Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Feminism or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Mechitza

I personally love the mechitza. (Within limits: so long as I can hear the service and can see the Torah reading.)
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the mechitza, it is a separation between the genders in orthodox (or some conservadox - conservative leaning towards orthodox - services). It is usually very pretty, maybe lace or latticework. However, it can be as much as a thick curtain or be a balcony. (The balcony gets a bad rap, but I haven't found it to be as described - unable to hear or see anything.)

Unlike many converts, my "default" rule is actually the mechitza. And I actually felt uncomfortable without one when I began attending a conservative shul.

There is a halachic/traditional reason for the mechitza: Calm the hormones during prayer services. Most people phrase it as keeping the men from being distracted by the women. I think that a man must have started spreading that rumor, because us women can be just as distracted by the opposite gender! Particularly with such a shidduch crisis going on, the single girls are practically salivating over that mechitza to see if any young single men have wandered in!

I like that the mechitza helps me keep my focus where it belongs: off the men and on the davening. Of course, I still find ways to peek through!

However, there are other very interesting effects of the mechitza. Only the orthodox Jews believe me when I describe my theory, and I've even had liberal Jews be pretty rude and tell me I've been brainwashed. I have not been brainwashed (at least not here), and I promise this is true.

I've found that the mechitza emphasizes our individuality. When I first began attending an orthodox shul so many years ago, I had a very hard time learning the relationships between the people I met. I met many men and many women, but even two years later, I was still discovering who was married to whom! I don't think I ever discovered who all the children belonged to! Because of the mechitza, I was forced to meet everyone as an individual. Only later, at kiddushes and meals, could I begin learning how these individuals were connected.

When I began attending a conservative synagogue, I met people as family groups, and inevitably, one person is naturally the "spokesperson" for the family. I walked away feeling that I had really only met one person, even though I had met a couple with children.

Some people will continue to feel that the mechitza is sexist, but I'm afraid I will never be able to agree with that argument. Because of the mechitza, I've been able to meet each individual on a deeper level, as well as being able to meet more people. Both quality and quantity have been enhanced.


  1. I find the mechitza serves as a stand in or shorthand for other problems people have with the Orthodox view of gender roles. Separate seating is one thing, but what about the fact that a woman may not lead a mixed service, read from the Torah or ascend the bimah (prayer stand) for any reason during the service?

    There are reasons given for this in O theology that aren't simply 'women are icky and occasions of sin' but if you don't buy the reasons then the restrictions are onerous.

  2. off topic- love the new organized look! (I'm not crazy, right? You did just redo your site?)

  3. Larry and Elle, you're both right! And thank you, Elle!

  4. Well put, and thanks for the point that we are just as distracted by the men! So true. I've found that the mechitza helped me focus my attention up (at Hashem) instead of around (at people).

  5. I find it easier to concentrate on the prayers when behind a proper mechitza. I hate those "in the round" shuls with no real separation or those clear faux barriers. In Israel, a mechitza is generally a real one.