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Looking over the Mechitzah

Looking over the Mechitzah

A perspective on women in Judaism

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“I like to sit next to my husband during synagogue services; that’s why I don’t go to Chabad,” a nice lady told me. So I asked her, “Do you follow the TV show Dancing with the Stars?” “Of course,” she said. “In fact, the finale is coming up, and I can’t wait to see who wins the competition!” “And your husband sits on the couch next to you and watches with you?” I asked. She laughed. “Oh no, he’s in the other room watching the ball game.”

“So, there are times when you sit away from each other to do your individual things,” I said. “And that doesn’t take away from your identity as a couple, but may even enhance who you both are and the relationship you share.”

An even better metaphor might be a changing room. When men and women undress, a separation is needed. And when men and women spiritually undress, there is also a vulnerability and an intimacy that needs to be guarded and protected; and so a separation—in the form of the mechitzah partition that separates men and women in the synagogue—is needed.

Certainly, if we are watching a show, even an important and meaningful presentation, we could feel comfortable sitting together. But when we are really, truly stripping down in prayer—praising, asking, begging and thanking in awe, reverence and humility—our soul is naked. It is a moment when boys and girls need a little time away from each other. And the shul, with its curtain hanging, is a “changing” room. Only we’re changing something deeper than our clothes.

After practicing as a Conservative rabbi for over 20 years, I understand that liberal synagogue services often function as a presentation, a show. There is a stage and an audience. The show that is presented can be meaningful, moving and interesting. But there is a great difference between watching an exercise program and actually doing the deep knee bends myself.

The Hebrew word for “holy,” kodesh, really means “to separate.” Shabbat is holy because we separate it from all the other days of the week. The ceremony of marriage is called kiddushin because it separates the couple from all other people and binds them to each other. Sometimes, we have to dissect in order to understand the totality. The very word mechitzah comes from the word “half”: it separates two halves into a whole. You might say a mechitzah brings holiness and “wholeness.”

The idea of separating in order to unite is found throughout Kabbalah and chassidic philosophy. It goes hand in hand with the concept known as tzimtzum, that in order to create the world and human beings who could relate to Him, G‑d first had to contract and conceal His infinite light. If you were to look directly into the sun for a period of time, the very light will take away your sight. In order to maintain our vision, we must sometimes conceal the light.

It is no wonder that the lights kindled to bring on the Sabbath are lit at sunset, at the time that separates day and night. It is a holy time, and it is a time when you can see the light of the candles clearly. The candles allow us to better understand and metaphorically “see” G‑d’s light with our finite eyes. It is no coincidence that this incredibly important mitzvah is placed in the hands of Jewish women.

Where the Heart Is

Many Jews today view Judaism with a Christian mindset. Much of the business and ritual of that religion takes place in the house of worship. It is where candles are lit and wine is blessed. By contrast, the vast majority of Jewish observance takes place in the home. The home is where the laws, rites, rituals, traditions, holidays, teachings, customs, Seders, sukkahs, seudahs (meals) and Sabbaths are enacted. Even the brit milah (circumcision) and sitting shivah, the two bookend mitzvahs of life, are brought to the home turf. In the Jewish home, the woman is the star; and, as mentioned earlier, she even kindles the spotlight.

Every Conservative synagogue I worked for proudly proclaimed that they were the “center” of Jewish life in their community. And so, on a Friday night as a Conservative rabbi, I had to wolf down my Shabbat dinner in a half hour at home and run off to a weekly 8:00 PM Friday night service, remaining there for three hours, including the after-service cookies and shmoozing. When we make our homes the center of Jewish life, we pray in the synagogue for an hour every Friday night and then spend hours around the dining room table with our families.

One night, as I sat in my office at the synagogue, the phone rang. It was a telemarketer who obviously thought she was calling a residence. “Is Mr. or Mrs. Jewish at home?” she asked in a Southern accent. At first I thought someone was being offensive; then I realized that she was just confused. But now, I think she had a good question. “Is Mr. or Mrs. Jewish at home?”

Maybe it’s not about the mechitzah; it’s not about that thin little drape hanging in the synagogue—maybe it’s about the four big brick walls of the home. And unfortunately, contemporary women, Jewish and not, have become disconnected from the home. There is a steel-plated mechitzah blocking women, and men and children and families, from entering the sanctuary of Judaism, the home.

In this context we can begin to understand how wise was the Rebbe’s campaign promoting Shabbat candle-lighting. The Rebbe knew that the woman’s light would need to be kindled in order to lead her family back into the home, so that they could be reminded of what is important in Jewish life. The Jewish woman needs to be reminded that in Judaism her home is first, and she is always in first class.

As Abraham knew all too well of his wife Sarah: “She is robed in strength and dignity . . . Tends to the affairs of her household . . . Place before her the fruit of her hands; wherever people gather, her deeds speak her praise.” After all is said and done, what really separates man and woman in Judaism is not the mechitzah; it is her elevated level of holiness.

