In Plain Language: Separation anxiety

The separation of the sexes at prayer allows each person to establish his or her intrinsic connection to God – unhindered by intrusive external stimuli.

By
January 6, 2012 21:55
Segregated bus

Segregated bus 311. (photo credit: Noa Landes)

 
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Blessed are you, Lord our God, who distinguishes between the holy and the profane, between light and dark, between Israel and the nations, between Shabbat and the other six days of creation. Blessed are you, oh Lord, who separates the holy from the profane. – From the Havdala prayer, recited at the conclusion of Shabbat

No intelligent person can deny the importance of separation in our daily lives.

Every one of us needs, and deserves, our own space. As valuable and unique individuals, we have a divine mandate to forge our own identities in our quest to carve out a distinct name, place and legacy in this vast universe. Just as a plant needs ample room to spread its roots and branches, without being encroached upon by its neighbor, so must we humans have sufficient space to grow, in the shadow and dominance of no one but our Creator.

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In Jewish life, this idea is amplified further. As we are a people distinguished by the trait of modesty, we recognize that invading another’s space – be it visually, as in outlandish modes of dress; verbally, as in speaking too loudly or offensively; or physically, as in touching others when and where it is not appropriate – is a serious social offense. It harms both the offender and the victim, demeaning and deriding the sanctity of each.

This self-imposed mode of behavior is most evident in spiritual spaces, such as the synagogue and the bedroom. The separation of the sexes at prayer allows each person to establish his or her intrinsic connection to God – unhindered by intrusive external stimuli – for a few precious moments each day, as we focus exclusively on the “I-Thou” relationship with our Maker. The responsibilities we have to so many others, which continually pull at us from every direction, are temporarily held at bay.

As Tennyson wrote, “No thing is better than this, when known; that every hard thing is done alone.”

And coming to grips with where we are, where we should be and where we would like to be is indeed a hard thing, which requires our total concentration and clarity. Though we come together in prayer and venerate the importance of the minyan, we are essentially groups of lone plaintiffs, solo supplicants gathered in pursuit of a common cause.

In sexual or sensual situations, particularly in husband- wife relationships, modesty also bids us to keep our sanctified status – kedushin, or holiness, in Hebrew terms – at arm’s length from the general public. Just as our bond with God is one-of-a-kind, so our union with our loved one is discreet and deserving of complete privacy. Not everything that can be shared should be shared; not everything that can be shown should be shown. That, in principle, is the active ingredient in tzniut, modesty.



The dynamic of separation is also expressed in our dealings with the world at large. Like the hanukkia that we recently kindled, we are taught that Israel and the nations of the world are akin to oil and water; at some point, we simply do not mix. And so, in the Torah portion this past week, Joseph urges his brothers to tell Pharaoh that they are shepherds, “because the Egyptians consider shepherding an abomination” and will thus place the Israelites in the suburb of Goshen, where they will be distanced from the amoral and depraved Egyptian culture.

YET HAVING said all this, and acknowledging its merit, we must also recognize that Judaism is neither elitist nor isolationist. We admit that God is the God of all people – not just the Jews – and that other spiritual paths to Heaven may be just as valid as our own. We remind the potential convert that he or she need not adopt the discipline of Torah and mitzvot to find God; He can be accessed from any number of locations.

We also accept that we have a mission to be a “light unto the nations,” that God’s house is a “house of prayer for all peoples.” And it is only by interfacing with those nations – cautiously, without overstepping our bounds – that we can use our spiritual wisdom to influence the world positively. We seem to have little problem relating to the non-Jewish world on the political and economic level, forging international ties when it comes to commerce and diplomacy. Why, then, should we retreat to the mountaintop when it comes to religious ideas and ideals? It must also be noted that the various degrees of separation we employ in our relations with the gentile world are wholly out of place vis-à-vis our Jewish brethren. When it comes to our coreligionists, we are commanded to love them, assist them, bring them close to us. “Push away with your (weaker) left hand, but draw near with your right,” is the Talmudic maxim defining our commitment to fellow Jews.

My rabbis preached that even the Jew most estranged from Judaism was in the category of “an innocent babe, carried off against his will by foreign elements,” who was not to be held responsible for whatever alien religious beliefs he held.

Most of all, we must seek the common ground, the “golden path,” as Maimonides called it, between the extremes of Jewish life. The great halachic decisors of the past always sought out that path, striving to include, rather than exclude, as many Jews as possible in the fold. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, acknowledged as one of the greatest sages of the last century, was particularly careful to blend halachic observance with normative, everyday life. He saw nothing wrong with riding the subways; the close contact there between men and women was not of a sexual nature and so posed no problem. He approved a glass mehitza in synagogues, as long as the congregants on each side were not improperly dressed, explaining that a separation at prayer was necessary to promote a serious atmosphere, not eliminate others from view.

Those who engage in obsessive extremism, particularly when it goes against the guidelines of our past sages, commit a grievous sin and fall into the category that Moses referred to as “those who would teach their teachers.” Rabbi Feinstein would be appalled at suggestions that women be banished from synagogues before the end of services so men might not see them when services were over, or that families should limit their Shabbat guests so as to prevent “intermingling” between families. (These are just two of the more extreme measures that have been discussed in certain circles, and hopefully will never be adopted.) A STORY from the rabbi’s notebook: As head of a synagogue in America with many non-observant families, I found that one of my greatest challenges was encouraging my congregants to make their homes kosher. I was particularly vocal on the need to hold bar and bat mitzva celebrations in kosher facilities, for how could a young person commemorate his or her reaching “the age of mitzvot” by serving food that the Torah expressly forbids? In one particular instance, a prominent family in our synagogue was planning a bat mitzva party for their daughter, and contemplated having it in a non-kosher hall. I met with the mother and pleaded with her to make it kosher. I even offered to help subsidize the cost of the meal, if finances were an issue. I also reminded her that she had a brother who was an Orthodox rabbi. Though raised in a non-observant home, he had stopped in Israel on his way to China to study Chinese culture. Visiting the Western Wall on a Friday night, he was approached by someone to come for Shabbat dinner.

He accepted the invitation, decided to stay several weeks in Israel to study Judaism, and eventually traded “Sin” (China) for Sinai.

“Seeing as how your brother is now a well-respected Orthodox rabbi,” I told the mother, “how can you exclude him from the festivities? If only for his sake, make it kosher!” I was sure I had struck a nerve, but alas, two weeks later, I received the bat mitzva invitation – to a nonkosher party. I immediately called the mother and asked her what had happened, why had she decided to go non-kosher.

She explained: “Rabbi, I was prepared to make the event kosher, if only to accommodate my brother.

But when I called him to ask what kosher caterer would be acceptable to him, he told me, ‘It doesn’t matter what caterer you use, or how glatt-kosher the function will be. If the guests will be sitting together, with no separation between men and women, then I’m not coming anyway.”

I was dumbstruck; I had nothing to say to her. The party came and went. But the day after the dinner, I called that rabbi brother of hers and said the following: “I have no doubt that you will have a distinguished career as a rabbi, and do many noble acts, earning much merit in the eyes of God. But I tell you right now, nothing you do in your lifetime will atone for your having caused 250 people to eat nonkosher food, all as a result of your stubborn, illplaced, uncalled-for extremism.”

Keeping people apart from one another can, in the right circumstances, be a valuable adjunct to sanctity.

But bringing people together will always be the highest ideal, and the true road to Redemption.

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana and a member of the Ra’anana city council.

jocmtv@netvision.net.il

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