I am not a tough Jew, and I don’t want to be one, either. Last week, Bill Fedullo wrote an op-ed about how the image of the “tough Jew” impacts diaspora Jews’ perceptions of the State of Israel. I’m not sure whether Fedullo is familiar with the extent to which contemporary Jewish studies scholars have come to critique this trope, and I don’t blame him if he isn’t; the tough Jew is pervasive, and the field of Jewish studies is esoteric. But I nonetheless do not want to be lumped in with a general Jewish population assumed to idealize the tough Jew, because I definitely don’t. So I’m writing this op-ed.
An Israeli army physical fitness book published following the 1967 war does a nice job of summarizing what has come to be called the “new” or the “tough” Jew: “The ‘traditional Jew’ of Eastern Europe was known, in the past, for his capability to bear mental sufferings and moral tortures and for his physical weakness…With the new Israel it is quite different. The citizen is taller, he has broad shoulders and his muscles are stronger.” It’s worth noting as well, as Todd Samuel Presner does in his book “Muscular Judaism,” that the new Jew is, as indicated by the many “he’s” in the above excerpt, decidedly male, as well as defined by his ability to inflict violence. This widely disseminated exercise manual—my family owns a copy—paints old country Ashkenazi Jews as impotent and needing to be replaced by a more masculine and powerful image. I don’t want to see my ancestors as impotent, and I don’t think they were. Some of them were eighteenth century scholars of Jewish law, whose works are still studied today. My grandparents were not passive victims, but ingenious resistors of Nazi control both prior to and during their imprisonment in concentration camps.
Let’s switch gears to what I really care about: Jewish religious texts. In I Samuel, the Israelites plead to Samuel to appoint them a king “to judge us like all the (other) nations” (I Samuel 8). Samuel warns the people of the oppression that will ensue if he coronates a king, but after being convinced by God, he begrudgingly does so. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t work out so well for the Israelites. As a note, my use of the term “Israelites” is not a statement regarding Zionism, but the scholarly term for the people described in the Bible who later became Jews, also known as the descendants of a person named Israel. Lesson # 1: It doesn’t work out for Jews when we try to imitate the oppressive norms of the communities around us. It’s also just immoral to do so.
But the Bible isn’t really the foundational text of contemporary Judaism; the Talmud is. In the Babylonian Talmud, the bad boy gladiator Resh Lakish, who though ethnically Jewish, largely rejected Jewish culture, gives up his lance to study Jewish texts upon seeing a leading scholar, Rabbi Yohanan, bathing in the Jordan River. Upon first glance, Resh Lakish thinks Rabbi Yohanan is a woman, and the reader presumes Resh Lakish approaches him as an object of his sexual desire. Indeed, Rabbi Yohanan is described elsewhere in the Talmud as looking effeminate. After finding out that the gender-bending Rabbi Yohanan isn’t a woman, Resh Lakish nonetheless calls him beautiful and enters into an arguably homoerotic relationship with him. The two go on to be the leading scholars of their generation. After the death of Resh Lakish, Rabbi Yohanan becomes inconsolably bereaved, and calls out for him as one does for a lost lover. Lesson #2: Jewish texts display models of masculinity very different from the “tough Jew.” This is just one example of gender-bending dudes in the Talmud among many. Scholars like Daniel Boyarin, Charlotte Fonrobert, and our own Professor Gwynn Kessler are my favorite starting points for learning about these texts. There are also a number of different trans and/or intersex characters discussed in the Talmud and other Rabbinic writings, though not always favorably.
As a transgender Jew, it doesn’t work out so well for me when our community continues to idealize an aggressive masculine ideal of nineteenth and twentieth century Europe (see Daniel Boyarin’s scholarship on the genesis of this trope). It’s worth noting that before Jews adopted this ideal, it was imposed on us as a sort of civilizing mission, since Jews were seen as broadly and unacceptably gender nonconforming (again, thank you Boyarin). More than this ideal doesn’t work out for me, it really doesn’t work out for women. By continuing to idealize the tough Jew, we embrace an ideal of violence and we deride our ancestors. While we must be deeply committed to acknowledging and dealing with the misogyny of our textual tradition, our texts might also provide some alternatives to toxic masculinity, and to the “tough Jew.” It is not enough to simply assert alternative masculinities and pretend like that means the patriarchy is over. But ceasing to glorify aggressive masculinity is certainly a step.