Dr. David Nesenoff speaks all over the world on topics of women in Judaism, Shabbat, anti-Semitism, Israel, Chabad and Chassidism. He can be contacted at nesenoff@gmail.com.
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Daphne Michigan February 15, 2017

Just a Christian I was raised as a Lutheran, and during my second catechism year, my Pastor taught a lesson that turned me from my faith in the Lutheran Denomination. Since then I have been rambling through the christian denominations trying to find a home with my beliefs. I enjoyed this article. You have highlighted the idea of putting God first, which many people overlook in their marriages, when you praise him with your spouse it takes away from him. A separated service like that allows you to just be with God. Which is a beautiful thing.
I am glad I stumbled across this article. Reply

Anonymous Eastern US September 15, 2013

Its not the mechitzah, its the lack of voice In the last few years I have attended several shuls with mechitzahs, as a woman they don't bother me. What bothers me is the lack of voice among the women there. The inability to raise womens' voices in prayer and song, leaves me returning to the Conservative congregation. At one of the shuls, considered "Modern Orthodox" the bat miztvah girl gave a lovely drash to the entire congregation, but she, her mother, sisters, and friends could not raise their voices in prayer to HaShem. Reply

Penny Canada September 12, 2013

To Dan and Leon Thanks for your response. My husband and I have been married 42 years and like to pray and study torah together. That is actually our main issue. It is not a woman gets the joy of having children and therefor men should have consolation in something that is not allowed a woman. I appreciate all I have but just as I have had to speak up as a Jew when discriminated against, and speak for someone else when they are, I am simply expressing myself here as a woman who feels discriminated against. I will keep looking for an answer and know I will one day find it.
Shalom Penny Reply

leon roiter barranquilla September 12, 2013

to penny, canada We accept the mechitzah to make our synagogue fit for any orthodox jew who cares to pray with us.

The mechitza and kashrut and shomer shabat and no microphone in the syangogue make all chabad's rabbis very happy. Why not please them? They are nice guys.

Using the mechitzah does not hurt it just shortens our visual field.

Reply

Dan Binghamton NY USA September 12, 2013

To Penny (I still question) I understand your feeling. I feel somewhat envious when I think of the joy women feel when they carry and give birth to children, of their greater sensitivity to the emotional and spiritual world and of their seeming ability to live only for love.
I take consolation in the fact that we men also have privileges that include participation in the religious services that is the subject of your uneasiness. I think you have to look at and appreciate what you are and what you have, rather than becoming distraught about what you don't have and what you are not. Reply

Penny Canada September 11, 2013

I still question It's not just the Mechitzah (wall) that disturbs me and makes me choose less often to go to the Chabad house, which does sadden me. It's all that goes with it. Women don't get to dance with the torah, kiss it etc. on special occasions. I am and always have had the choice to be close to my home as a homemaker first and career second. If like I hear that we (women) are elevated above so are kept separate then why do I also absolutely feel deprived. Also the joy it brings my husband and I to worship together is taken awy. With the utmost sincerity I express this. Reply

Anonymous S. Paulo September 11, 2013

Re: Changing Room Idea Like the author has said, at home, the Jewish woman occupies a center stage position. But in the shul, it is the man. He is the one who is required to pray three times daily, put tefilin, etc. In my opinion, he has a bigger yetzer hara and has to be reminded more often of his Creator, than the women, hence the extra praying.

You may be right indeed that with 9 other people around you it can get a bit distracting. Although the minyan has nothing to do with concentration. Get 10 men together, and the Shechina is within them. Praying or not praying, the Shechina is there. We cannot measure the holiness that comes with the gathering of 10 jews, all the more so if they pray together. So, although it may be a bit more difficult to concentrate when praying in group, it is top priority to do so because of its intrinsic holiness.

You can certainly pray by yourself, the Torah states something along the lines "Wherever My Name is called, I will come". But, it´s best to pray with a minyan. Reply

Yosef Yitzchak Tsfat September 11, 2013

Response to Anonymous ( Chassidut teaches that when you daven with a minyan, your prayers are much more powerful and heard, allowing for greater and higher channels of energy to reveal themselves in response to your prayers.
Many people, however, will say the Kedusha and other minyan-based obligations, and will continue afterwards at their own pace, even after the minyan has finished.

I didn't understand your question regarding the siddur, but it's important to understand that the siddur's language is like a code, a blueprint and key to unlock the light of G-dliness, a well as the light within you. Learning the significance of the words in the siddur enable one's soul to express itself to the utmost. Reply

Anonymous September 10, 2013

Changing Room Idea Nicely written, and much is agreed with, wanted to question something related...

The idea of being vulnerable when davening, hence needing the curtain like a 'changing room', makes good sense. Is the opposite sex the only one who needs to be 'curtained' though? Although it is known that there is 10 men needed for a minyan, what about the idea of being able to connect better by praying by oneself?

Also, if one has a proper siddur or whatnot, is it alright to daven by themselves, mostly in order to stay focused? Reply

Linda Reid Coconut Creek September 10, 2013

Awesome and Thank You! As a woman, you have truly spoken why my heart is often so restless! Reply

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