Before this summer, I had never heard of a mechitza. My first experience with one was at Yakar, the first synagogue I went to in Israel. Before I heard the beautiful music emanating from the mouths of both men and women, I saw a white curtain hang, dividing the room into two sides – one for the men and another for the women. I was surprised and confused. I knew what a mechitza was as of a conversation I had a few hours before I got to the synagogue, but I did not internalize the reality of the separation – the segregation – until then. I began to ask for the reasons why Orthodox Judaism calls for a mechitza and the main one I received was for the purpose of preventing distraction during prayer. The “attraction is distraction” argument does not sit well for me on a LGBT rights level. This argument assumes heterosexuality and was originally created so that man could pray without being seduced by a feminine presence (going back to the female seductress stereotype within Jewish texts). But what happens to the closeted gay/bisexual man who is forced to pray exclusively with those he is attracted to if he wishes to stay within the Orthodox denomination? According to this reasoning, the mechitza becomes a symbol of religious homophobia.
But this is not the only reason for the mechitza and this piece of cloth does not have to connote homophobia. The last synagogue I went to in Israel is the truly revolutionary feminist Orthodox institution Shira Hadasha. This groundbreaking egalitarian (as much as possible) minyan, which follows Orthodox Jewish law, promotes participation of both men and women. Because it allows for egalitarianism within an Orthodox framework, there is a mechitza, but this mechitza is beautifully transparent. The bima is usually located under the divider so that both men and women can read from the Torah.
Moment, a magazine on Jewish politics, religion, and culture, says of Shira Hadasha, “Shira Hadasha’s mehitza runs front-to-back so that both men and women can see the bima and have equal access to it. The mehitza is made of a thin, sheer fabric that allows everyone in the congregation to see one another.”
This synagogue that does not resist traditional Orthodoxy, but works within its original structure is an effort to be admired and one that leaves little room for sexist criticism. The mechitza at Shira Hadasha does not feel homophobic. It does not feel sexist. It does not allow for sweeping generalizations about the treatment of women in Orthodox Judaism. Instead, this mechitza promotes fraternity and sorority, the bonds that can form when communities collide.
The mechitza is a complicated Jewish symbol so this is only the first of many posts to come. Please leave all thoughts in comments and remember – nothing, especially concerning religion and feminism, can remain unchanging.