Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Thoughts about the Mechitza – a Religious and Cultural Entity

We have these friends, Ari and Stacy Goldberg who raised an amazing daughter Rina. Unfortunately Rina was a very sick child and yet her intelligence, both the intuitive reactions of a child and the wisdom of an old soul was beyond incredible. At her funeral this past winter (Rina was 15 when she died), Ari told the following story. When the Goldbergs moved to our community in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania some years ago, for a variety of reasons, they decided to call the Young Israel of Elkins Park their shul. They proceeded to explain to Rina that there would be separate seating of boys and girls and that she would sit with Ima while Abba would sit with the boys, as this was not the case in their previous dovenning (prayer) community. They then explained that there would be a divider, the Mechitza. Ari continued that they were unsure of how Rina would respond to this new phenomenon. After she saw it, she was exuberant and claimed that she liked the statement of “Girl Power!”

This story has stayed with me and added an important dimension as I have watched the continuing drama of the Mechitza unfold in our various Orthodox congregations. I want to specify that for the purposes of this discussion I am not discussing the Yeshiva or the Right (more Haredi type) part of Orthodox spectrum, but rather those of us in the Modern Orthodox world in its widest breadth.

Having grown up as a clearly observant Halachic Jew in the Conservative movement (yes, many communities like this existed pre 1975), I remember Conservative shuls that had separate seating options, the low and reasonable (meeting the standards of Halacha) Mechitzas in the Orthodox shuls in which I found myself and of course have very specific memories of the “Mechitza-in-the-round” of Lincoln Square Synagogue during my college years. My world was NOT the world of Ner Yisrael, Black Hats, and floor to ceiling separations between men who were active and women who were passive and barely present. Rather we were all observant of Halacha while interacting with each other as appropriate. This is my history; this is my context!

So, today I am somewhere between amused, confused, and just plain baffled regarding the increasing height and separation wielded by the Mechitzot that people build….. and I am NOT talking about the Yeshiva world! I once had the experience in a Community Jewish Day School where a few young men wanted to build a “bigger and better” Mechitza than the one that was there and as a result the Mechitza in this school now separates and divides more than the one at the local Orthodox Jewish High School in the same community.

People want the most and the biggest and the thickest Mechitza! People hate the Mechitza! People are confused about the Mechitza! Is this political, religious, historical, cultural or some combination of all of the above?

So, now I will continue with a story about a very different Mechitza. In Yerushalayim, the shul of choice for most of our family is Shira Hadasha. They have what we affectionately call “the moving Mechitza.” After so much thought and scholarly study and exploration and learning, this congregation makes the distinction between those things that we do because of obligation (chiyuv) and who has the obligation in certain aspects of the service such as Kaddish and other Devarim she B’Kedusha – thus requiring the needed Minyan of men, davening Shaharit, and so on. In such situations, one is halachically bound to make a distinction between those with the chiyuv (in this case, men) and those who do not have the same level of chiyuv (women). This makes sense in terms of the Mechitza.

True, there are many other explanations – women and men should not look at each other (definitely a problem those years ago at the Mechitza-in-the-round shul in New York), people will talk (don’t even get me started on the lack of success the Mechitza has on this score!) and so many others, some legitimate issues and others, well…. Let’s just say some of the explanations have as much to do with Halacha, I mean actual Halacha, as the decision made in one Israeli community for women to wear Burkas to practice the modesty that is part of our law!

So, in dovenning at Shira Hadasha, given that they push so many limits within the frame of Halacha in terms of what women can and will do in the public domain (i.e. participate in those part of the service dictated by minhag more than chiyuv, give Divrei Torah, make announcements – which by the way, one President of a Modern Orthodox shul recently told me was against Halacha, you can imagine my surprise on that one! --, and just be present and visible and valued as part of the Kehilah), I wonder sometimes about the moving Mechitzah, closed when chiyuv separates the group and open appropriately when it does not.

And then I finally got it, after 10 years of dovenning in this wonderful space. It’s Rina’s voice in my head saying “Girl Power!” Yes, we can come together as men and women, both separate and equal, respectfully and halachically. This was the original idea I grew up with when Modern Orthodox (just called Orthodox in those days, plain old Orthodox!) and Halachic Conservative Jews learned, prayed and lived together in shared Jewish spaces. Funny enough, I meet some of those people from my long ago past in Baltimore from time to time. Guess where… Yes, you guessed, at Shira Hadasha on Emek Refaim in Jerusalem!


  1. Dear Sunnie-

    Thank you for your thought provoking posting. I am not orthodox, but sometimes find myself davening in an orthodox shul for a variety of reasons.

    I have no problem with the mechitzah-I am there to pray and listen to a D'var Torah, not to socialize with my husband but here is what I have found DOES bother me about the women's section:

    Many women do not want to pray and the talking is so annoying.
    There is an expectation-at least at the shul in Pittsburgh where my sister-in-law and her husband go that the women-all the women-will leave at some point and get the kiddush ready. As I said-I am there to pray! As long as there is a minyan, why can't men put herring in a dish?

    That being said-I DO have a problem with the words and notion that women cannot be counted in a minyan. I respect it when I am there, but the words-DO NOT COUNT-are very painful. I KNOW that God hears and listens to my prayers. I do understand why women do not have the same obligations as men. But, I do not have young children and my husband is more than willing to help with a meal so I can count. I would never rock the boat in "someone else's home" but I just had to say that.

    A few years ago some Conservative synagogues that were not yet egalitarian decided that a woman could be counted in the minyan if she passed some sort of observance "litmus test." No such test existed for a man; any Jewish man could be counted in a minyan. I think that some of the sisterhoods in those synagogues did not let that happen.

    As far as looking over the michitzah goes, I thought that one of the reason why unmarried women don't wear head coverings is so that the unmarried man can know who they are and actually look at them to see who's out there?

    All that being said-I have lead services for all women's minyanim at Women's League for Conservative Judaism regional conferences for years and find that to be a wonderful and moving experience. There is something to be said for a group of women who do volunteer work and study together by day and get to know each other and become good friends over the years davening together. It is very powerful!!! And, as it is for women only study, such as a Rosh Hodesh group, women only prayer can be incredible!

    L'Shana Tovah U' M'tukah!
    Terre Foreman

  2. Dear Sunnie and Terre,
    Here are my two cents - I do daven in an orthodox shul. Naturally, I am not only behind the mehitzah, I am on the second floor altogether. That doesn't bother me at all. I am more bothered by the women who come very rarely and chat instead of praying, because, just like you said - I am there to pray.
    But, I have a question to you, Sunnie, because I believe you know the actual real answer, according to the law. You know that I am a widow. Now so it happened that my brother-in-law passed on this year of the same disease and within a week's difference from my husband's yortzait. He only outlived his brother for 6 years (45 to 51). In any case. I am going to do the yortzait for them both together with my sister-in law in my shul (my sister-in-law is much lass observant) as I usually do for my husband. For all these years (I am 8 years in the shul, widow for 14) I, naturally, never said a word. This year I asked my Rabbi if I could say something about these two amazing men. I know I am capable of even saying a bit of dvar Torah, but I am not even asking for that. It's just pains me that all these years no one was saying anything, because nobody knew him and no one here also knew my brother-in-law. And they deserve really good words. I, of course, got the answer that it's not allowed. I, of course, conceded. But.. is this really not allowed? I am talking about a few words during the seuda shlishit, not the prayers or anything.

    Thank you!