A few years ago, I visited my Hasidic cousins in Boro Park for Purim. I attended with a woman friend who was immediately ushered over to the women's side of the table. I sat with the men, drank, sang, danced, pounded the table, joked, laughed, and had a great time. The male bonding was quite intense. My cousin's friends kissed him, embraced him. The liquor flowed, the musical instruments were brought out amid backslapping, and men pressed together with their eyes closed stomping in rhythm to niggunim, wordless melodies.
All this time, my woman friend sat quietly and talked with my cousin's kids and the other women. It irked me that she was kept out of things. I wondered why the women couldn't just get up and dance with us. It then became obvious to me why this could never happen. If women had been permitted to mix with the men, the entire character of the evening would have changed. Either the presence of women in their midst would have transformed the ecstatic gathering of men into an orgiastic rite, or (more likely) it would have worked to tone down the male wildness, to hush the clamorous banging and mute the emotional power of the event.
At that moment, I understood that the effect of the mechitza--the divider placed between the men's and women's sections in (mostly) Orthodox synagogues and at celebrations--was to grant the men a wider range of emotional expression than would otherwise be possible.
Unfortunately, this gain for the men has too often come at a price for women, who are too often denied full emotional and religious expression on the other side of the mechitza. This religious inequality is intolerable and ought to be a matter of concern to men as well as to women. If the mechitza is to have a future, this injustice must be corrected.
The question, of course, is whether it can be corrected so long as the mechitza is retained. If the only virtue of the mechitza was that it served to foster an ecstatic spirituality, this would be reason enough to work to save it. But this is not its only virtue. The mechitza also accepts and builds upon the social reality of gender difference and thus works to create a distinct community of men and one of women that are more cohesive in themselves than a mixed-gender community would be.
A quick glance at the world around us is enough to indicate that community-service groups, leisure and sports groups, and friendships are differentiated by gender. Even the United Jewish Communities--hardly an Orthodox institution -- divides its leadership cadre along gender lines, into Women's Cabinet and Men's Cabinet. Several years ago, the two organizations decided to overlap their conventions on Shabbat. The decision was attended with controversy before and after because of the powerful emotional forces on both sides for maintaining the gender barrier and for eliminating it.
Personally, I have come to feel that there is a quality of community enjoyed by men and women who pray separately that cannot be attained in mixed pews. Mixed pews lead couples (or families or extended families) to sit together. This may make sense to those who have little opportunity for prayer or ritual at home, but for me it undermines the most important community making that can occur in the synagogue. The mechitza breaks apart the ordinary family units, and thus is able to foster a cohesive community that connects across familial and generational lines.
Mixed pews create another, more insidious problem, perhaps inadvertently. By favoring the family unit, mixed-seating synagogues make single, widowed, or divorced congregants feel more alone. The 1960s slogan, "The family that prays together stays together," expresses a Protestant conception of the religious life. By contrast, the mechitza breaks the family unit apart in order to constitute community on a different basis. By separating family members according to gender, opportunities for fostering individuality and community are increased. Congregations can become something much larger than a network of families; they can become networks of individuals, of friends.
Of course, my feminist friends will justifiably want to remind me at this point of the obvious shortcoming in all I have been saying: Any separation of men and women will lead to the demotion of women. Wherever there are two sides, they would tell me, one will likely have more power than the other. I acknowledge that this moral challenge is real, that the mechitza is often associated with a morally unjustifiable imbalance of power in the community and in the synagogue experience as well. Rather than do away with the mechitza for this reason, however, I would like to find a solution that addresses these legitimate concerns without sacrificing the positive values with which the mechitza is also connected.
One possible approach to these challenges might be to revamp the format of the Orthodox synagogue service in a manner that would better realize both of the goods that are at stake. Perhaps a balance could be struck between men and women praying together and praying separately. Perhaps men and women could sit separately for prayer and then sit together for Torah reading and learning.
The Orthodox custom of excluding women from reading Torah or being honored with an aliyah (a blessing recited before the chanting of the Torah) is actually not the original halacha (Jewish law). The earlier tradition permitted anyone to have an aliyah, even women and minors. A later commentary claims that in practice, women are not given aliyot--the plural of aliyah--because to do so would infringe upon Kavod HaTzibur (the honor of the congregation).
In Jerusalem, there is already an Orthodox minyan meeting regularly in which women read Torah and receive aliyot. Surely there are more than a few Orthodox congregations in which the men would not feel dishonored by a woman reading Torah, and more than a few that would find their prayer services enriched by returning to a legitimate tradition that is more in line with the contemporary experiences and sensibilities of men and women.
One of the most exciting feminist innovations in synagogue life has been the development and growth of women's prayer groups. These groups have raised a generation of young women who now expect to read Torah and to daven--pray--for a community of women. One of the most moving consequences of this Orthodox innovation has been an increase in the celebration of bat mitzvah ceremonies in such women's prayer-group settings.
One need not over-romanticize the public separation of the sexes to marvel at how well it has worked to create community. It connects people along gender lines, transcending marital status, social standing, and age. And for many men and women, it enables greater religious and emotional expressiveness in a comfortable setting.
That couples and families want to have religious experiences together also points to a real need, but this need could still be met at home where it can be better served. Around the Shabbat table, perhaps? By contrast, the synagogue--at least in its traditional form--constitutes community along different lines. Keeping the mechitza in place permits the synagogue to continue to work its special magic of connecting people to each other in a way that transcends the narrow circle of familial and marital ties.