so violently this time? Why must one of them die of heartache and the other goes mad with grief until he too expires?
They seem to have a study-house codependence built on repressed homoerotic passions. An eruption seems only a matter of time. The long-time denial of feelings, the inability to be honest, along with the presumed accumulation of small, unvoiced resentments makes for an explosive brew. Who has not quarreled bitterly over something seemingly small because of all that has too long gone unexpressed?
Calderon points to another lethal ingredient. As soon as Resh Lakish agrees to Yokhanan’s conditions, he leaves a big part of himself behind. He can no longer leap or retrieve his weapons. His devotion to Yokhanan and to Torah is predicated on the loss of self. This results in a draining of vital energies, because Resh Lakish is a warrior who has betrayed his own nature. Unlike Jacob, who is a Biblical momma's boy until his betrayal of Esau forces him into the wilderness, Resh Lakish is more Esau-like (and Esau, too, it should be remembered, mellows and becomes forgiving by the time he encounters his brother, Jacob-become-Israel, years after the betrayal).
The argument that brings them nearly to blows has to do with the weaponry that Resh Lakish knew all too well in his former life. Calderon suggests, “If only Resh Lakish had kept his knife. If only he had allowed himself to be a bit of a bandit in the study house.” Perhaps, then, he would not have felt humiliated by Yokhanan's jibe, "A bandit knows his trade," and could have simply answered, "Damned right."
ONE WOULD ASSUME that the Talmudic rabbis would applaud a story about an outlaw who is domesticated by the Torah. Instead, the tale seems cautionary, warning us not to seek piety or learnedness by alienating ourselves from who we really are. It is the whole self that has to be brought to study and good deeds if one is to assume spiritual authority and sustain wholeness.
And what if this story were told from the point of view of the sister/wife who tries, and tragically fails, to reconcile her brother Yokhanan to her husband, Resh Lakish. Why is she, a beautiful and dedicated woman, fated to helplessly watch them both die? Stay tuned...
Susan Reimer-Torn is the author of Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return, published by our own Blue Thread Books and Music. She writes regularly for The Jewish Week, most recently about dancer Anna Sokolow.
To see an animation interpreting Bava Metzia 84a-b God-cast.com: Meaningful Jewish Screentime, look below.