On Mechitzas and Feminism

On Purim day, my husband and I entered the synagogue to fulfill our obligation of hearing the megillah. My husband left the synagogue, having fulfilled his obligation, though he could barely make out some of the words. I left without fulfilling my obligation, because I had not heard some of the words, at all. My husband pointed out that there were seats in the women’s section closer to the bimah, and seats in the men’s section further away, so the different outcomes of our synagogue experience were luck of the draw.

After a few minutes of friendly bickering, I decided to concede the point, perhaps because it was too difficult (or at least, too impolite) to talk while also chewing on the delicious hamantashen that my husband had baked.  Nevertheless, the incident got me thinking about synagogue architecture:

As an Orthodox Jew, I don’t dispute the need for a mechitza, nor do I think that a mechitza is inherently sexist. There is a way to design a mechitza such that the bimah is located equidistantly from both the men’s and the women’s sections, and such that the mechitza does not exceed the halachikally required length. There are also measures that communities can take, such as allowing women to recite public prayers that are not devarim shebikdusha, or allowing them to say divrei Torah, that ensure that women feel they are truly part of the community, which helps to turn the mechitza into a physical separation, rather than a spiritual barrier.

Nevertheless, while a mechitza might not be inherently sexist, it often becomes a tool that is used to express pre-existing sexism. For example, in the synagogue I went to on Purim, the women’s sections are located on the sides of the synagogue. It’s hard to argue that you’re not marginalizing women when you are literally placing them at the margins of your community. I’ve also been to a synagogue where the mechitza was so high, it prevented women from hearing the prayers. For the dvar Torah, the rabbi always insisted that the top portion of the mechitza be lowered, so that the women could hear. Rather than making women feel welcome, this sent the message that it was ok that women couldn’t hear the prayers, but not ok that they couldn’t hear the words of the rabbi. (Alternatively, it sent the message that dvar Torahs are a really good time to scout out the room for potential shidduchs.)

I’ve also spoken to women who’ve attended minyan during the week, to find men walk into the women’s section to daven, and then angrily walk out again when they realize that a woman is in “their” place.  This is because the men feel that the synagogue is their domain, and that they are entitled to pray in the empty women’s section. Many of the women I know who have attended minyan everyday have done so in order to say kaddish, and facing attitudes such as the one I described above made a painful experience even more difficult.

Rabbis and lay leaders can fight this sexism. Rabbis can insist that men never pray in the women’s section, even if no women are there, as a matter of principle, because IT IS THE WOMEN’S SECTION. Every community may have its own position on the halachik acceptability of women and public prayer, but perhaps space can be found for a woman to give a dvar Torah after shul, or to come up during a brit milah to recite the name of the baby with her husband, or even to make the completely secular post-prayer announcements about who sponsored the kiddush. If a community does not feel comfortable with a woman doing any of the above-mentioned things, perhaps it should convene a panel of women who meet with the rabbi, as well as the lay leadership, to discuss how to make women feel more welcome in synagogue – actually, having such a meeting isn’t a bad idea even for synagogues that do allow women to perform public rituals.

When designing a synagogue, a community should make sure to have a panel of women and men who meet with the rabbi to discuss a mechitza setup that both women and men feel comfortable with, and that the rabbi considers halachikally valid.

But of course, the most important thing is to tackle the social sexism itself – a lot of which is absorbed from the general sexism of mainstream Western society.

Right now, we teach Judaism in our schools, but we leave the teaching of feminism up to families. But you know what? Feminism is simply a recognition of the statement in Genesis, that all of humanity is created in God’s image. It is a statement that as religious beings, we want to enable all human beings, and all members of our community, to grow closer to God and to maximize their potential, in the spiritual as well as the secular realms. It is the statement that we value loving households with healthy power dynamics. Teaching women Torah is not a “feminist” issue. It’s a religious issue, of wanting to enable as many Jews as possible to study Torah. These are things we need to teach both of our women and our men.

We also need to teach them that while women might technically be exempt from time-bound mitzvot, that doesn’t mean that men are exempt from the mitzvah of parenting – which might occasionally mean missing synagogue while your wife attends her favorite Carlebach kabbalat shabbat; Not only are you caring for your child, but you are also helping your wife to have some time for herself, which will strengthen your relationship and not cause her to grow resentful towards her own parenting role. This increases shalom bayit – and we know that God allowed His name to be erased for the sake of shalom bayit, so surely you can stay home once a month if there is no possible way for you both to make it to shul on Friday nights.

I do not mean to completely lambast Modern Orthodox society. I think Modern Orthodox society is producing amazing men and women, who are engaged in the process of designing modern families, with a sense of equal partnership in the domestic and parenting responsibilities, in which both the husband and the wife accommodate each other’s career goals. In some ways, the advance of feminism in the domestic realm may be the most important, because that is the ream that affects women’s (and men’s) daily lives, and I believe that in this realm, the Modern Orthodox community excels – perhaps BECAUSE it has relegated feminism to the private sphere.

I was once at an egalitarian prayer service, where the women had the right to lead public prayers, but none of them were using that right, because they were all outside caring for their children- and while I know that not all egalitarian services or communities are like that, being there made me realize that ritual equality, without familial equality, is, if not meaningless, at least impractical.

The morning after Purim, I attended a Modern Orthodox synagogue. The bimah was at the front of the room, and I could see it from my seat. The man leading the prayers held a baby in one arm, and a prayer-book in the other. The baby in his arms was a girl, and as she looked at the congregation with a puzzled expression on her face, I was thankful that her father was helping to ensure that she would grow up in a world, and an Orthodox society, that would be slightly less sexist, and proud to be part of a community that has men who teach feminism by example.

A note to communities tempted to be more stringent than the letter of the law on mechitzas: There is extensive rabbinic precedent for being lenient, perhaps even disregarding rabbinic prohibitions, in instances when said prohibitions would cause significant distress to the community of Jewish women, so how much more so, is it permissible to simply avoid being stringent when doing so would cause much distress to the community of Jewish women, and one can fulfill the letter of the law without causing such distress. Furthermore, there is an opinion that one may disregard a rabbinic prohibition for the value of human dignity – kal vachomer, one may avoid being stringent on a rabbinic prohibition in order to avoid violating the human dignity of women.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.
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