I grew up as a conservative cantor’s daughter who led shabbat services and read torah and prayed in a synagogue without a mechitza (separating barrier between men and women for prayer). I grew up feeling like synagogue was a stage and I had to perform. I remember at one point being forced to put on a kippah and tallit and resenting every second of it. I didn’t know why, but I did. It did not feel conducive to prayer for me, it felt like a show and I had to wear the costume. I remember the first time I prayed behind a mechitza in college, I felt like I had found a secret world of women who wanted to pray and not be ogled and not be seen by anyone but themselves and G-d. I felt that the mechitza was an amazing tool to help me focus on praying on a much deeper level than I had imagined possible. I felt I had finally found a safe space to meditate and pray and it opened up new pathways in my brain and heart.
You don’t have to agree with my conclusion to respect it. Respecting women should start with respecting ALL women. That is feminism. Just as I respect anyone else who has made a thought out decision of how they want to live their life.
Over the years I underwent a transformation and became ultra orthodox, it was a very slow, methodical, and well thought out change; and without any statement about how anyone else lives or should live their lives; I have met many many many other logically minded and powerful women who choose to pray behind a mechitza as a tool. These women perform all kinds of tasks and jobs in this world and range from very modern orthodox to ultra orthodox but all are strong women. Some are accountants, some are therapists, some are lawyers, some are engineers etc etc and many of them do the amazing job on top of these usually full time careers of having and raising the next generation of children. None of them feel oppressed because in this day and age anyone who does feel oppressed will leave whatever community they are in, the internet leaves the door wide open for anyone who wants to be “educated” in the secular ways of the world.
This begs the question: why on earth would so many intelligent women choose to do something that modern society says is anti women? The answer is that clearly they believe it is helpful to women which would make it a feminist tool for those who subscribe to it and therefore respecting women’s rights should include respecting the rights of women who desire to pray behind a mechitza.
There is plenty of information out there and plenty of books and rabbis who can do a much better job of explaining the purpose of a mechitza and how the laws of Judaism protect women’s rights so I will only briefly touch on the points I find most relevant but anyone who is actually interested can do their own research.
- The entire purpose of a mechitza is to keep women and men separated, why? Because women and men are generally attracted to each other and that is a fact of life and the separation is necessary for that reason. It is not a torture device, it is a tool.
- How do orthodox Jews have children and raise families if they are afraid to be around the opposite sex? Much more successfully than the secular world. Fidelity in marriage is practically non existent in the secular world and Orthodox Jewish men are not even supposed to look at women other than their wives as the ULTIMATE respect of their wives. The idea is complete commitment to one woman and one man. That is not fear that is powerful choice.
- How do the laws of Judaism protect women? 90% of women who are assaulted by men are assaulted by men they know when they are alone with them in other words 90% of rape would be eliminated just by people following the laws of yichud (men and women being alone together). That is just one example.
I could go on but the purpose of my article is not to convince anyone to live the way that I do but simply to try and get people to think about the women who want a mechitza and feel that a mechitza protects them and their marriages and respect us. We are feminist. We are women and this is what we want. To insinuate that we are not capable enough to make such a decision is to diminish and insult the intellect of hundreds of thousands of women.