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Q & A
Q&A: Fixing the ‘broken American male’ Mary Jacobs, Jul 9, 2008
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach says the United States is full of people who aren’t happy—men who feel like failures and women who feel as if they’re not good enough. “Soulless capitalism,” he says, has created a world full of dazzling choices and miserable people.
He offers an alternative in his new book, The Broken American Male and How to Fix Him (St. Martin’s Press). Mr. Boteach is also author of Kosher Sex, host of the cable TV program Shalom in the Home and the father of eight children.
He spoke recently with staff writer Mary Jacobs.
What do you mean when you say the American male is ‘broken’?
He doesn’t have confidence. He doesn’t feel good about his himself. He doesn’t know how to relate emotionally to people in general, to women or to his wife in particular. He doesn’t like himself. He lives through the accoutrements he acquires. He’s still a hunter-gatherer. He used to gather food, now he gathers Rolex watches. He feels good about the status he’s achieved in society, but little by little, he’s being dehumanized.
You blame “soulless capitalism” on a lot of the problems of American families. What’s the connection?
I’m a capitalist. Let’s not make any mistake about that. Communism is mostly an evil system, and even socialism, I think, snuffs out too much of the initiative of the individual, so I’m a capitalist. But I don’t believe in soulless capitalism. Capitalism must be augmented by a spiritual system. The very nature of capitalism is that it makes you feel inadequate. It gets you to want things to make you happy.
Capitalism without a spiritual system to augment it can be very soulless. I think capitalism needs to be balanced by a spiritual quest. The material quest needs a spiritual quest alongside it. I don’t know that anyone can seriously argue with that.
How can faith groups begin to offer an alternative?
First, by emphasizing that we’re all children of God, and that’s what grants us intrinsic value. Second, religious groups and faith-based groups give a better definition of success. It’s not just money in the bank, it’s not the quantity in your bank account; it’s the quality of your relationships.
Right now, with the bad economy, some might argue that the pressure on men and women is not just a matter of accumulating. There’s a lot of stress just to get by.
Yes and no. I’m not saying every American family is materialistic. I’m saying in our culture we have trained men to judge themselves by their professional success far too much, and that is impervious to the state of the economy. Whether the economy is good or bad, we’re still going to have Donald Trump doing a show called The Apprentice. He’s still held up as a model of success. But that’s purely professional model of success; it’s not a holistic definition of success. The successful man is he who wrestles with his nature, he who contributes to his community, he who gains wisdom through life. He’s not just a man who spends a lot of time in the office to put his name on a building.
I was intrigued by a question you posed in your book, “Does a country with a 50-percent divorce rate deserve to call itself civilized?” We think of ourselves as civilized. How did this “uncivilized” trend get started?
There are many answers to that question, “What led to this rot?” But you are phrasing this question very appropriately. We are civilized in virtually every other sphere. How is it that we don’t know how to love each other anymore? How is it that a man and a woman cannot sustain a relationship longer than an average of four to seven years?
The principle reason is this very corrosive definition of success. If you tell a man or a woman that they can only make something of themselves in the office, they won’t devote as much time to the house. They’re going to feel successful, even thrilled in the office, and they’re going to feel slightly bored at home. We define success by professional achievements, and so we neglect the home.
People like Donald Trump may seem like bad role models to you and me, but young people may find them attractive. How do you combat those kinds of role models in your home?
I don’t demonize these people. Donald Trump has many other virtues. It’s just that he’s only half a success. To answer your question directly, I try to give my children more wholesome heroes. That’s why we read the Bible together, that’s why we’re religious Jews, so they can have heroic figures they can aspire to, to emulate. Moses was the greatest Jewish prophet because he was the most humble man who walked the earth. Abraham was a tribal chieftain who had an open tent to all wayfarers. Hospitality and kindness was his defining characteristic.
This is not a negative message that men are broken. It’s a positive message about how we can heal men and give them a more wholesome definition of success, get them to open up more and relate to their wives—emotionally, intimately, passionately—to inspire their children and to bring light to the American home.