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Scrap the Mechitza

Two of my brothers recently started attending Orthodox synagogues where mechitzas divide men from women, ostensibly to eliminate improper thoughts in shul. As a gay man, I never know where to sit. Seating me with a bunch of men is … Read More

By / March 4, 2007
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Two of my brothers recently started attending Orthodox synagogues where mechitzas divide men from women, ostensibly to eliminate improper thoughts in shul. As a gay man, I never know where to sit. Seating me with a bunch of men is like locking Jackie Gleason in a delicatessen, as the old Jackie Mason joke goes. But if I were to sit with women, my own beauty might distract everyone around me. I could sit in a section composed solely of gay men, but then we’d all distract each other. To be safe, I’d have to sit in a room with only one other person, a lesbian. But first, we’d both have to undergo testing to make sure neither of us had any latent bisexual tendencies. The mechitza—the partition keeping apart men and women in an Orthodox synagogue—is a failure, not only for gay men like me, and not only for Conservative and Reform Jews, who’ve long ago discarded the practice, but also for Orthodox Jews, who aren’t getting from it what they think. Supposedly, a mechitza creates a sacred space by separating the sexes. The trouble is, sex is not an either/or proposition. In fact, today we understand that gender and sexuality exist in a range of fuzzy shades that sometimes bleed into each other. It’s a paradigm far more complex than the Talmudic scholars who created the mechitza ever imagined. There are three reasons separating men from women is supposed to create holiness. First, mixing the sexes could be distracting; as the argument goes, a man who sees a pretty woman can’t help looking up from his prayer book. Second, separating the sexes makes people feel more comfortable. Third, this separation reaffirms the natural order of things. It isn’t that men are better than women or vice versa, but that God created Adam and then Eve in the Garden of Eden; a mechitza reaffirms that essential truth. Too bad none of these premises holds water.
Separating men from women does not make shul a sex-free zone. Even in a synagogue that bars openly professing homosexuals from attending, you might still have a few closeted gay or lesbian congregants who secretly get their jollies from sitting among members of the same sex. And then you’ve got to worry about the heterosexual congregants, who are not wholly immune to the attractions of their fellow men and women. (After all, a substantial number of female beauty contest viewers are heterosexual women, and even the most hot-blooded heterosexual male can tell the difference between Brad Pitt and former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert.) Also, where would you seat a hermaphrodite, or someone who’s undergone a sex change? If you seat a biological male who’s turned female among men, you’re certainly creating a distraction there. However, a mechitza requires you to do just that because its designers could only conceive of gender in bifurcated terms. Men go with men and women go with women, even if they’re men who lack penises or women who have them. Furthermore, distraction in synagogue can come in any number of forms. A person can be distracted from prayers by thirst, depression, anxiety, a neighbor’s acne problem, or the rabbi’s slightly askew yarmulke. Why is attraction to beauty the only distraction that requires stamping-out at all costs? Of all our natural urges, desire isn’t that much more consuming than hunger or physical pain or the love of one’s family. And anyway, what’s wrong with a little distraction from time to time? The whole “distraction” argument is so tenuous that even mechitza defenders don’t waste much time on it anymore. Instead they’re more likely to talk about how the mechitza actually makes people feel more comfortable, rather than less. An Orthodox rabbi I spoke to described how awkward his teenage male students felt in the presence of teenage girls. As soon as the girls were removed from their company, the boys felt free to express their true selves. He also told me about women who grew up with a mechitza and felt comfortable with it, even preferred to sit away from men.
These feelings might be true for some people. But for others, being in an all-male or all-female environment can be equally discomforting. Some women resent being separated from men. Some men feel uncomfortable being separated from their families. Why does their discomfort count for less than the rather unnatural discomfort at finding yourself next to a member of the opposite sex, the way you would on any street corner? As far as the mechitza being a “natural” way to separate people, it’s unclear why separating people by sex is any more natural than separating people in any number of ways: adults from children, disabled from non-disabled, black from white. The “separate but equal” argument doesn’t really work either because the act of separation is in itself inherently unequal. Walk into any Orthodox synagogue, and you won’t need much time to figure out which sex is in charge. (If you need a hint, it’s the one you see on the bimah.) Don’t blame us, the Orthodox say. God created Adam first, then Eve. Isn’t that a sign of something? However, this traditional interpretation of Genesis is actually just one version of the story. As Rabbi Steven Greenberg has pointed out in his book Wrestling with God and Men, if you look closely at the original text, it says, “And God created a human being [single, with no specified gender] in his image / In the image of God made he him / Male and female made he them.” According to the Talmudic rabbi Yirmiyah ben Eleazar, this first human being was actually androgynous—since God has no gender, and since this human was made in God’s image, it couldn’t be male or female. From this single genderless human, God created man and woman. So the original design is not two, but one. After one was separated into two, the result was not holiness, but rather our Fall from grace. Wouldn’t it then make sense that holiness would be achieved when men and women come back together, rather than by keeping them apart?
I brought these arguments to an Orthodox rabbi and asked him how he would respond to them. “I don’t know,” was his honest answer. “Those are good points.” In the end, however, he maintained that God wants us to have a mechitza in shul, and so we are obligated to fulfill that desire, even if we don’t understand it. I brought up the fact that there’s no mention of a mechitza in the Torah—it’s a commandment interpreted by the men who wrote the Talmud. The rabbi argued that God wanted the men to write the Talmud in that way. However, even if God wants us to divide men from women, this desire is impossible for us to realize. Gender isn’t a black-and-white issue, with men all behaving one way and women all behaving in the opposite way. A more honest representation of gender is as a spectrum, not a dialectic. It’s porous, not discrete. If you’re trying to separate the sexes, all of them, one wall just isn’t enough. What do we do as humans when God asks us to observe a commandment that we cannot fulfill? Take the case of barren married couples, who cannot observe the commandment of “be fruitful and multiply.” According to the Talmud (the same source for the mechitza), when we are incapable of doing something we are commanded to do, God releases us from the obligation. Therefore, since the commandment of the mechitza also asks us to do something that is impossible, I argue that we are no longer required to fulfill it either. And good riddance.

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