Deconstructing the Mechitza

A187 mechitza

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Cara Herbitter is pursuing her Masters of Public Health with a focus on sexuality at Columbia University. She has previously been published in New Voices and On Our Backs. This article has been reprinted with permission from the journal Sh’ma, as part of a larger conversation on sexuality.

Rated PG-13Sitting in the shul’s balcony next to my mother, I devoted significant portions of the Shabbat service trying to catch my father’s eye, waiting for his smile to acknowledge our arrival. It had been several years since I had sat in the men’s section and I missed being covered by my father’s tallit while the kohanim blessed the congregation. His smile was the closest I came to the men’s section from this side of the mechitza.

After high school, I spent a year in a women’s Modern Orthodox midrasha located in the Old City. We’d often go to the kotel on Friday night to pray. The men’s section was noticeably larger and more spirited than the women’s side, where many women prayed fervently but always by themselves. On the occasions when we had a large enough group, the women in my school would sing and dance proudly, celebrating our love of Shabbat.

One particular week, a woman came over to me and said that our behavior was inappropriate for such a holy place. Drawing upon the strength of the rebellious women around me, I returned, “this is exactly the place for our singing and dancing.”

The feminist critique of the almost exclusive leadership role of men in Orthodox services has been addressed in some congregations that maintain a mechitza. However, in college, my feminist struggles were compounded by a newfound commitment to queer politics. While praying in the absence of a mechitza, I began thinking about its role in constructing heterosexuality as the norm and gender as a binary system.

Of the myriad explanations I’ve heard, the dominant one is as follows: a mechitza helps men and women remain undistracted by one another. Sometimes this is explicitly gendered, that is, men especially have to be protected from women because their “greater sexual desire” might distract them from their spiritual pursuits. Interestingly, the mechitza, by dividing men and women, may serve to heighten sexual tension as people take peeks at each other across the divide, which is perhaps another way of inscribing heterosexuality.

Ironically, the mechitza has an additional and unintended possibility: the potential to create a homoerotic area as men or women flirt within their cordoned space. While this subversive space exists, it does not excuse the underlying heteronormative intentions of the mechitza. Beyond sexual orientation, the mechitza limits gender expression and explicitly excludes a segment of the transgender community — namely those who don’t identify as either male or female.

During my junior year of college, a student decided to organize a special Orthodox Shabbat service replete with a mechitza and Modern Orthodox men imported from New York to lead our service. Unfamiliar with my background, she invited me to “experience the mechitza.” Unexpectedly, I found myself so uncomfortable that I left midway through the service. I felt as if my safe space had been invaded — the mechitza running through me signaling a conflict between supporting pluralism and upholding my commitment to queer politics.

The practice of mechitza must be reconsidered. It is not simply a neutral practice that upholds traditional halakha; rather it upholds discriminatory norms that limit our sexual and gender expression from reaching their full potential. Borrowing from the language of that woman years ago at the kotel, these are the things that truly do not belong in this holy place.


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  • Sender

    Your Kotel experience was an important one, and your response to the woman who sought to shush you was entirely correct. Indeed, one of the most beautiful dates in Jewish history was the 15th day of Av, on which the daughters of Israel would go out dressed in white and dance in the vineyards – in full view of the men – and sing: Young man, consider whom you choose (to be your wife)?” Men similarly have no monopoly on the Western Wall, and it is not a woman’s responsibility to contain her enthusiasm for G-d, Shabbat and holiness simply because there are men around.

    But that has very little to do with a Mechitzah. And there are some legitimate and reasonable complaints about Mechitzot; however, your particular essay seeks to deconstruct not only Mechitzot, but some of the fundamental underpinnings of Torah.

    Well do I know that our culture has recently set its’ sights on championing the transgendered and transsexual. Indeed, it seems that as soon as the gay rights movement took off in earnest, and its continued momentum assured, the LGBT community set their sights on the gender identity, with Bruce-Caitlyn Jenner the hero of the hour.

    However, your essay makes it seem as though Torah is silent on the topic of gender identity, and it is only the hateful Mechitzah that prevents Orthodox Judaism from “progressing” along with the rest of society. This is far from the truth, however, as Torah itself repeatedly draws sharp and clear distinctions between the genders.

