Is a mehitza a barrier to attending synagogue?

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25 bEllul
Some time ago an ultra-Orthodox couple who are Harvard Ph.D’s and who live in Bene Brak, a haredi city here, initiated a meeting of Harvard alumni in Israel in order to discuss the gap between religious and non-religious Jews. The alumni who attended spanned the spectrum from haredi to anti-religious. One non-observant Israeli woman said that she wanted to attend synagogue with her husband, but when living in Israel this was difficult because most synagogues had separate seating and mehitza partitions or women’s balconies. Mechitza But when she went to Harvard, she found many non-mehitza prayer settings and that was to her liking. She singled out this one problem as an obstacle to shul attendance.

This discussion led me to write an explanation for her of mehitza and its rationale. It was published today in the Jerusalem Post under the title “The mehitza that made waves in New Orleans.” At the end of the article I mention that several organizations (Tzohar, Byachad, Rav Melchoir’s office) organized 250 special Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services in community centers all over Israel. These user-friendly services are abbreviated to the necessary minimum, have page numbers announced, have explanations of the mahzor, and have a non-obtrusive mehitza. The list of places can be accessed by calling a Tel Aviv number, telemesser 03- 606-6440 or by contacting Gidi Avraham at [email protected] .

I wonder whether others have formulated explanations of mehitza that conveyed the concept successfully to women (and men) for whom this has been a problem.

Shira Schmidt

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. “That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered,” he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Mrs. Leibowitz acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. Today she lives with her husband, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, in Netanya. She is on the board of the Charedi College of Jerusalem. She co-authored, with Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, Old Wine New Flasks. She has co-translated from Hebrew to English (with Jessica Setbon) From the Depths (the autobiography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau); The Forgotten Memoirs (memoirs of Rabbis who survved the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She s available to lecture in Israel and in the US.

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8 Responses

  1. Baruch says:

    Please borrow or purchase a copy of the book The Sanctity of the Synagogue: The Case for Mechitzah by Baruch Litvin. This is a very good book and it should help shed light on the topic at hand. If you need help getting a hold of perhaps I can try getting a copy for you.

    Shana tova,

    Baruch

    PS I am suprised that so one mentioned this earlier it is not a recent book but it relents to the topic at hand.

  2. Netanel Livni says:

    “Frankly, I am bored and depressed at the assumption that women only want to follow feminist agenda and that they can’t possibly want to connect with Hashem in a way that may be appropriate to them, and perfectly acceptable al pi halacha.”

    The whole idea of “I want to connect to Hashem in this way” attitude is not a Torah one. Hashem is the one who decrees how we should serve Him. One could argue that putting the human mind and personality as the dominant force in the relationship is self-worship, not Avodas H’. This is not to say that there are never any innovations in the service of G-d, but rather that these innovations must come from Gedolim whose whole personality IS Torah and not from an egalitarian ideology steeped in western assumptions about gender roles and equality.

  3. mb says:

    Re womens’ prayer groups and or synagogue participation. Food for thought as we approach Rosh Hashana. Aren’t we supposed to judge everybody favourably? Frankly, I am bored and depressed at the assumption that women only want to follow feminist agenda and that they can’t possibly want to connect with Hashem in a way that may be appropriate to them, and perfectly acceptable al pi halacha.

  4. ralphie says:

    Ms. Schmidt – I am very interested in the analysis you mention, but no way is my Hebrew good enough to read it. Any chance you could summarize?

  5. Shira Schmidt says:

    In response to Comment 1 – I fully agree with David Roth that there should be the contact information. I did include it when I submitted my original article but the Post edited that information out. This may be remedied by someone sending the contact information in a letter to the editor.

    In response to Comment 2. I agree, Ralphie, that these new minyanim with mehitza AND women reading Torah, singing Kol Nidre (!!), pesukey dzimra,kabbalat Shabbat are very problematic. Professor Eliav Shochetman has written a cogent analysis in Hebrew showing that these minyanim have no halakhic validity. You can contact him at [email protected] (or I could send you a copy of his kuntres against aliyat Torah L’nashim.)

  6. Edvallace says:

    Shira,

    There’s no question that it’s a real issue. It very much goes against the grain of secular society and Islam’s treatment of women gives Judaism’s a very bad name as well to the unlearned.
    To state that it’s a man’s problem that he’ll look at a woman also doesn’t go over very well because the response is always something along the lines of, “Well, why should women suffer and be denied just because men have issues?!!”
    The truth is that just as the man has issues, the women do too [in their own way].
    It’s somewhat helpful to point out that the mechitzah is not the only example of a barrier against unwanted disturbances. I’ll give you a few more.
    In order to achieve maximum concentration, a host of laws exist designed to ensure that no distractions are present. Examples of this are:
    · One is not allowed to pray while holding a sharp implement, a child, or a money bag for fear that he will be distracted by them.
    · One is supposed to pray in a set place so that the unfamiliar area does not present new and interesting distractions.
    · One may not pray in an area that has a foul odor because it disturbs his concentration [among other reasons].
    · One must not speak unnecessarily during prayer
    · One may not pass before someone engaged in the Sh’moneh Esrei, lest he disturb his concentration.

    There is also a problem of elevating synagogue attendance to the absurdly high level it has been raised to in Judaism. It is not one of the 613 Mitzvos D’Orayso. It is a D’rabbanan and not nearly on par with many other issues. Thus, the fuss is usually far less about denying women the chance to be close to G-d [most women who have this issue do not use the mikvah, or insist on eating kosher, or refrain from driving on shabbos etc.] It is more about the feminist drive to be exactly like men [in all areas that benefit them].

  7. ralphie says:

    What about this new movement popping up in Jerusalem, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and who knows where else, where the mechitza is maintained but women participate in roles traditionally prohibited to them because of kavod hatzibbur, which might be translated as “honor of the congregation”? It rubs me the wrong way, but how can one respond to the segregation challenge in that case? Perhaps segregation does play a necessary part of synagogue life?

  8. David Roth says:

    It’s a pity that the contact information wasn’t printed in the article!