I recently heard Tova Hartman speak about Orthodoxy and feminism. She made one point that continues to rankle me: She asked that Conservative and Reform Jews consider the tremendous value of the mechitzah as a means of demonstrating sensitivity towards those with an “untraditional family structure.” One of the benefits of the mechitzah, she insists, is that it means that families are broken up in shul. Most significantly, wives and husbands are prevented from sitting together. This means that single people (or those who are widowed or divorced) look no different from anyone else – since married people, as well, are sitting on their own. This also means, she added, that those who have recently lost a spouse will not find it as difficult to return to shul, since they would not have been used to sitting with their partner anyway.
I find Dr. Hartman’s words troubling on many levels. Most basically, she is confusing an incidental byproduct of the mechitzah with the essence of the thing itself. Yes, the mechitzah breaks up husbands and wives – but that doesn’t mean that husbands and wives have to (or will elect to) sit together when there is no mechitzah. In my minyan in Jerusalem, Kehillat Kedem, couples rarely sit as a unit. (Often this is because we are so small that either he or she is leading davening or leyning or serving as gabbai at any particular moment!) I agree that there is value to sitting as individuals in shul – it helps keep our focus on God rather than on the person sitting next to us – but we don’t need the mechitzah to ensure that this is the case.
Second, in terms of her comment about people who have recently lost a spouse, I seem to recall learning last year in the third perek of Moed Kattan (ah, my limited Gemara knowledge!) that people are supposed to change their seat in shul after they have lost a loved one. Such a loss is so devastating that it is impossible for anyone to return to the same place as before – and so mourners are expected to relocate themselves as a way of symbolically registering the enormous change that has taken place in their lives. Dr. Hartman’s point about the value of continuity is thus inconsistent with tradition itself.
Furthermore, Dr. Hartman’s whole argument smacks of apologetics for a system that objectifies women and places them out of the realm of the proverbial male gaze. I used to think that, in principle, I had no objection to the mechitzah – but I felt that there was no such thing as “separate but equal.” If there were a mechitzah that truly placed men and women side by side and granted them equal participation in the tefillah, I would not be opposed. So I used to think. But a recent conversation with a friend who has spent long periods of time in both mechitzah and non-mechitzah minyanim changed my perspective.
My friend noted that the interpersonal erotic element is actually heightened when individuals are grouped by gender. “When all the women are sitting together on the other side of the room,” he said, “of course you want to look over there. You keep wondering who is there, what is going on….it becomes so clear that there is this group of people that you are not supposed to be looking at, and so that is naturally where your eye (or at least your mind) wanders.” I think he makes a good point. When men and women sit interspersed in shul and participate equally, gender becomes a total non-issue. If gender has nothing to do with where we sit or whether or not we can be called up to the Torah, then we are not men or women but human beings. I believe that it is in a fully egalitarian, mixed-seating minyan that the most powerful connection can be forged between us and God. Only in such a setting is the eroticism that exists between “the men” and “the women” transferred to the eroticism that ought instead to exist (in a davening context) between people and God.
My friend also pointed out that while Dr. Hartman’s comment may reflect a desire to remain sensitive to those with “untraditional family structures,” it is also grossly insensitive to homosexuals. What is the effect of a mechitzah on a gay or lesbian person? Or on a gay and lesbian couple? How alienating must it feel to come into a shul where people are separated based on an assumption (i.e. heteronormativity) that completely ignores your experience of the social reality! The solution, as I mentioned above, is not to separate by gender, but to encourage couples (whether male-female or male-male or female-female) to break up for davening purposes and sit instead as individuals – with liberty and justice for all.
Incidentally, I should note that the Jerusalem minyan in which I feel most UNcomfortable is the minyan that Dr. Hartman founded, Shira Chadasha. Here men and women are separated by a mechitzah and particular tefillah roles are reserved for either men or women. For instance, a woman always leads kabbalat Shabbat and a man always leads maariv. To me, this is the worst option of all. Nowhere am I more conscious of my gender and of the gender of those around me than in Shira Chadasha. Why should it matter whether a man or woman leads kabbalat Shabbat? Is there something about kabbalat Shabbat (and I don’t mean Shabbat here!) that is inherently feminine? When I go to shul, I don’t want to be thinking about being a woman; I want to be thinking about God. The purpose of tefillah is to forge a connection between me and God. If I can’t even transcend my gendered experience, how will I possibly achieve this ultimate transcendence?
I seek to experience the presence of God. This is the reason that I daven, and this is the reason that I daven in an egalitarian minyan.