    Indeed, “in the beginning,” Adam was essentially transgendered, as Torah makes clear in its recount of the creation of the first man that “male and female He created them.” Genesis, 1:27. The Sages tell us that, in fact, Adam was created with both a male and a female side – and not just emotionally. Shortly thereafter, however, G-d decided that he would deliberately separate the sexes, distinctly calling one “man,” and the other, “woman,” and then encouraging them to come together sexually to reunite. Genesis, 2:21-24.

    G-d’s curses to Adam and Eve were gender-specific, with an inherent acknowledgment of Adam’s role as the breadwinner, and Eve’s role as the female and bearer of children. Genesis, 3:16-19.

    When a woman gives birth, her post-partum “pure days” vary depending upon whether she had a boy or a girl. Only a boy receives a circumcision on the 8th day – a girl does not. Leviticus, 12:2-5.

    Halacha actually goes into a fair amount of detail regarding the status of transgendered, dividing them into two categories: a Tumtum, one whose genitals are concealed such that the gender cannot be determined, and who is considered neither male or female; and an Androgynous, one who has the genitals of both a female and a male, and who is therefore treated as both a male and female. These individuals have different halachic statuses commensurate with their physical differences. See, e.g., Maimonides, Ishut, 2:24-25. Acknowledgedly, due most likely to the relative rarity of these people, there is little in Talmudic literature that speaks of accommodations made for them when it came to gender-specific events. Including the following:

    The Talmud relates that, during the Temple era, on the first day of Sukkot, they went down to the area known as the Women’s Courtyard and “they made a great adjustment.” Originally the Women’s Courtyard was smooth; however, at a later date they surrounded it with a balcony. Why? Because during the joyous celebration of Simchat Beit Hashoevah, all of the Jews would come to the Temple to rejoice, and to and sing and to dance. Originally, the women would be situated inside the Women’s Courtyard, and the men would be on the outside. However, this led to an inappropriate mingling of men and women (perhaps because of all the men who would be going in and out of the Temple, through the Women’s Courtyard. They then instituted that the women should be on the outside and the men should be on the inside, but that did not solve the problem. Finally, they instituted that the women be above and the men below, and so they built a balcony to accomplish this purpose. See Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah, 51b.

    This tells us several things. The existence of a Woman’s Courtyard at all (which was significantly larger than the men’s section) in even the first Temple tell us that even in biblical times men and women were segregated in places of worship. (Indeed, I have heard it said that the desert Tabernacle, unlike the Temple, was represented by Adam and Eve before G-d separated them, and thus there was no women’s courtyard in the Tabernacle.) It tells us that, even with that segregation, they kept an eye out for inappropriate mingling, and would even take such measures as adding a new balcony to the precisely-designed Temple structure to put men and women on different levels, in order to ensure that no sexual inappropriateness would occur at this uniquely holy site. And it tells us that – notwithstanding the sentiments of the homosexual crowd, and the very real conundrum of those who are physically unable to identify as either man or woman – the males and females were separated. Where would people characterized as either Androgynous or Tumtum stand? I honestly can’t say.

    Fast forward a few thousand years. We are now in a culture in which it is no longer fashionable or politically correct to take seriously the Leviticus prohibition of gay sex. Indeed, while we may still keep (certain elements of) the commandment of Shabbat, and even “sing and dance proudly, celebrating our love of Shabbat,” we try and pretend that there aren’t other laws that restrict our sexual choices. Not only that, but we’re tired of drawing gender distinctions. Having successfully emancipated women from the dark ages, and restoring their rights – largely to the credit of the feminist movement – so that men and women can finally meet each other as equals, we now wish the terms “men” and “women” to be interchangeable, and to have their genders determined based upon their feelings. The truly transgendered deserve a careful halachic analysis of what can be done to accommodate their unique statuses; but surely the answer is not that if they can’t neatly fit in then nobody can.

    This is not a Mechitzah issue. This is a wholesale reconstruction of Torah. Now, if you believe that Torah was written by a bunch of outmoded old men, then why not? Tradition, shmadition. But at least acknowledge what it is that you are proposing when you say that the Mechitzah has to go, because gender distinctions have to go. If LGBT is the new reality against which Torah’s continuing relevance is to be measured, then it is not really about a Mechitzah, is it?

