Looking Over the Mechitza

A perspective on the role of women in Judaism and the mechitza (partition separating genders) in the synagogue. Food for thought before Yom Kippur services.

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Rabbi Dr. David Nesenoff,

Rabbi Dr. David Nesenoff
Rabbi Dr. David Nesenoff
“I like to sit next to my husband during synagogue services, that’s why I don’t go to Chabad,” a very nice woman 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 and 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.”

Just as an example, if I accidentally walked into the ladies’ locker room at the gym, everyone would get upset because the separate locker rooms have a purpose and it’s an important one. When males and females undress, there is a privacy and a separation that is needed. And when men and women spiritually undress there is also a vulnerability and an intimacy that needs to be concealed, guarded and protected as well; and so, a separation – in the form of the mechitza 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, we are exposing ourselves in meditation, swaying while lost in a deep cavernous mindset with the Creator of the world. Our soul is naked while praising, asking, begging, thanking, appreciating and crying, in awe, reverence and humility. It is a moment and place that the boys and girls need a little time away from each other. We need our own locker room for those occasions.

After practicing in a Conservative synagogue for over 20 years I understand that liberal synagogue services 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 dissect in order to understand the totality.

The very word mechitza comes from the word “half”: it separates two halves into a whole. You might say a mechitza brings holiness and “wholeness.”

Intrinsic in the bones of Kabballah, mysticism and Hassidism is the concept of contracting or even concealing in order to see more clearly. (In Hassidic philosophy, this is known as tzimtzum.) Anyone who has ever gone for an eye exam knows this very well. The optometrist will cover one eye in order to better understand the quality of the patient’s overall sight. He separates the human viewing instruments into two divisions so that he can evaluate the whole person’s future vision.

Separation is a finite in order to understand the infinite. And if you were to look directly into the infinite light of the sun for a period of time, that very light will take away your sight. In order to maintain our vision, we must sometimes even conceal ourselves from the light.

The lights kindled to bring on the holy day of the Sabbath are lit at sunset, at the time of the separation of day and night. It is a holy time, and it is a time that you can actually see the light of the candles clearly. Certainly lighting them in broad daylight would offer little significance physically. But when the day is becoming dark, and the sun is concealed, the Shabbat candles shine with great brightness. The candles at night allow us to better understand and metaphorically see G-d’s light within the confines of our human comfortable ability.

Which brings us back to women in Judaism.

The nice woman who wants to discuss with me her difficulty with the mechitza is in some ways standing in front of a palace laden with treasures, rewards and endowments and she points at the door of the palace and says, “I don’t like the design of the doorknob.” We can spend our lifetime explaining and pontificating about the doorknob or we can use it momentarily, open the door, and enter the palace to enjoy the riches that await us inside.

It is no coincidence that the greatest example of attempting to understand the awesomeness of G-d’s light, by waiting for the sun’s concealment and lighting candles, is placed in the kindling by woman’s hands. The most significant presentation and illustration presented to the human eye to somehow begin to comprehend in earthly terms, the very incomprehensible, infinite and omnipotent Creator of all, is literally in the hands, fingers and sparks of the female.

To shoo this Shabbat candle lighting act away as insignificant, or in any way less significant in comparison to the business of what takes place in the synagogue, is to not understand the very essence of Judaism.

And therein lies the problem. Many Jews today are defining Judaism in terms of the Christian mindset. Much of the business and ritual of that religion needs to take place in the house of worship. It is there where candles are lit and wine is blessed.

By contrast, the majority of Judaism takes place in the home. The home is where the “Jewish” is. 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 shiva, 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.

Unfortunately, it is a derogatory association in the world today to attach women with the concept of home. It is almost a bias or racist type of act to do so. And so when the woman is disassociated with the home and her Jewish mitzvahs there, a huge part of Judaism is erased as well.

It is no wonder that she walks into the minority portion of Judaism, the synagogue, and says, “What do I do here?”  “Where is my Judaism?” She is right. It’s not there. In fact the men, who are tied to the mitzvah of Jewish prayer by the specific hours of the day, can’t rely on the house of worship for the majority of their Judaism either; they need to go home. That’s where it is. It’s at home. Judaism is with the raising of children and the kashrut; Judaism is what’s going in their mouths and what’s coming out of their mouths.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe said, “Bayis malay seforim,” “the home should be filled with sacred books.” He didn’t say the synagogue! It is the home that needs to be decorated from wall to wall with Judaism.

Not only is there a place in Judaism for women, theirs is the most important place. And the time to retake their place is now. Women have to knock down the iron mechitza blocking their home. Women have to take charge and retake their rightful place of valor along with their price above rubies and enter their homes and bring in kashrut, shabbat, walls decorated with Jewish books, Yiddishe children and husbands who are menschlach (defined by integrity, ed.) and following Torah.

Even the misguided focus by the “Women of the Wall” should be redirected to a successful future of Judaism with what could be called “Women of the Walls of the Home.”

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 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.

But when we make our homes the “center” of Jewish life, we pray in the synagogue for a half hour every Friday night and then spend three hours around the dining room table with our family and friends. When the center of our target or compass is off, then we are totally off track. But if the center is correct, it leads us home.

One night, as a young clergyman, I sat in my office of the synagogue and 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 a bit confused. But now, I think she had a really good question. “Is Mr. or Mrs. Jewish at home?”

Maybe it’s not about the mechitza; it’s not about that thin little drape hanging in the synagogue – maybe it’s about the four brick walls of the home. And the problem with contemporary Jewish life and modern society is that there is a disconnect from that home. There is thick steel-plated mechitza 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 Lubavitcher Rebbe’s global campaign promoting Shabbat candle-lighting. The Rebbe knew that the woman’s light would need to be kindled and rekindled in order to lead her family back into the home, so that they could be reminded of what is important in Jewish life.

Now more than ever, the Jewish woman needs to take the lead and turn that doorknob and enter the palace; and walk into her Jewish home. She needs to light Shabbat candles; and earnestly promote other Jewish women to light Shabbat candles as well. The Jewish woman needs to be reminded that in Judaism her home is first; and she is always in first-class.

After my family developed a beautiful relationship with Chabad shluchim, (emissaries of the Rebbe,) Rabbi Chaim and Rivki Grossbaum of Stony Brook, New York, my daughter announced, “I want to be like Rivki!” Someone asked me, “Are you insulted that your daughter doesn’t want to be like her own parents?” I smiled and answered, “I also want to be like Rivki.”

Who wouldn’t want to be an accomplished Jewish woman of valor in her home, a counselor to many, mentor to others, surrounded by walls of Jewish books, beautiful children, gorgeous grandchildren, endless celebrations and delicious holy Sabbath tables filled with joy?

 As the writer of Proverbs (chap. 34) said of the Jewish woman: “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 is not the mechitza; it is her elevated level of holiness.