Hayim Herring

Time to Take Down the Mechitzah in Liberal Congregations

Many progressive congregations have constructed a mechitzah, a barrier that separates one group of people from another; that’s right – liberal congregations. Usually, a mechitzah evokes images of Orthodox congregations, which have a variety of styles of physical barriers that separate men and women during prayer services and during the performance of other ritual acts. The height, material, and layout of an Orthodox mechitzah depend upon where a congregation places itself on the spectrum of Orthodoxy, which is very fluid today.

For progressive Jews who believe that religious life should be egalitarian, a mechitzah isn’t just a barrier that solidifies inequality. It’s a highly-charged symbol of the abuse of religion to justify privileging one gender over another. Progressive Jews argue that religious values should level the playing field, and not codify the privilege of one group of people at another’s expense. That’s why many progressives especially view a mechitzah as dated and dangerous. It’s a visibly glaring reminder of fundamentalist rabbis who grasp at hegemony over setting Jewish communal standards. (For the record, that is true only for the more extreme sects of Orthodoxy, but hardly represents all of Orthodoxy.)

But increasingly, progressive congregations are constructing verbal mechitzot (plural of mechitzah or barrier), by negatively tagging members who view issues differently from one another. You can’t see these invisible verbal mechitzot, but you can increasingly feel their aftermath that emerge as rifts in congregations and make it difficult to hold a community together. That is true in many congregations, regardless of religious orientation, and it’s most problematic for rabbis and congregational leaders during these upcoming holiest days of the year.

Here are a few examples that illustrate how many congregations are constructing verbal mechitzot that are creating internal partitions:

1. Israel: In the past, Israel was a topic that mobilized many American Jews. Today, you can safely bet that some segment of a congregation will be offended by a rabbi’s remarks on Israel. As a result, some of my colleagues have stopped talking about Israel altogether.

2. Politics or Jewish Values: Determining whether a sermon topic that a rabbi speaks about is “political” has always been complex but today it’s almost impossible. Even if a rabbi believes that she is not speaking about politics, the line between where talking about Jewish values ends and critiquing political positions begins is not easily be drawn. Healthcare, education, wage inequality, environmental issues and the horrid and inexcusable abuse that some men in positions of power have practiced for decades against women — aren’t these “political” or “social” issues that people have heard enough of already, or ones that need to be framed within the context of Jewish teachings?

3. Stereotyping: Implicitly and explicitly, we too often look at one another as stereotypes based on age, political affiliation, level of religious practice and belief, and in sociological categories that describe but also divide (religious, secular, atheist). These labels place multifaceted individuals into uniform boxes. The Pew Center for Religion and Public Life is pioneering an effort to view the evolving religious landscape of believers and non-believers with fresh eyes and you can read about how they arrived at new labels including “religion resistors,” “solidly secular,” and “spiritually awake,” among other terms. It’s too soon to tell if these are significant improvements, but not too early to guess that these terms will compound the internal fractures within congregations. Some are polarizing and others that are unclear invite misunderstanding instead of conversation.

On one level, it’s admirable to aspire to create a harmonious congregational community. The volume of vulgar personal attacks that masquerade as news is polluting possibilities for respectful discussion and promotes pre-judgment. I understand why rabbis and congregational leaders are reluctant to invite that toxicity into a congregation. Isn’t it better to defend the doors by steering clear of “hot topics” when we know that there are people who hold different and conflicting points of views on the most pressing issues of our time? The hashtags that we use casually online to describe individuals with whom we disagree are flowing back into congregations, and because we’ve stereotyped them, when we look into their eyes we find them disagreeable. That’s how words function like a mechitzah and separate us from one another.

But here’s the good news. It doesn’t have to be this way. Winning an argument at the expense of losing family members and friends is not a Jewish value. In fact, an authentic part of Jewish culture is dissent, disputation, and learning how to argue the side of an issue that you don’t believe in with civility. Learning how to see another person’s point of view enlarges our capacity for empathy because it forces us to dig underneath the labels. In that process, we can find some common ground that can hold our congregations together.

So instead of worrying about who will be offended, why not provide people with vocabulary from our spiritual tradition to have more open discussions? We have better alternatives within our tradition than to angrily stereotype others with different points of view. Playing it safe and offering platitudes about pressing issues that validate what different sides already believe, or avoiding issues altogether, may feel comfortable but that’s what seeds verbal mechitzot. It’s a tactic that temporarily drives differences underground, creates a façade of unity for a moment, but those differences erupt later with greater force and may permanently damage a community that people have worked so hard to build. Yes — it’s risky to raise issues that are charged. But if congregations aren’t willing to risk offering alternatives that strengthen empathy and create frameworks for identifying shared work in which people can engage in together while acknowledging their differences, where else will they find places that can take on this essential and holy task?

About the Author
Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is a national thought leader, organizational consultant and author on the American Jewish community with a specialty in synagogue life. He is President & CEO of the Herring Consulting Network.