Parshas Ki Seitzei (5772)
Some people call it the “fence”. Others refer to it as the “barrier”. Still others like to call it the “apartheid wall”.
No, I am not talking about the security fence that the IDF erected around most of the West Bank nine years ago in order to protect Israeli civilians from Palestinian terrorism, including the suicide bombing attacks that increased significantly during the Second Intifada. That fence most Jews agree with as a necessary move done by the Israeli government in order to save Jewish lives, plain and simple.
The “fence” I’m referring to – and one which many Jews do not agree with – is the mechitzah (lit. “divider” in Hebrew) between the men’s and women’s sections that is commonly found in all traditional synagogues.
The law that requires men to be separated from women while praying in shul (synagogue) has its origins in the procedure followed in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem over 2000 years ago. Our Sages in the Mishnah report that a major "adjustment" was made in the Temple during the festive holiday of Sukkos. The Talmud explains that the adjustment consisted of building a balcony over the men's section so that the women could witness the festivities of this most joyous holiday. Had they stood where they normally did, the mingling of the crowds and the festive holiday air would have led to excessive frivolity, which would have been inappropriate at such a holy site.
Following the example set by our Sages in the Holy Temple, the age-old tradition has been to make a clear separation in the synagogue between the main sanctuary and the women's section. Some shuls built a balcony while others constructed a thick wall that completely separated the two sections.
The mechitzah also has its roots in this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Ki Seitzei, where the Torah commands us: “… your camp should be holy, so that He [G-d] will not see any nakedness among you and turn away from behind you” (see Deuteronomy 23:15).
The Talmud in Berachos 25b explains this to mean that when one is in a holy place like a synagogue, he should not be seeing or doing anything inappropriate and frivolous while he is praying to G-d, lest G-d turn away from him.
There are two reasons suggested by contemporary Halachic authorities as to the main functional purpose of the mechitzah in the shul. Some Rabbis say that the mechitzah is there to block the men’s view of the women, in which case it would have be higher than the heads of the women, while others see it more as a way of preventing communication and interaction between the sexes during the services, so that even a shoulder height (60 inches?) barrier would suffice.
Either way, many less-traditional Jewish men and women don’t like the mechitzah for a whole host of reasons. Some women say that it makes them feel like second class citizens, hidden out of view behind some thick wall at the back of the synagogue or upstairs on the balcony. They also cannot often see what is going on during the services and feel left out. Of course, these days many mechitzahs are being constructed in a way that is more sensitive to the modern woman’s feelings, e.g. the mechitzah runs straight down the middle of the sanctuary with equal space for both men and women.
I have also heard many a man complain that all he wants is just to sit and pray together with his wife and kids, and that the mechitzah “breaks up the family”. To which I often respond that during the prayer services at the synagogue is not the time for bonding with one’s family. That’s what the home is for. Shul is the place we go to develop our relationship with G-d, our Father in Heaven, through public prayer and private introspection, and is not the time to work on getting closer to one’s family. If they like, the family members in a traditional synagogue can bond all they want at the Kiddush following the services.
I also wonder whether the guy who complains about not having enough “quality time” with his wife and kids praying together at shul actually spends any “quantity time” with them outside of shul – but that’s a whole other matter.
Others will say (most often it’s the men who say this) that the rabbis were so overly paranoid and “sexually uptight” in thinking that the men would actually be distracted by an attractive woman sitting right next to them during the prayers. C’mon, they say, give me a break! Maybe those Rabbis have issues or something, but most “normal” men can sit next to any woman for an entire prayer service without having any inappropriate thoughts or temptations!
The only thing I can say in response is that it is the greatest tragedy of our times that a man can view a woman dressed in the most provocative way and still not be distracted! Men are so jaded today with all the inappropriately dressed people and provocative media and billboard images that they are constantly exposed to – and which leave absolutely nothing to the imagination – that a man can actually sit next to a beautiful woman for two hours in shul and not even be distracted! How sad that is!
The Rabbis wanted there to be a mechitzah in shul as a reminder of the way things used to be and should be (and still are in most religious communities, thank G-d), where a man is rightfully distracted by the opposite sex if there is no barrier between them while they are praying, and which could thus lead to frivolity and inappropriate behavior.
There’s a lot more to say about the important and highly contentious topic of the mechitzah fence/barrier/wall in the synagogue, but I am going to stop here for now. Discuss.
[Sources: Weekly Halacha by Rabbi Doniel Neustadt, accessible online here]