The Paradox of the Mechitza
As a rule, my husband and I don’t pray in non-egalitarian settings (or, at the very least, in ones that don’t count women in a minyan). So while I have been following the progress of partnership minyanim with respect and interest for a number of years, I hadn’t participated in one on a Shabbat morning until recently, when I attended the bar mitzvah of a friends’ son.
Partnership minyanim — Sisterhood contributor Elana Sztokman wrote a book on the subject last year — try to maximize women’s participation in an Orthodox service by extending women’s roles and pushing at the boundaries of a traditional Jewish legal framework. Women lead introductory parts of the service, have aliyot and read Torah, and there is a mechitza (physical barrier) between the men’s and women’s sections. At this, but not all, partnership minyanim, the mechitza is also on the bimah, with the open Torah passed back and forth during the reading. I enjoyed the way that women joyously sang along and without hesitation or muted voices — unusual at even the most modern of Orthodox congregations — but I found the mechitza to be a big distraction.
The traditional, Talmudic rationale behind a barrier is that seeing women during a service will lead men to have sexual thoughts that distract them from prayer — and that specifically these thoughts defile the worship space. As I find mixed seating normal and everyday, I have almost never been distracted from my prayers by being among men. The men I’ve spoken to who have grown up in egalitarian settings agree.
But the mechitza itself, now that was very distracting.
There was much more peering across the room then there is at egalitarian shuls. Especially when people were called to the bimah, people on both sides craned (mostly unsuccessfully) to see the friends and family who were honored. Personally my thoughts wandered to my husband more than they normally do while praying (Did he get a seat near the front? Did he like the siddur?). The physical barrier was also a distraction when near the back a 9-year-old boy kept gleefully lifting up the curtain to say hi to his female friend on the other side.
A physical barrier is very good at keeping people from wandering to physical spaces they are not supposed to go. But, because of the way our minds work, its presence actually makes it harder to keep thoughts from wandering to areas that they are not supposed to go. Try not thinking about pink elephants. Moreover, in highlighting the category of gender by sorting everyone by it, that category becomes one by which people sort themselves and others. It’s a lot like social psychology experiments in which merely asking people to indicate their gender on the top of a form makes them respond to questions as more stereotypically male or female.
The mechitza also interfered with our ability to look after and educate our children during the service. As parents, this duty is an unavoidable distraction in prayer. Our kids need to be taken in and out of babysitting. They also need to be encouraged to follow along, to pay attention, to sound out the Hebrew words, to recognize cantillation marks, etc. In our home setting, my husband and I are able to share these jobs seamlessly so that our children’s needs are met and we both get time for attentive prayer. Passing children back and forth (or discreetly deciding who will take them out of the room) was not possible with the mechitza. At the service we attended, the vast majority of young children, including mine, were on the women’s side of the mechitza.
When the mechitza was introduced, at a time when people lived lives that were often highly segregated by gender and childcare was solely a women’s responsibility, the barrier may have fulfilled its intention of helping men concentrate on prayer without distraction. For people who spend most of their time working, studying and enjoying recreation in mixed environoments, and understand parenting and Jewish education as joint responsibilities, the mechtiza can end up having the opposite effect of its intended purpose.
Aurora Mendelsohn blogs at rainbowtallitbaby.wordpress.com