On The Mechitza

I really do not like Mechitzas. A mechitza, for the unfamiliar, is a synagogue partition which separates men from women. According to Jewish law, a man may not pray in the presence of a woman (interestingly, no such prohibition exists for women praying in the presence of men, although women are prohibited from praying in the presence of immodestly clad women).

In theory, the mechitza partition is supposed to give both men and women the ability to focus on prayer instead of fraternization. In actuality, because the prayer service is generally conducted from the men’s side, the women are often left with nothing to do BUT fraternize, albeit with the other women.

Some synagogues with a mechitza have taken steps to make their mechitzas less exclusive of women. For example, some have moved the bimah (the stage where the service is conducted), and erected the mechitza down the middle of the room, so that the bimah spans both the mens and womens sides. Some have made the mechitza out of see-through material.

Some of the worst synagogues for women are those where the women’s section is in a separate room completely, with only a small window at the top of the wall to allow the voice to carry from the other side. Not far behind are those synagogues with a floor-to-ceiling curtain separating the men and women. Twice, I have been in a synagogue with no women’s section. In the first instance, some kind-hearted man thought he was being welcoming and inclusive by inviting me to participate by sitting in the closet. In the second instance, I sat in the hallway, and after services a disgruntled old man told my father that if I return, I should be dressed more modestly (I believe the exact issue was that my shirt didn’t quite cover my collarbone)!

In the ancient temple of the Talmud, the women’s section was on a 2nd floor balcony, allowing for them women to peer down and observe the service while avoiding the possibility of inter-gender socialization. Some modern synagogues have adopted this floor plan. One problem with such a plan is that by definition, the women’s section will have to be smaller than the mens, to allow space for observation. Another problem is the observation itself. If the seats are on ground level, women will not be able to see the service unless they literally stand next to the railing to peer downwards.

Women’s decreased ability to see the prayer service is problematic for many reasons. First, as I alluded to above, if women can not observe the service they are more likely to become uninterested in it. Second, according to Jewish law, there are certain parts of the service that REQUIRE sight. For example, after the torah portion is read, the torah is held up and the congregation recites “and this is the Torah that Moses placed before the children of Israel by the word of God”. The congregation, men and women, are required to see and point to the torah. If women can not see the Torah, they can not fulfill this commandment.

In many shuls with limited observation opportunity for women, the women find whatever way they can to view the Torah during this point. Some peer through a crack in the curtains, some lean over the balcony, some even go to the entrance of the men’s section and stand in the doorway.

This practice of women aching to see the Torah has always struck me as somber. I am reminded of children clamoring to see the famous baseball player walking through the streets–an image of untouchability, of aloofness. This torah is so far removed from our reality, we will never get to be in the big leagues and actually be so close as to *gasp* touch the Torah. We can only hope that we arrive early enough to get a good seat near the crack in the mechitza to be able to get a small glimpse of the Torah.

Maybe, one day, if we’re lucky, we can actually hold, touch, and carry the torah as well. Maybe even read from it. But no…that’s just a pipe dream…

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