Questioning the Values Men Pass on to Their Sons

By Yisrael Helfand, M.S., Ph.D.
From Torchlight a publication of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs
Fall 1992

My name, Yisrael, is of great importance to me. Yisrael means ‘He Who Struggles with God.’ The most important prayer in Judaism is the Shema. Shema, Yisrael… Listen, Israel. What that means, a Rabbi once explained to me, is… ‘Shush, Israel, quiet the chatter in your head. Stop the part of you that questions whether God exists, or questions what God’s will is. Quiet down and listen to what I have to say.’

So allow me to address the Yisrael in all of us. Shema, Yisrael… Shush, Israel… quiet the chatter in your heads, and listen to what I have to share. Take a couple of deep breaths and let yourself experience my words…

Anti-Semitism is probably the oldest prejudice known to man. Over the years, Jewish people have learned to accommodate to lives of oppression, even in times of freedom, by repressing their anger and elevating the importance of intellect; it is hurting us and is causing our children to question their parents’ values and rebel.

Men, our children need more of our time, because they are getting a message that our success in work and intellect is more important than they are. Children rebel. On an overt level, this rebellion turns into drugs, sex, lying, cheating, maybe even trouble with the law. Later, even if they’ve grown out of their adolescent acting out, on a covert level, they intermarry, they embrace Eastern religions, or they are ambivalent about being Jewish.

Men have become human doings instead of human beings, values that have brought men away from their family either because they work long hours or because, when they do get home at the end of a day, they gave all they had to give at the office and have only their temperament to offer at home…

Jewish men act oppressed by not thinking that they can move, by not thinking they can make a career change, by not thinking they can change the world’s condition, by being judgmental of other people, by not feeling they can take a risk, by not feeling like, as Joseph Campbell says, they can follow their bliss, their heart’s desire. Imagine life without self-imposed limitations.

Imagine what it would be like to have a place to share important questions, and be witnessed, and experience being heard – a place where speaking from the heart was the norm. These are not forums that our fathers had, and these are not forums that many of us have. But if people could share with each other on a deeper level, give each other permission to feel sad and to feel angry, to feel confused, and be witnessed by other people who are feeling the same way, it opens the door to feelings of joy. The men I work with refer to themselves as a community of lonely individuals. Even psychotherapy focuses on individuation more than community involvement. Thanks to the men’s movement, men’s councils are springing up all over the country to provide men with this needed forum.

Our fathers were models of sacrifice, and they did it to provide for us, in many cases, to give us the things that they never had. What they didn’t know is that they didn’t have to give. We’re in danger of making the same mistakes with our own children.

The loss of meaningful ritual, custom, and ceremony needs to be addressed. The Bar Mitzvah is a rich rite of passage from boyhood to manhood, but today’s experience is not as full as it could be. One ceremonial suggestion is for elders to take the boy and the father away from the mother and their home for a time of ritual. This loss, and my message, is symbolized in a story told by the Baal Shem Tov, and retold by Elie Wiesel:

My great grandfather knew the location of the holy place, he knew the sacred words and he knew the traditional melody.

My grandfather knew the location of the holy place, he also knew the sacred words and he had forgotten the ritual melody.

My father knew the location of the holy place, but he did not know the sacred words and he did not know the traditional melody.

I know only the story, and I feel the emptiness of not knowing more.