    ***

    Incidentally, what is the answer to the following question: If the reason for a Mechitzah is to protect the weak men from distraction, then how come the men’s section is often bigger than the woman’s section? Why reward the morally weaker gender with more space?

    I believe that the logical and historically accurate conclusion is this: The shul was designed for men. Men – precisely because of their spiritual shortcomings – have a rigid and structured form of worship. There has to be a quorum of ten. They have to gather three times a day. They have to read the Torah. They have to wear tefillin. In the Diaspora, when it was no longer safe to gather in the streets, they began to do so in a shul. Of course, they beautified their shuls, and built elaborate edifices to house the accouterments that they would require for their service. The shul became a holy place.

    Women do not require a rigid structure of worship, because their spiritual connection is not as tethered to time and place as is men’s. They never required a shul. Nevertheless, women perhaps began to appreciate having a designated place of worship, particularly one built in such a way as to enhance a sense of holiness and awe; an abundance of holy books, the presence of the holy ark. And so they, too, began to see the shul as an appropriate place in which to worship G-d. But they don’t need a shul. Men do. Thus, many shuls are built with these realities in mind.

  • Hmmm

    I believe that the Kotel experience was an important one, and that the author’s response to the woman who sought to shush her was entirely correct. Indeed, one of the most beautiful dates in Jewish history was the 15th day of Av, on which the daughters of Israel would go out dressed in white and dance in the vineyards – in full view of the men – and sing: Young man, consider whom you choose (to be your wife)?” Men similarly have no monopoly on the Western Wall, and it is not a woman’s responsibility to contain her enthusiasm for G-d, Shabbat and holiness simply because there are men around.

    But that has very little to do with a Mechitza. There are some legitimate and reasonable complaints about Mechitzot; however, this particular essay seeks to deconstruct not only Mechitzot, but some of the fundamental underpinnings of Torah.

    Well do I know that our culture has recently set its’ sights on championing the transgendered and transsexual. Indeed, it seems that as soon as the gay rights movement took off in earnest, and its continued momentum assured, the LGBT community set their sights on the gender identity, with Bruce-Caitlyn Jenner the hero of the hour.

    However, the above essay makes it seem as though Torah is silent on the topic of gender identity, and it is only the hateful Mechitza that prevents Orthodox Judaism from “progressing” along with the rest of society. This is far from the truth, however, as Torah itself repeatedly draws sharp and clear distinctions between the genders.

    Indeed, “in the beginning,” Adam was essentially transgendered, as Torah makes clear in its recount of the creation of the first man that “male and female He created them.” Genesis, 1:27. The Sages tell us that, in fact, Adam was created with both a male and a female side – and not just emotionally. Shortly thereafter, however, G-d decided that he would deliberately separate the sexes, distinctly calling one “man,” and the other, “woman,” and then encouraging them to come together sexually to reunite. Genesis, 2:21-24.

    G-d’s curses to Adam and Eve were gender-specific, with an inherent acknowledgment of Adam’s role as the breadwinner, and Eve’s role as the female and bearer of children. Genesis, 3:16-19.

    When a woman gives birth, her post-partum “pure days” vary depending upon whether she had a boy or a girl. Only a boy receives a circumcision on the 8th day – a girl does not. Leviticus, 12:2-5.

    Halacha actually goes into a fair amount of detail regarding the status of transgendered, dividing them into two categories: a Tumtum, one whose genitals are concealed such that the gender cannot be determined, and who is considered neither male or female; and an Androgynous, one who has the genitals of both a female and a male, and who is therefore treated as both a male and female. These individuals have different halachic statuses commensurate with their physical differences. See, e.g., Maimonides, Ishut, 2:24-25. Acknowledgedly, due most likely to the relative rarity of these people, there is little in Talmudic literature that speaks of accommodations made for them when it came to gender-specific events. Including the following:

