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Youth Shabbat Sermon 2

11/13/2018 03:02:19 PM


Olivia Layman

When you walk into the Shaar, one of the first things you notice is the separate seating between men and women in our synagogue. Many of you might have a hard time with separate seating, while others might be totally fine with it. However you feel about this issue, I hope to enlighten you with my own point of view.


To start, a bit of context. Seating separated by a Mechitzah started in the temple of Jerusalem. It all began with a balcony that was built for women to sit in so that the men and women would sit separately. Some may see this as the men got the luxurious seats below in the front, which in the world of sports would be “the best seats in the house”. However, since this temple was built a long time ago, we don’t really know for sure how the men and women felt about it. The only thing that we are sure of, based on the Talmud text which describes this, is that the balcony was created to prevent levity between men and women. Levity can be interpreted as being flirty with one another and displaying inappropriate behavior.


As time went by, there started to be this snowball effect where rabbis continued to add their views or interpretations of the mechitzah. This is what happens in every area of Jewish law, that as time goes on, many interpretations develop. Over time, mechitzahs developed in different designs and different heights. Rabbis debated the height requirement of a mechitzah. Some said the mechitzah should be so high that the men can’t even see the women on the other side. Others said it should be minimal height, enough to just

prevent levity by dividing the room. It makes you wonder, how do you measure levity? How do you measure a feeling or a behavior? In our case at the Shaar, we follow the minimum requirement of approximately 36 inches high.


I have learned that there are many reasons for the mechitzah. Many people believe that men and women simply cannot think of anything but each other when seated together. So, according to this belief, there needs to be separate seating to prevent distractions. But I disagree with this assumption. Are men such barbarians that they cannot take their eyes off of women in order to listen and pray during services? Is a woman’s sole purpose to be an object of beauty for men? In a class that I am taking in school, we discussed that when we enforce and conform to gendered stereotypes they become normalized and accepted in society. Have we heard this rationalization for the mechitzah so often that now many people think it is true?


What about other sources of distraction? Has anyone taken into account that women still talk to women on their side, and men do the same on the other side? It seems to me that no matter who you put someone next to, male or female, there is always potential for distraction.


There is also the issue that these rules were made for only certain kinds of human beings. The rules of the mechitzah never thought about homosexuality, and the fact that men can be a distraction for other men and women can be a distraction for other women. Also, those who are non-binary, that is not identifying with one gender, are put in this uncomfortable position of being forced to choose the men or the women’s side.


We must also take into account that mechitzahs can prevent certain families from sitting together. This is not true for all families, and I’m sure many people would argue that they do not mind being separated from their parents, siblings, and so on, but for those who do want to pray together, I believe they should have the choice.


So can we define a mechitzah in a way that includes all people, and that makes sense in the 21st century? I think it’s hard. But perhaps in some cases it is a way to designate the synagogue space as a unique space. Most places that you go to, there’s a purpose. In every other room in our lives, whether in a class or a theatre, there’s a reason you go there. The synagogue space feels different. It is a sacred space, and maybe the fact that we even sit differently can help be a reminder of that.


Everyone has traditions, whether it be family traditions or religious traditions. Mechitzahs have been a part of Orthodox Judaism for many years. To have one in the room is upholding a tradition, which to some it brings comfort and strength and a sense of continuity and stability.


I will be honest and say that even though I may not agree with having a mechitzah, I do understand where the practice came from. I think that like any tradition, it plays an important role and has been part of our synagogue for a long time. A tradition good or bad cannot and should not be forgotten, but it can be reinterpreted much in the way we have revisited other aspects of Judaism to make them more in line with our modern day lives.


Shabbat Shalom.



Saturday, May 8, 2021 26 Iyyar 5781