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What is the reason for the Mechitzah in the synagogue?

by Rabbi Tzvi Shapiro

  

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Two Jews three opinions.

Here are three reasons why Jewish law mandates two sections in the synagogue1.

Attraction is Distraction

More than gravity pulls objects to the center of the earth, genders gravitate towards each other.

Nature’s impulse is that when in the presence of a beautiful girl (or handsome guy) and a prayer book, your attention will be on the beautiful girl. That is why they use beautiful girls, and not prayer books, in ads for watches.

Perhaps people shouldn’t be like that, but they are. Synagogues were built for people, not angels. Besides, Judaism believes you should be attracted to the opposite gender, but in the proper time, place, and setting.

Synagogue service is not that setting. Why? Because in extreme cases this attraction actually becomes an erotic thought, but even in the best situation it is still a distracting thought.

Sit Upright

For us, citizen’s of the modern era, a Mechitzah is a strange phenomenon. But if you think about it, it is not nearly as strange as praying to a G-d you can’t see, a G-d you can hardly know.

The sight of a Mechitzah is an immediate reminder of the uniqueness of this place. More specifically it is a reminder that the primary focus of this place is shifted vertically, not horizontally.
After all, the synagogue is not the only place where we have separations for men and women: sports, schools, clothing, restrooms, and gyms are all examples of where you might find gender separation. But a synagogue (as the personification of Jewish prayer) is the only place where we talk to someone we can’t see or hear! We have no image of this G-d, and are told no image exists.

It gets stranger. Judaism is not satisfied with lip service, or prayer. The Hebrew word Tefilah which is commonly translated as prayer, actually means connection; and in Jewish writings prayer is known as “Avodah” work. Judaism wants us to form a relationship with G-d, to forge a “connection” the caliber of which requires “effort”.

Tefilah is not a recital to G-d; it is a date with G-d. But a very blind date.

Thus the synagogue is meant to create a setting which is conducive for this type of experience. The Mechitzah reminds us that this place is different. What is perfectly normal elsewhere is completely foreign here, because what is perfectly normal in this context is completely foreign in others.

The sight of a Mechitzah is an immediate reminder of the uniqueness of this place. More specifically it is a reminder that the primary focus of this place is shifted vertically, not horizontally.2

Together Separately

Two basic elements of cooking are fire and water. Yet basic physics has it that if you put fire and water together you will either have just fire, or just water. You definitely won’t have dinner. So how does one cook with fire and water?

Enter the pot, the partition, the item that defines the parameters of each, and thus lets them both join together to form a perfect meal.

A Jewish community is not complete without men and women, but men and women express different energies. G-d created each because he wants both. The Mechitzah sets parameters to separate each element, so that we can join together to create a big picture, one in which no element is lost.

(For more about the different elements of synagogue service see Pray Like a Woman)

Footnotes

  • 1. Different people will relate differently to the different answers. As a synagogue is a place where all people gather, all of the following reasons are not only true, but also relevant.
  • 2. For this reason many synagogues had, and have, tall narrow windows, high ceilings, and very tall arks. It is a reminder to focus on what is "above" us.

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COMMENTS

Mechitza

Posted by: Anonymous, Whitestone, NY, USA on Dec 01, 2004

I read your comments about the reason for the mechitza. I agree that there is an added distraction when men and women sit together. But why is it the women that are relegated to the seats behind the curtain? How often would men daven in shul if they were expected to sit there, far removed from the Torah and the bima?

Editor's Comment

There is no law that requires the women to sit behind the men.  That is simply the preference of many Synagogues.  Incidentally, this is changing at a rapid pace and most traditional Synagogues today have the woman and men sitting side-by-side with a divider down the middle.

Divider - not just people

Posted by: Yerachmiel, Cleveland, Ohio, USA on May 08, 2005

When a person is praying, he or she should be worried about making a connection to G-d, and not towards his feelings towards the opposite sex. Therefor, the mechitzah is not just to seperate man and woman, but to separate the physical (which doesn't have a place during prayer) and the spiritual.

Kabbalah on the Seperation

Posted by: x ben x on Dec 31, 2005

Using a three column system, left column is the desire to recieve, right column is desire to share, and central column is restriction.

If you touch both the positive (right) and negative (left)(not to say that either man or women are inherintly negative) ends of a lightbulb together, there will be no light. You need the filament (central) to make the light appear, and so it is in many prayers. If you intermingle the 2 (male and female) during these prayers, you will manifest less of the Light of the Creator via them. For this reason, for 'the most bank for your buck, if you will', men and women are seperated.

Mechitza

Posted by: Kelly on Jul 28, 2006

It's very convenient to say the divide is to seperate and prevent distractions. It makes it sound a lot better than to describe it as the discriminatory act it really is. If men and women are supposedly 'equal', no such rule would ever have come to exist. The sad fact is, religion is very paternalistic. I commend you for trying to convince people otherwise.

Editor's Comment

It is difficult to argue Judaism is paternalistic when the essential introduction to Judaism begins with women: Jewish identity is matrilineal.

RELATED CATEGORIES

Mitzvot » Prayer » Synagogue
Women & Judaism » Women's Issues
Mitzvot » Prayer » Laws and Customs

Mechitzah
The divider which separates between the men's and women's sections in the synagogue.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.