Why I can no longer daven in an Orthodox synagogue

by Brian on November 9, 2019

in Jewish Holidays and Culture

Many years ago, when we were still living in the U.S., I had a Reform rabbi friend who said something I found shocking at the time. He declared defiantly that he would never daven (Yiddish for “pray”) in a synagogue with a mechitzah â€“ a divider separating men and women.

Mechitzah at synagogue in Afula, Israel

Back then, my wife, Jody, and I were members of a Modern Orthodox shul and I just didn’t understand my friend. He wouldn’t go into such a synagogue even for a simcha? A brit milah or a baby naming?

Then, a few weeks ago, we were invited to an Orthodox synagogue for a Shabbat Chatan, where a groom is called up to the Torah on the week before or after his wedding.

That’s when I realized that I, too, felt awkward in synagogues where men and women can’t sit together. 

This has been going on for a while. As I began to move away from observance over the last decade, eschewing the mechitzah minyans of my younger, frumer days felt more like an act of rebellion (“why can’t I sit with my wife and daughter?”) or perhaps a way of virtue signaling my new, unorthodox status, rather than some overarching anti-mechitzah ideology.

Charles King’s recently published book Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex and Gender in the 20th Century helped me understand that my discomfort might involve something deeper.

King, a professor at Georgetown University, has written the fascinating story of German-born Jewish anthropologist Franz Boas and his social science colleagues, whose pioneering work in the early 20th century challenged – and eventually upended – long-held notions of gender, race and class.

Interviewed on the NPR program Fresh Air, King explained that, 100 years ago, most Westerners believed there were clear divisions between people based on their sex, color or social standing. 

Race, for example, was considered “inheritable and biological,” King said, while “people came in natural gender categories [that] would be the same across all societies and for all time.” 

As a result, everyone had their prescribed roles. Men, it was widely understood at the time, had a built-in genetic right to leadership – after all, they had been the hunter-gatherers, so of course they would also dominate in the modern world as CEOs, soldiers and synagogue heads. 

Boas and his followers were among the first to break down such conceptions.

Anthropologist Ruth Benedict wrote in the 1930s, for example, about how among a number of plains tribal groups in the U.S., gender identities included an intersex category “where a person could have some of the outward biological features of one sex but occupy a social role that was on the opposite side.”

That was radical: It simply hadn’t occurred to people at the time, “that the reality you were observing in the world was a product of circumstance, culture and history, not of something that was innate,” King said.

Feminist writers from Simone de Beauvoir to Andrea Dworkin expanded on the work of Boas and his associates. Today, the idea that gender and racial roles are not fixed by biology has become mainstream in liberal Western thought. 

The message seems to have gotten stuck when it comes to Orthodox Judaism, however.

When I first spent time in Israeli yeshivot in the 1980s, I remember hearing the mantra that men and women are “separate but equal” and, as a result, women are not obligated to fulfill certain commandments, nor are they permitted to lead particular prayers or ceremonies, because they had “more holiness than men.” 

I found that disingenuous at the time, but I looked the other way. An Orthodox lifestyle offered enough benefits for me to dissociate from the misogyny lurking at its core. Perhaps, I hoped, Orthodoxy’s attitude would go away over time.

It hasn’t.

Just this summer, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, one of the leading figures of the religious Zionist community’s hard-line wing, when asked whether Ayelet Shaked could head the block of right-wing parties, declared, “The complicated whirlwind of politics is not for women.” Is a woman allowed to be in the Knesset? he asked provocatively. “Of course not.”

Aviner is clearly mistaken: there are Orthodox women in Israel’s parliament. Moreover, the progressive side of Orthodoxy now ordains female rabbis, even if they’re not always called that. 

But, to date, I’ve never seen an Orthodox synagogue with no separation of men and women whatsoever. The mechitzah may be low, it may be sheer or even made of glass, but it’s still there. 

And for me, that mechitzah is like a high-voltage wire or a radio antenna, a visceral symbol broadcasting that congregants who accept its presence still subscribe to an outdated belief that different roles for men and women are immutable and eternal, whether that’s based on our hunter-gatherer DNA or God’s word as transmitted by Jewish Law.

I’m not trying to be proscriptive here. As Shoshanna Keats-Jaskoll, founder of the Chochmat Nashim organization of religious women fighting extremism, told me, “I can respect the need for separate seating as a way to focus and not be distracted.” The problem, she says, is that what starts with the mechitzah “becomes highly unequal, fast,” going far beyond the choreography of prayer. 

A better approach – for me, at least? Mechitzah-less, egalitarian synagogues. One that I particularly respect is Jerusalem’s Zion congregation. While it makes no pretense to being Orthodox, Zion’s slogan resonates deeply. It reads simply: “come as you are.” 

That’s a kind of Judaism ready for the next 100 years.

I first wrote about my problems with mechitzah minions at The Jerusalem Post.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons (Deror_avi)

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