I was behind the mechitza. I did not like it.
How could it possibly happen, that I, a regular shulgoer in the Orthodox world, would find myself behind the mechitza at a Shabbat service?
I was invited to the bat mitzvah of the daughter of a friend — but it was a bat mitzvah with a twist: the event, to be held in an Orthodox synagogue, was to feature a Shabbat morning women’s service. Nine men, period, were invited to participate (were there 10 men in the room, the service would, in accordance with the Orthodox rite, become the regular service, of men), and nine there were, including me.
-Jerome A. Chanes
“I Was Behind the Mechitza”
Special to The Jewish Week
A mechitza (Hebrew: מחיצה, partition or division, pl.: מחיצות, mechitzot) in Jewish Halakha is a partition, particularly one that is used to separate men and women. The rationale for a partition dividing men and women is given in the Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 51b, 52a).
This article won’t make a lot of people happy and may even draw some ire from a few folks, but the question just popped into my head while I was reading Chanes’ article. You can click the links I’ve provided to find out more about the mechitza in general and why Chanes was behind the mechitza at an Orthodox synagogue in particular. In fact, I encourage you to do so.
Men and women are separated during services in Orthodox synagogues as a matter of modesty. A person commenting anonymously on Chanes’ article explained it this way:
Why deny men the right not to be distracted by women when they are praying? Hashem will not accept prayer from a man who is distracted by a woman.
The mechitza preserves the purity and sincerity of prayer to save us from our foes generation after generation. Also, the men are also separated from the women by the mechitza – it is 50/50.
Someone commenting on Facebook described it this way:
The idea of mechitza is not about denigrating women, it’s about separation. The synagogue is a place where we need to focus in G-d. Men and women sitting together is a distraction. There is also the Halacha of Kol Isha which would prohibit men from hearing women sing/lead services. Regarding the issue if women being called to the Torah, there is more a halachic reason to allow this than anything else the author brought up.
The reason women are not called up is because there was a time when it was denigrating to men if a woman was literate and able to say the brachot and a man was illiterate. In today’s world (IMHO) there’s more of a reason to allow women to the Torah than getting rid if the mechitza.
Then the justification for separating men and women is so they don’t distract one another during their prayers.
Many of you may disagree with this, but that’s the halachah in an Orthodox shul. It should be noted that not everyone likes this practice. For instance, one woman commenting on the article said:
The notion that if you care about prayer, the mechitza is a positive is absurd. I care about prayer and find it distracting to be behind the mechitza where my view is obstructed of the shaliach tzibur and in some cases, I have limited hearing of the prayers. The notion the idea that I am distracting some man from praying, so I need to be treated as a second-class citizen is patronizing. If some man can’t concentrate because there is a woman nearby than he needs to grow-up. Obviously, you have never had the ‘joy’ of being behind a mechitza where you can barely see and hear what is occurring.
However, another man commented:
Two years ago, I attended a similar service. As one of those nine men, I was also behind the mechitza and was shuffled in and out of the service to allow other men to participate, not allowing us to form a traditional minyan. It was certainly a different experience, but unlike the author, I left with a greater respect for the mechitza and had no issue whatsoever. I do not believe the Bat Mitzvah service would have been as meaningful for young woman and her guests with men intermingled. That would have been a “normal” Shabbat davening. This was truly unique and I was able to be happy for the family – from the back of the room with eight other men behind a partition.
I can only assume that under such circumstances in a synagogue, if a non-Jewish man was present, he would sit with the Jewish men and if a non-Jewish woman were present, she would sit with the Jewish women.
But what about when large numbers of non-Jews are present in a Messianic Jewish synagogue that is styled on Orthodox praxis? Messianic Judaism tends to be egalitarian but not absolutely so. And in an effort to create a more us not them relationship between Messianic Judaism and the normative Judaisms, including the Orthodox, I can see some justification for at least a few Messianic Jewish synagogues following the halachah of mechitza.
But it also occurs to me that, given the differences in status and role between Jews and Gentiles in a Jewish communal and worship space, would there be some justification from putting non-Jews behind their/our own mechitza too (I told you that you wouldn’t like this)? I suppose for this to work, there’s really have to be four separated areas:
- Jewish men
- Jewish women
- Gentile men
- Gentile women
That’s a complicated pattern of division for a single room and I’m not sure how it could be accomplished. It doesn’t seem very practical.
There’s no indication one way or the other to say that Gentiles were or weren’t separated from Jews during worship in the congregations Paul created. In fact we do know that Paul publicly opposed Peter for refusing to eat with Gentiles (see Galatians 2:11-14), so this could suggest that the Apostle to the Goyim expected mixed worship as well.
In his article, Chanes states that there is no mention of the use of a mechitza to separate men and women in Biblical and early Rabbinic literature, so it’s possible that Jewish men and women prayed and worshiped together in ancient (Biblical) times. This perhaps could bolster the idea that when non-Jews were admitted into ancient (Messianic) Jewish space, they also “mixed in” or at least took the last three (or so) rows of seats in the back of the synagogue, but not behind a barrier.
Then again, in the days of Herod’s Temple, there was a court for the (Jewish) women and a court of the Gentiles, and non-Jews were forbidden to go beyond the Soreg.
But those barriers were put in place to preserve the sanctity of the Temple and to ensure ritual purity. Those practices may not, at least back then, have been also transferred to the synagogue.
But that was then and this is now. Twenty centuries or so of halachah have been developed and we have a very different Jewish praxis today, especially relative to different branches of Judaism (and even Messianic Judaism has numerous different expressions within it). We can’t really ignore that body of history or practice, and I think it behooves us to at least consider it’s impact on the praxis of the Messianic Jewish community, one that is “Orthodox” and also accepts non-Jews as associate members.
I realize that I’m making a much bigger deal of this than it actually is. To the best of my knowledge, no synagogue or congregation that calls itself Messianic practices separation of Jew and Gentile. I’m not even sure that there are any Messianic shuls that make use of the mechitza and separate men and women, though, of course, my knowledge of such communities is very limited.
I’m throwing this out there more as food for thought and I’m not representing any definite position about the use or non-use of the mechitza as applied to women or to non-Jews.
However, if Messianic Judaism’s practice and halachah continues to transition more toward normative, 21st century Judaism, we have to consider how such practices and traditions will be applied in a form of Judaism which (potentially) has rather liberal policies regarding Gentile admission.
Oh, just for context, I thought I’d include a link to a small satirical article called Open orthodox Shul allows frummies to sit behind second taller mechitza. As you’ll see when you read it, there’s quite a bit of variance to be found in how the mechitza should be applied, depending on who you are.