Baboons, Bonobos, and Bar Mitzvah Boys

Rabbi Daniel Brenner, chief of education and program for Moving Traditions, recently delivered an ELI Talk at the Jewish Theological Seminary that is essential viewing for parents and educators who work with boys. In 17 minutes, Brenner synthesizes new insights in adolescent development, primatology, and gender theory, framed in the context of Jewish ethics.

We sat down with Rabbi Daniel Brenner to find out how and why he started connecting bonobos with bar mitzvah boys.

Where did the idea of this talk come from?

The presentation has its origins in the national training conference developed by Moving Traditions for Shevet Achim: The Brotherhood. Dr. Richard Stern, a clinical psychologist who is part of our training faculty, focuses on reclaiming the “mammalian” aspects of masculinity – drawing attention to the ways that males view caregiving, attachment, and connection to the group. The ELI Talk uses the specific example of primates to help move the conversation away from “men” and towards “males” to explore the origins of some of the spiritual and psychological challenges facing males.

Why focus on primates?

There is a myth that male aggression is “part of our DNA.” New work in primatology is showing us how radically different our male chimpanzee cousins and our male bonobo cousins are from one another – not based on genetics, but based on socialized gender codes. When we expand our lens of vision to the genus Pan, which includes both chimpanzees and bonobos, we can see how particular social and environmental pressures forced males into patterns of aggression and we can envision the changes males can make to better the lives of males and of all people.

How does this connect to Bar Mitzvah boys?

Bar Mitzvah boys are undergoing hormonal changes that make them more prone to aggression and they are entering the most dangerous decade of their lives in terms of risk. Many teen boys are making decisions to either “prove themselves” as men in the dominant culture or find an alternative path in the counterculture. Both bring with them dangers and extremes. The ELI Talk explores Maimonides’ vision of temperament and balance, and how that vision can help guide today’s teens.

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