    The Talmud relates that, during the Temple era, on the first day of Sukkot, they went down to the area known as the Women’s Courtyard and “they made a great adjustment.” Originally the Women’s Courtyard was smooth; however, at a later date they surrounded it with a balcony. Why? Because during the joyous celebration of Simchat Beit Hashoevah, all of the Jews would come to the Temple to rejoice, and to and sing and to dance. Originally, the women would be situated inside the Women’s Courtyard, and the men would be on the outside. However, this led to an inappropriate mingling of men and women (perhaps because of all the men who would be going in and out of the Temple, through the Women’s Courtyard. They then instituted that the women should be on the outside and the men should be on the inside, but that did not solve the problem. Finally, they instituted that the women be above and the men below, and so they built a balcony to accomplish this purpose. See Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah, 51b.

    This tells us several things. The existence of a Woman’s Courtyard at all (which was significantly larger than the men’s section) in even the first Temple tell us that even in biblical times men and women were segregated in places of worship. (Indeed, I have heard it said that the desert Tabernacle, unlike the Temple, was represented by Adam and Eve before G-d separated them, and thus there was no women’s courtyard in the Tabernacle.) It tells us that, even with that segregation, they kept an eye out for inappropriate mingling, and would even take such measures as adding a new balcony to the precisely-designed Temple structure to put men and women on different levels, in order to ensure that no sexual inappropriateness would occur at this uniquely holy site. And it tells us that – notwithstanding the sentiments of the homosexual crowd, and the very real conundrum of those who are physically unable to identify as either man or woman – the males and females were separated. Where would people characterized as either Androgynous or Tumtum stand? I honestly can’t say.

    Fast forward a few thousand years. We are now in a culture in which it is no longer fashionable or politically correct to take seriously the Leviticus prohibition of gay sex. Indeed, while we may still keep (certain elements of) the commandment of Shabbat, and even “sing and dance proudly, celebrating our love of Shabbat,” we try and pretend that there aren’t other laws that restrict our sexual choices. Not only that, but we’re tired of drawing gender distinctions. Having successfully emancipated women from the dark ages, and restoring their rights – largely to the credit of the feminist movement – so that men and women can finally meet each other as equals, we now wish the terms “men” and “women” to be interchangeable, and to have their genders determined based upon their feelings. Notions of right and wrong and identity have become entirely subjective.

    The truly transgendered deserve a careful halachic analysis of what can be done to accommodate their unique statuses; but surely the answer is not that if they can’t neatly fit in then nobody can.

    There are Mitzvot that, without question, make us feel very uncomfortable. Indeed, a one survivor once told me, after the holocaust all Mitzvot made him uncomfortable. But, like it or not, they are there, and if Torah means anything to us, they cannot be simply ignored.

    This is not a Mechitza issue. This is a wholesale reconstruction of Torah. Now, if one believes that Torah was written by a bunch of outmoded old men, then why not? Tradition, shmadition. But shouldn’t it at least be acknowledged that that is what is being proposed when the author says that the Mechitza has to go because gender distinctions have to go? If LGBT is the new reality against which Torah’s continuing relevance is to be measured, then it is not really about a Mechitza, is it? What is the true agenda here?

    ***

    Incidentally, what is the answer to the following question: If the reason for a Mechitza is to protect the weak men from distraction, then how come the men’s section is often bigger than the woman’s section? Why reward the morally weaker gender with more space?

    I believe that the logical and historically accurate conclusion is this: The shul was designed for men. Men – precisely because of their spiritual shortcomings – have a rigid and structured form of worship. There has to be a quorum of ten. They have to gather three times a day. They have to read the Torah. They have to wear tefillin. In the Diaspora, when it was no longer safe to gather in the streets, they began to do so in a shul. Of course, they beautified their shuls, and built elaborate edifices to house the accouterments that they would require for their service. The shul became a holy place.

    Women do not require a rigid structure of worship, because their spiritual connection is not as tethered to time and place as is men’s. They never required a shul. Nevertheless, women perhaps began to appreciate having a designated place of worship, particularly one built in such a way as to enhance a sense of holiness and awe; an abundance of holy books, the presence of the holy ark. And so they, too, began to see the shul as an appropriate place in which to worship G-d. But they don’t need a shul. Men do. Thus, many shuls are built with these realities in mind.