Mehitzah: Separate Seating in the Synagogue

A curtain or other divider separates men and women while they pray in some synagogues.

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Excerpted with permission from Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue, edited by Susan Grossman and Rivka Haut (Jewish Publication Society).

The separation of men and women in public places has a long and complicated history. Biblical stories of women as singers, dancers, and mourners attest to their presence at communal events.Other sources also indicate that women were participants at Temple public celebrations. The subject of this [article] is not the question of their presence but rather of their place in the synagogue, the place that has been the focus of public ceremonies since before the destruction of the Temple.

At present, a variety of seating arrangements exists [in synagogues], ranging from mixed pews to balconies and separate rooms. Many presume the separate seating model to be a replica of ancient patterns. However, as Professor Shmuel Safrai indicates, much more research must be done before any­one can conclusively date the use of a structural barrier between the sexes for the purpose of prayer.

Of course, the absence of a mehitzah (barrier) does not automatically imply the existence of mixed seating. It could mean that men and women satseparately without a barrier or that no evidence of one remains. conclude that women did not attend synagogue.However, since the evidence available does indicate that women frequently did attend services, no absolute statement on seating arrangements is plausible. Whether its origin was in biblical, late antique, or medieval times, the mehitzah has become a symbol of denominational allegiances and policies in the 20th century.

There was an ezrat nashim (Women's Court) in the Second Temple, ac­cording to rabbinic tradition. Men and women did congregate there. Tal­mudic references indicate that it became necessary to separate men and women for one specific celebration during Sukkot, namely, Simhat Beit ha-Sho'evah (the water-Drawing Festival). The reasons given for this re­striction or restructuring is the presence of kalut rosh (light headedness). The Sages understood this as frivolous or lewd behavior, the prevention of which becomes the key factor in later halakhic [legal] pronouncements and developments.

Legal Issues

As clouded as the archaeological and historical records are, the halakhic issues are equally ambiguous. Questions remain about the re­quirement that the sexes be separated for prayer (with or without the mehitzah) as well as for all public occasions. The wording of the Talmudic texts is unclear, and the codes nowhere explicitly require a mehitzah. There is neither a direct prohibition nor a direct requirement; there are merely a few references to the ezrat nashim, indicating that there was such a thing. Maimonides refers to the women's section in his compilation of laws dealing with the Temple and not in the section dealing with prayer and synagogue. Other medieval texts specifically mention using a parti­tion for public occasions such as the rabbi's lecture.

The Mordekhai, a 13th-century German rabbinic authority, states specifically (Shab. 311) that a screen could be set up for such a purpose even on Shabbat. (One might question whether this permission to erect something on the Sab­bath, an ordinarily forbidden act, might not indicate the absence of a per­manent mehitzah in the synagogue.) It was not until the modern period, when the Reform Movement first removed the mehitzah and later insti­tuted family pews, that responsa explicitly requiring a mehitzah for prayer services were written. Orthodox decisors today all agree that one can only pray in a synagogue with separate seating and a mehitzah. No matter what the historical record, the Temple pattern of that one day has thus been extended to the synagogue permanently.

The halakhic process surrounding this one issue involves many levels of interpretation, differential weighting of sources, a variety of reasons, and a serious difference of opinion concerning women's "disturbing" presence during prayer. In the last 150 years, the issue of a separation has taken on political overtones that impinge on the legal ones.

The legal questions raised are fascinating and begin with the ambigu­ous sources relied upon. The primary text is the Talmudic discussion of Mishnah Sukkah 5 :2, which states that on Simhat Beit ha-Sho'evah they went into the ezrat nashim and made a great improvement (repair) or a major enactment (u-matkinim sham tikkun gadol).There are other Mishnaic ref­erences such as Middot 2:5, and Sanhedrin :5, which add to the picture, but the Talmudic discussion in Sukkah 51a,b-52a is the most elaborate.

What exactly was the "new enactment"? The legal decision to sepa­rate the men and women is clear in the Talmudic discussion in Sukkah 51a-52a, but the questions as to how, why, and when remain. Was this reform, according to the Talmud, only for that one holiday, when levity reached a level that moral laxity was feared? Or does the Talmudic use of the text of Zechariah 12: 12-14, which relates that men and women were separated for mourning, indicate a known policy on the separation of men and women? What is the legal relationship of that text to other bibli­cal texts in which men and women mingle at public celebrations?

Fur­thermore, if men and women were separated for mourning, how is it that women still performed officially as wailers?Is that text, then, extend-able to all moments of holiness such as prayer? How did the Sages institute something new for. the Temple? Even with the agreement of a special court of 71, how could any changes be made when 1 Chronicles contains the injunction ha-kol be-khtav (all this in writing),which prohibits any change to the Temple structure? Given even that a physical structure is necessary, will only a balcony suffice? And finally, what does kalut roshmean, what causes it, and are we to avoid it only during a prayer service?

Consideration of all the above questions, plus other factors such as the equation of synagogue with Temple and the authority of biblical law ver­sus rabbinic law, play a major role in the decision-making process of tod­ay's rabbinic authorities. Primary attention is given here to the responsa--teshuvot--of Rabbi Moses Feinstein, in an attempt to elucidate the halakhic process surrounding this one issue. As one of the major Or­thodox rabbinic authorities of the 20th century, his views and deci­sions on this issue are significant.

For Feinstein, separation of the sexes is mandatory and is mi­de-oraita--having biblical authority. He deals directly with mehitzahin 14 separate teshuvot. Many responsa in the collection Igrot Moshe (IM)--the seven volumes of questions and answers authored by Feinstein--deal with the ways and means of separating men and women. For Fein­stein, gender separation is essential in order to preserve biblically man­dated morality. He strives to maintain this pattern in many different as­pects of daily Jewish life, not just in the synagogue. For example, a large number of his decisions require separate schools for boys and girls, even at the primary level. Having taken such a consistently strong position on male-female separation, it is understandable that he will legislate a strict position on mehitzah.

Denominational Demarcation

The halakhic issue aside, the debate became one of denominational polemic that reached its peak in the 1950s in America. At that time, there were Orthodox congregations that had mixed seating. The Ortho­dox Movement's Yeshiva University even allowed rabbinical students to accept posts in mixed seating congregations, with the hope that they would influence their congregants to change. Both those practices are no longer permitted.

Legal battles were fought in the 1950s in America, as Jews used the civil courts to force one or the other practice. One of the most famous cases was the Mt. Clemens case, in which one man, Baruch Litvin, sued his congregation for depriving him of his rights by changing the seating to mixed pews. The court ruled in his favor and the mehitzah remained. This case was an important element in the hardening of the Orthodox posi­tion. Litvin collected various rabbinic sources, statements, and responsa in the book, The Sanctity of the Synagogue. Though Ortho­dox responsa forbidding mixed pews had been written before, after the publication of Litvin's volume, all Orthodoxy became defined by this one practice. Today, an Orthodox congregation is largely defined by the pres­ence of a partition.

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Dr. Norma B. Joseph

Dr. Norma Baumel Joseph is Director of the Women and Religion specialization. She is also an associate of the Concordia Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies. Her teaching and research areas include women and Judaism, Jewish law and ethics, and women and religion.