Madness and ‘mehitzot’

Questioning the divider between women and men during prayer.

Men of the Women of the Wall pray behind the partition at the back of the women’s section, in 2013. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Men of the Women of the Wall pray behind the partition at the back of the women’s section, in 2013.
Leprosy is a pretty nasty disease. It’s spread through coughing or nasal gunge, and the smart thing to do is to stay away from a carrier of Mycobacterium leprae. But what if someone with granulomas of the nerves, respiratory tract, skin and eyes wants to enter a synagogue and pray? According to the Mishna (Negaim 13:12), when he enters a synagogue they must make for him a partition 10 handbreadths high and four cubits wide, where he stays put for the duration.
Safely isolated, he can’t contaminate the holiness of the place.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik utilized this as a guide for decreeing the appropriate height of the mehitza partitioning women from men in a synagogue until today.
Ummm, leaving aside the somewhat surprising equation of women with lepers, the reasons for this separation are compelling, if complex.
Some sources claim gender division prevents kalut rosh (levity); God forbid, the synagogue degenerates into a place of mirth. Even here there’s contention: There are those who believe men cannot quell their sexual thoughts when they glimpse a woman at prayer, and those who claim that mixed-gender eye contact just doesn’t work in places of worship. Still others proclaim that if a women’s section was good enough for the Holy Temple, it’s good enough for us.
One school of thought makes women a “problem” – they distract the good, pitiable men, who become “victims” in need of protection. A different viewpoint allows for a symbolic separation – a low, transparent divider will do.
Oh dear.
Now I’m no longer a very frequent shul-goer myself, but I do sometimes attend services at our cozy, comfortable Orthodox shul in Kfar Saba. Women sit at the back, men pray piously in front of us, with better air-conditioning and prettier windows. But OK: We can see the lovely stained glass from the cheap seats.
Now I don’t want to hurt feelings in any way, and maybe it’s because I’m getting old, or maybe it’s because I’m spoiled, but I have to say that as I glance over our relatively low mehitza of 10 tefahim, there is no one among the aging male daveners who makes me forget where I am in the Amida prayer. My husband was about as drop-dead gorgeous as a man can get, yet even with his smile of greeting as I took my seat, usually just in time for the Musaf service, I still managed to make it through the prayers.
With kavana (intention). He claimed he did, too. But there you go.
I had reason to consider the esoteric issue of mehitzot this week, as our synagogue called an extraordinary meeting to discuss whether we should raise the height of ours. Our rabbi spoke first, eloquently, giving an overview.
Someone presented the case for raising; someone else the rebuttal. There was impassioned debate; there were biscuits and drinks. A vote by show of hands. And a decisive victory for a higher partition.
(In fairness to my congregation, multiple mitigating factors clouded the conversation, like returning the “status quo” after a recent renovation dented the requisite 10 handbreadths of separation. In this case, hardening attitudes and religious extremism might not be to blame.) However, the debate moved me to consider barriers. In his wonderful poem “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost has two neighboring farmers meet each year to repair the damage to their boundary wall, which repeatedly crumbles. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” says Frost, despite his friend’s insistence that “good fences make good neighbors.”
Spring is the mischief in me, Frost continues, and he wonders if he could put a notion in the other farmer’s head: Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offense...
Frost knows he has no chance of winning the case, and he walks the wall righting boulders and closing gaps, although he feels it’s a losing battle. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” Frost repeats.
“That wants it down.”
Israel is not the sedate New England of Vermont’s poet laureate. Here we are not walling out apple trees that will never cross the border to eat the cones under a neighbor’s pines. We embrace walls and fences and electronic barriers that keep our streets safe, and our children out of range of knives and bombs and God knows what. Of course we do.
And they work, for a while, the endless barbed wire and concrete blocks that today divide Jerusalem, although our leaders tell us that the city will always be united. And after they work for a bit they are breached, or the people who want us obliterated find another tactic (and present us as aggressors)… and the endless story goes on and on and on.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s time for a change? Maybe, just maybe, we should ask Mr. Security to step aside; we deserve better. Maybe the time has come to look beyond the walls. In our shul women will never sit with men, regardless of the height of the dividing partition; yet both sexes continue praying to the same God to bring us peace on earth. In our country the two peoples who so bitterly contest each meter of this land will ultimately need to sit separately. That’s the first step.
Will the mehitza between us always be so bleak? Will there come a time when it’s not needed and comes tumbling down? Who knows. But surely the time has come to put it to the test.
The writer lectures at Beit Berl and IDC Herzliya.