“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.