There is a culture war raging in Israel. The extremists are pushing for an ever-expanding division of the sexes – including separate seating on public buses – and the moderates are refusing to go along for the ride. The struggle has filled newspapers and blogs the world over.
And it raises a larger question.
How should the Orthodox Jewish community deal with human temptation? Does removing challenges make the male spiritual immune system stronger? Does it make our masculinity more dignified?
Most people will agree that men and women are essentially different and face different challenges. Most men will agree that the basic male nature – without God or spiritual influence – is to pursue power and promiscuity.
From the day he is born man wants to be mighty, to make an imprint on the world. Jewish tradition teaches that this desire comes from a good place. Our soul is endowed with the knowledge that the purpose of life is to improve self and inspire others, to affect the world we inhabit in a positive way.
The male’s challenge is his ego, the drive that leads him, as a cow is led to pasture, to chase the fool’s gold of fame, fortune and physical pleasure.
Judaism teaches that we should have an ego. It says, in fact, that we should have an “eighth of an eighth” of haughtiness (Sotah 5a).
It doesn’t ask us to overcome our pride entirely. Why? Because spending our lives on a “seek and destroy” mission against our ego will send us down a troubled path. We may destroy our self-confidence in the process. And we may spend so much time overcoming the ego that the lack of haughtiness becomes our identity – our pride. Circuitously, we may reinforce the trait we sought to weaken.
The male ego can never be entirely removed. It is like removing fat from a well-marbled piece of meat; the more you uncover, the more you will find.
So what was God’s plan? How is man to overcome his nature? By taking responsibility. Marrying, working, caring for a wife, tending growing children with increasing and changing needs, joining a synagogue and committing to community are the things that keep man rooted, humble, and down to earth.
The same is true with man’s second primal desire. The male attraction to the female was created by God. The more one tries to remove temptation, the more things will become tempting. Asking women to sit in the back half of the bus, or to walk on another side of the street, will result in their very presence being a distraction. The more you cover, the more things you will observe.
The solution was written in the Torah. It was defined as the reality of the world after Adam left the Garden of Eden. Man should be busy. Man should work hard. Man should do the things men do best: protect and provide for the wife and children they love.
When I was a bachur in yeshiva, we sought deeper meanings in the words of Chazal; the derash fascinated us more than the pshat. As I grow older, the words of Chazal ring clearer and deeper in their most basic meanings. And these are words I love: Rabban Gamliel says (Avos 2:2), “How wonderful is the study of Torah with work, as involvement with both makes one forget sin.”
May it be God’s will.
Yaakov Rosenblatt, the author of two books, “tends the flock,” literally and figuratively, as CEO of A.D. Rosenblatt Kosher Meats, LLC and a rabbi with NCSY in Dallas.