Separate seating: A betrayal of Jewish values?

I grew up davening in a synagogue with mixed seating. Some years later, in a gradual process, that shul became egalitarian.  Men and women were able to participate in ritual life, and indeed in all synagogue life, equally.


I like mixed seating. I believe in inclusiveness. These are values that are deeply woven into the Judaism I live.


Yet I travel quite a bit around the world. I often daven in Orthodox synagogues. Even here in Israel I find myself in Orthodox synagogues not infrequently.


Why do I share this?  A very thoughtful observer of Jewish life, Jay Michaelson, recently wrote an essay where he shared  that in an Orthodox shul his friends has access to some meaningful prayer experience, whereas “The only thing egalitarian about the more liberal settings was that everyone was equally bored.”


I have been to some Orthodox shuls with very lively  davening and others that followed the method of the Evelyn Wood Shul of Speed Davening. Some where Kavanah (a spiritual experience) was paramount and others that seemed to be going trough the motions.


This is also so of egalitarian Minyanim. Some bring an energy to the prayer experience and others do not.


Michaelson asks:

“Think about it — which is more inclusive: energetically singing words you don’t really understand, in an environment in which people are participating actively, or intoning deeply problematic theological statements in unison with a largely lethargic “audience”?

This question is a red herring. One need not be at the expense of the other. Egalitarian davening is often energetic (and too often not) while Orthodox davening often  mouths problematic theological statements by rote.


I shall leave  the issue of Jewish law out of this discussion. Surely those who accept an egalitarian approach, within the Masorti Movement, also have an understanding of Jewish law that permits mixed seating and inclusiveness. For those who understand Jewish law differently – the options of inclusiveness become fewer.


But I prefer to daven in a Masorti shul because I do not wish to betray principles I hold dear. I can only  imagine what it would be like to play golf at a country club that excludes Jews simply because the greens are well maintained. I can only imagine studying at a university in the southern part of the United States, a few decades back, that excluded Blacks because the courses were top notch.


So too I want to daven with those who feel as I do with regard to who is welcome to pray along side of me.


The Young Israel movement decided that women (who do not, of course, participate equally in ritual), or those converted to Judaism,  may not serve as president of affiliated congregations.  I am not comfortable davening in such a community – no matter how lively the prayer. This approach to Judaism is alien to my understanding of what is just.


Very few Orthodox congregations allow women to participate to the extent that Halacha permits. Few struggle with a liturgy that often feels sexist (thanking God for not having made me a woman). Some will, on principle, not recite the Prayer for the State of Israel or celebrate Israel’s Independence Day.


The Masorti Movement seeks the separation of politics and religion in Israel. Yet the politics of those filling the seats in Orthodox suls (as reflected in surveys both in Israel and in the States) are far more conservative and parochial than in the more liberal Jewish communities. I want to pray where my “left-wing” views will not cause me to feel the scorn of those sitting by me.


Michaelson concedes “there’s no inherent reason that gender-egalitarian and otherwise inclusive congregations can’t offer the same kind of spiritual zets, or punch..” He is right. If we have fallen down on the job – we must do better. But I will daven, given the choice, with those who have a broader understanding of what it means that all of us were created in God’s holy image.