What is it?
A “mechitza” is a physical barrier between men and women in an Orthodox synagogue which divides the space into two separate sections. Mechitzas often vary in terms of size and placement. They can also be made of a variety of materials including “curtains, a screen, shelving, or plants.” There are some synagogues in which the women’s section is in the balcony of the sanctuary space. In this case, the physical separation acts as a barrier rather than a solid structure.
Where did mechitza originate from?
There is a lot of debate about the textual backing for mechitza and there is also uncertainty about when the first mechitza was put into use. There is “neither a direct prohibition nor a direct requirement” of mechitza in Jewish law and the Talmudic texts are “unclear.”
Those who examine textual tradition found that the earliest reference to separation between men and women during religious ritual is in the Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 51a). This section discusses Yom Tov and the use of “ezrat nashim,” or women’s courtyards.
There is no mention of a physical barrier. The text continues (Sukkah 51b) and says, “The Rabbis learned: Originally, the women were inside and the men were outside, and they would come to frivolity. They established that women should sit outside and men inside, and they would still come to frivolity. They [then] established that women should sit above and men [should sit] below…” This gives textual backing for separate seating on days considered Yom Tov, with women sitting in a balcony section. However, on the surface, it does not account for mechitza as common practice in Orthodox worship spaces.
Rav Moshe Feinstein (1895–1986) explains why he believes these sources provide a sufficient mandate for the use of the mechitza: “The rule that even if the men are on one side and the women on the other it is forbidden without a mechitza… is a biblical rule. And the proof is from [Massekhet] Sukka… [the gemara] questioned… [how they built a balcony in the ezrat nashim given] that it is forbidden to add anything to the Temple and the courtyard, and Rav answered that they found a verse [which states] that it is necessary to separate men from women…” Feinstein goes on to say that the purpose of mechitza is to “prevent frivolity.”
In 1959, Rabbi Norman Lamm wrote in defense of mechtiza in an article entitled, “"Separate Pews in the Synagogue: A Social and Psychological Approach.” He writes, “[A Jew] approaches God out of solitude and insecurity, relying completely upon Him for his very breath. This complete concentration on God, this awareness only of Him and nothing or no one else, is called kavana… without kavana, prayer becomes just a senseless repetition of words…” His argument is that mixing genders “undermines one’s kavana.”
Contemporary Concerns Surrounding Mechitza
Today, many people are raising concerns about the potentially harmful effects of mechitza. One of the concerns raised is about how mechitza inherently sexualizes a space. In her work, “On the Margins and Other Impossible Spaces,” Naomi Seidman talks about the synagogue as a place filled with “symbolic architecture.” She uses Kafka’s “The Animal in the Synagogue” as a lens through which one can discuss the effect of mechitza. In this work, the “animal” creates a barrier between men and women. Seidman writes, “The normative sacral content of the synagogue, a community of men praying to their God with women as marginal spectator-participants, is disrupted by and subsumed to (or perhaps translated into) the sexual drama of women ogling a strangely compelling animal (and men ogling both the women and the animal.)” She goes on, “The contemporary feminist critique of the symbolic architecture of the Orthodox synagogue has tended to focus more on the mechitzah—the barrier between men and women—than on what it produces—the homosocial space that connects each sex in a rich and even eroticized social group.” Her argument is that even though the mechitza attempts to assert sexual control and reduce heterosexual contact, it actually has the opposite effect by drawing attention to the normative separation.
Another concern regarding mechitza is that many women view this barrier as a form of patriarchal control. Many of the testimonials I collected for this project discussed this worry. Rachel Greenspan, a Conservative female, wrote, “I find mechitzas offensive, disturbing, archaic, patriarchic and heteronormative." Emily Hoolihan, a Reform female, said, “"...My interpretation, as a cantorial student at HUC-JIR, is that the mechitza was created to make Jewish men more comfortable with female identifying bodies in the shul. Similar to the idea of dressing modestly, I believe that the root of the idea comes from female bodies being "distracting" to the male gaze..." These are debates that are not wholly unique to Jewish communities. Women are struggling worldwide with systematic oppression that is often the result of patriarchal forces. Something that Jewish women are grappling with is the idea that mechitza might be a form of this systematic oppression. The mechitza, depending on the design and architecture of the space, has the ability to cut women off from the bimah and remove them from the center-focus of their own practices. There is a clear tension arising between tradition and contemporary ideas about gender equality.
The issue of mechitza raises many questions for those who are transgender or do not identify at all with the heteronormative idea of gender. In “Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community,” Noach Dzmura writes, “One Rabbi stated that in his shul, he did not feel that I could sit on the women’s side or the men’s side of the mechitza. He also did not feel that his congregants would be comfortable with constructing a third section to seat me.” The contemporary recognition of gender as a spectrum of identity, rather than a binary, has created some tough questions for traditional Jews. In which section should those who are transgender/non-binary sit? What effect does mechitza have on those struggling with gender? Should there be more than two sections? Should Orthodoxy recognize those who exist outside of a binary? There are these questions and so many more that Jews will have to grapple with.
ריפקין, אנדי. “Separation During Prayer: Mechitza.” Shiur #17: Jewish Peoplehood (10): Covenantal Zionism, 9 Dec. 2014,www.etzion.org.il/en/separation-during-prayer-mechitza.
Dzmura, Noach. Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community. North Atlantic, 1020.
Joseph, Norma B. “Mechitzah: Separate Seating in the Synagogue.” My Jewish Learning, My Jewish Learning,www.myjewishlearning.com/article/mehitzah-separate-seating-in-the-synagogue/.
Seidman, Naomi. "On the Margins and Other Impossible Spaces." Journal of Jewish Identities, vol. 7 no. 1, 2014, pp. 9-21. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jji.2014.0007