It is wedding season again and with it the return in the Orthodox world of an enforced foolish social norm parading as Halacha; namely separate seating between men and women. In some circles, this means completely different wedding halls, although usually it means separate tables on different sides of the rooms with a walled partition between them.
While this separation is branded as ancient, the reality is that there was mixed seating at social events in most Orthodox circles save for the hassidim, until the 1980s. I remember when this trend began and overheard my father’s friends joking that this would lead to separate sides of the street. The joke was no longer funny when it did in fact lead to different sides of the street just 20 years later.
The fact is, outside the synagogue and prayer, there is no halachic prohibition that forbids men and women from sitting together. It makes no difference if this is a social affair, doctor’s waiting room, an airplane or wagon ride from the shtetl to the big city. Of course, men and women have to be careful to respect themselves, each other and the norms of modesty; but this does not preclude sitting together and even talking with each other. (Yes, I know it is sad that I have to point this out. Treating a member of the opposite sex as a human being and not a sex object is the normal and right thing to do.)
This is attested to through thousands of pieces of written evidence, artistic illustrations and historical photographs. Just look at the wedding pictures of your grandparents, and if they weren’t frum enough for you, look at photos of weddings held by Torah giants and yeshiva fundraising dinners in the 1950s and ’60s – you will see actual Gedolei Yisrael sitting at the same table with their wives and the wives of others. You can see the mixing of the sexes in (and even artistic nudity) on the front pages of many holy books and Haggadot from the Middle Ages where there are depictions of men and women freely mixing, congregating and working together. This had been the norm among Jews since the Bible.
An immodest emphasis on modesty
But the latest trend of an overemphasis on modesty is just plain immodest. We are obsessing about how our women dress and have placed modesty as the forefront of the religious experience. And while modesty is a wonderful Torah value, it is one of many wonderful Torah values including human dignity, and I wonder how much this emphasis on modesty has in fact been detrimental in allowing our young men and women to develop their relationship to God, Jewish peoplehood and themselves?
The problem is multilayered. The first is that when communities add stringencies and added strictures, they quickly become the norm for which any deviation from them is seen as not halachic. This has been the overwhelming trend in the last 40 years. And those who don’t conform are therefore “less than” or even “sinning.”
“A man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife and they shall be as one flesh.”Genesis 2:23
The second is that to separate a married man from his wife is in fact the real sin. Husbands and wives should just be together. “A man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife and they shall be as one flesh” (Genesis 2:23). My wife is my partner and my best friend. She is my biggest critic and cheerleader all at once. I have precious few hours with my wife during the week and if we are going to go out for an evening, I do not want to spend it apart from her. It is just a waste of my time.
Perhaps, the bigger sin though is to separate young marriageable boys from young marriageable girls. In the Orthodox community, where gender segregated schools and camps are prevalent, why are we taking away a perfectly natural and kosher way for them to meet? I think the bride and groom should sit together before the wedding and play a little matchmaking by purposefully stocking the tables with members of the opposite sex who they think might go well together.
A wedding is a time where everyone is dressed up and hopefully looking their best. There is an atmosphere of real joy for the bride and groom. It is the perfect time for a young man to catch the eye of a young lady or a young man to notice a woman and, if he has the guts, to approach her and strike up a conversation. (It is also okay for a young woman to approach a man and start a conversation with him. Crazy, I know…)
More than a decade ago, Rabbi Chananya Weissman wrote about this, and his series of articles on the “shidduch crisis” had a huge impact and impression on my thinking on this subject. I remember one great line that stuck out in my mind. He points out that we are so afraid of our boys and girls acting inappropriately that we take away from them any chance to do the right thing and act appropriately.
Weddings, according to Weissman, should be the catalyst for another wedding, and that is not going to happen with separate seating. ■
The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.