What’s with the Separate Seating in Orthodox Synagogues?
by Gabriella Mayer
Looking at most Jewish denominations throughout the United States, it seems easy to say that women’s roles in synagogues are slowly but surely increasing. As the woman’s role moves from household duties to maintaining a successful career, so has the option for women to become rabbis and prayer in the presence of men to become reality. In Modern Judaism, there are three major religious movements: Orthodox (most religious), Conservative, and Reform Judaism (the most secular). In Orthodox synagogues, however, one lasting symbol of traditional Jewish prayer that perhaps distracts Jewish women from focusing on their places within Jewish culture: the mechitza.
The mechitza, which is Hebrew for “partition” or “division”, is a curtain or screen that is used in synagogues to separate the men’s’ seating section from the women. It can be created using any material or can be distinguished as a second floor balcony reserved for women to be seated, which is then called the Ezrat Nashim (women’s courtyard). If you have ever gone to Israel, there is one directly in front of the Western Wall where the men’s section considerably larger and more crowded in comparison to where women are praying and also taking care of their small children.
The idea of the mechitza is thought to originate in the times of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Dr. Norma B. Joseph, an associate of the Concordia Institute of Canadian Jewish Studies and author of the essay “Mehitza: Halakhic Decisions and Political Consequences”, describes the specific details of its origin as follows:
“Men and women did congregate [in the Second Temple]. Talmudic* references indicate that it became necessary to separate men and women for one specific celebration during Sukkot …the Water-Drawing Festival. The reasons given for this restriction or restructuring is the presence of kalut rosh (lightheadedness). The Sages understood this as frivolous or lewd behavior, the prevention of which becomes the key factor in later halakhic (legal) pronouncements and developments.”
In this manner, the argument is that separating men and women in synagogues allows people to be focused on praying instead of being distracted by the opposite gender. Through this thought process, women are seen as a distraction to prayer and being close to God. Despite this, the mechitza itself acts as a distraction by blocking the view to the Torah ark and the rabbi, which is a major issue seeing as many prayer services are typically led on the men’s side of the synagogue.
In most Conservative and Reform Judaism, the mechitza is seen as an outdated detail of traditional law and is therefore not typically seen in their synagogues. Orthodox Judaism is the only major denomination that requires that every Orthodox synagogue must have a mechitza in accordance with the Torah, adding to the controversy around metchitzot today.
My family was once members of a local Orthodox synagogue only a few blocks away from the Conservative synagogue where I had gone for most of my life including for my Bat Mitzvah. In the few years we were there, prayer services with the mechitza in place were more uncomfortable than welcome. The synagogue had a clear glass mechitza, which for me made it a bit easier to deal with the situation since I was not used to praying separately from the male side of the family. During services, despite the illusion set up, all most of the women on our side could do was talk!
I understand the need for modesty in a religious building, especially since I was raised in Jewish ideas separate from modern Orthodoxy, but the mechitza deviates from its original purpose in that it separates people in the same culture just in the basis of their gender and whether it will make men to uncomfortable. The option for it to be used in synagogues should be considered by each individual and their personal preferences, but the separation of genders as they are actively practicing their religion should not be so widely insisted upon by their ancient religious texts. Even though the mechitza has been a large part of Jewish culture for so long, it is difficult to tell whether a change in general attitude will be seen for its abolishment.
*Author’s Note: The Talmud is the legal commentary on the Torah, originating in oral tradition.