Ask the Rabbi: The hot seat

The mixed-seating controversy was undoubtedly one of US Jewry's most controversial and divisive issues.

mixed seating 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
mixed seating 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Q Why did many American Orthodox synagogues have mixed pews in the 20th century, and how did this ultimately became a dividing line between Orthodox and Conservative synagogues? - M.B., Jerusalem A The controversy over mixed seating was undoubtedly one of American Jewry's most controversial and divisive issues. In my hometown Houston, for example, our decades-old Orthodox synagogue did not have a Shabbat morning service with a mehitza (a partition that divides the genders) until a 7 a.m. (!) alternative service was allowed in 1969 to accommodate the new day school principal. Only in the early 1990s did the congregation fully abandon mixed seating, following years of acrimonious debate and synagogue votes. Similar battles took place in numerous communities, with different outcomes in each city frequently including denominational switches, legal battles and broken friendships. Since both the Orthodox and Conservative movements claim allegiance to ancient practice, some tried to resolve this debate by examining relics of ancient synagogues. Indeed, both sides resorted to archeology to prove whether synagogues from antiquity had separate seating. Yet academics sharply disagree with regard to interpreting the ambiguous evidence, while ideological inclinations biased many critical judgments. It remains clear, however, that medieval and early modern synagogues had separate sections for men and women, with the latter seated in a separate section, gallery or adjacent room. (As Prof. Avraham Grossman has documented, many medieval women did attend services regularly, both on Shabbat and during the week. This seems to have been the case as well in Talmudic times, as seen in Sota 22a and Avoda Zara 38). While Orthodox decisors claim that this historical precedent sufficiently creates an inviolable minhag, their liberal detractors contend that the legal system includes room for more flexibility. The first rabbinic text that explicit forbids gender intermingling during prayer, however, appears only in about the ninth century (Seder Eliahu Rabba, Ch. 9), while the first definitive depiction of a permanent women's section appears in an 11th century geniza fragment. While the Temple had a so-called "Women's Courtyard," some men entered this area for different purposes, such as the Torah reading on Yom Kippur and the Hakhel ceremony (Sota 41b), while women crossed the main "Israelites courtyard" to bring certain sacrifices (Bikkurim 1:5, 3:6). While some point to this phenomenon to show that gender separation was not mandated in the Temple, Orthodox defenders contend that these were temporary intrusions for a specific need. Most Orthodox proponents of a mehitza point to a different Temple ceremony to show the necessity of gender separation. In describing the seating during the festive water drawing ceremony of Succot, the sages taught, "Originally, women were inside [the gates of the Women's Courtyard] and men were outside, and they came to frivolity. [The sages] instituted that women would sit outside and men inside, but they still came to frivolity. They therefore instituted that women sit above and men below" (Succa 51). The Talmud further cites a verse from Zechariah to justify this addition to God's blueprints for the Temple. Orthodox proponents of the mehitza cite this enactment against frivolity as requiring gender separation in synagogues, since Jewish law frequently cites these new houses of worship as "mini sanctuaries." While Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (d. 1986) argued that erecting a biblical-level law requires an actual physical barrier (Igrot Moshe 1:39), Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (d. 1993) asserted that the barrier itself stems from rabbinic mandate, with the original law only requiring physical separation (Sanctity of the Synagogue, p. 141). Conservative opponents like Rabbi David Golinkin, however, retort that this was a temporary rabbinic enactment for a specific ceremony. Others have accused Orthodox decisors of trumping up severe prohibitions for polemical purposes, an allegation which Rabbi Gil Student has recently attempted to debunk (B.D.D. 17). In 1851, the first American Reform synagogue instituted mixed pews after purchasing its new temple from a church. Prof. Jonathan Sarna has argued that this innovation, and its subsequent spread into other denominations, stemmed from both convenience and a desire to modernize by emulating the decorum of the Christian majority. While certain Conservative rabbis from the Jewish Theological Seminary opposed this innovation, their more compromising or liberal colleagues won the day, especially as the growth of the nascent feminist movement turned the issue into one of egalitarianism. Additionally, the modern motto, "Families that pray together, stay together" became a formidable sociological argument for mixed pews. Orthodox rabbis, however, took an uncompromising stand, deeming such practices beyond the pale. While their seminary graduates continued, until the 1980s, to take positions in synagogues with mixed pews, they frequently demanded, over time, that the synagogue add a mehitza. This partition thus created a clear division between Orthodox and Conservative synagogues, a barrier which came to physically separate men and women and, symbolically, Jew from Jew. The author, editor of, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University.