Over the recent (and somewhat endless) round of high holidays this year, I came to some disconcerting realizations about my attitude to shul-going as a woman and a feminist.
Coming from an orthodox background, I have realized that however much of a feminist I am, I still don’t feel comfortable in prayer settings of other denominations where real equality reigns. It’s a dismaying head-versus-heart dilemma, and I’m trapped by it. Why is it that I, a supposed 21st century feminist, still feel more at home in a segregated prayer service than at an egalitarian service where women are fully active participants, not just onlookers?
Again and again, I confess that I betray my feminist sensibilities by seeking out the comfort of orthodox shul settings. And I find myself squirreling away quietly behind the mechitza (the partition separating men and women) in the women’s section, instead of joining in the services as an equal participant, and as a real feminist should.
This year, for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, my husband and I chose to attend a small hasidic (“ultra-orthodox”) shul in our neighborhood of Riverdale, in the Bronx. We usually go to a more modern orthodox shul, which is very large and can be quite impersonal. But I yearned for a more intimate prayer experience — and also hoped the services might not drag on as long!
In spite of myself, and in spite of the huge mechitza looming up in front of me, and in spite of the old-world divisions between the sexes, I enjoyed the whole experience. There was this authentic chasidic warmth in the air. The rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) made a point of introducing herself and getting to know me. All the other women were very friendly, and the rebbetzin’s little grandchildren ran riot, creating a lively atmosphere. Not forgetting, of course, the rebbetzin’s delicious honey cake served during the kiddush at the conclusion of the services. The whole experience, was, for lack of a better word, heimish.
As a rule, my husband and I don’t pray in non-egalitarian settings (or, at the very least, in ones that don’t count women in a minyan). So while I have been following the progress of partnership minyanim with respect and interest for a number of years, I hadn’t participated in one on a Shabbat morning until recently, when I attended the bar mitzvah of a friends’ son.
Partnership minyanim — Sisterhood contributor Elana Sztokman wrote a book on the subject last year — try to maximize women’s participation in an Orthodox service by extending women’s roles and pushing at the boundaries of a traditional Jewish legal framework. Women lead introductory parts of the service, have aliyot and read Torah, and there is a mechitza (physical barrier) between the men’s and women’s sections. At this, but not all, partnership minyanim, the mechitza is also on the bimah, with the open Torah passed back and forth during the reading. I enjoyed the way that women joyously sang along and without hesitation or muted voices — unusual at even the most modern of Orthodox congregations — but I found the mechitza to be a big distraction.
The traditional, Talmudic rationale behind a barrier is that seeing women during a service will lead men to have sexual thoughts that distract them from prayer — and that specifically these thoughts defile the worship space. As I find mixed seating normal and everyday, I have almost never been distracted from my prayers by being among men. The men I’ve spoken to who have grown up in egalitarian settings agree.
But the mechitza itself, now that was very distracting.
These days, we’re hearing about more ultra-Orthodox men who are turning to increasingly hateful tactics to prevent women from praying as they wish on their side of the Western Wall’s mechitza. Recently, they hurled chairs over the divider, even before the women had a chance to begin their davening. Once the police were called, the chair-throwing stopped; two men were arrested.
But there are some things to follow up on:
1). How many women have to be physically hurt before the Ministry of Religion and the Chief Rabbinate say, unequivocally, that this is unacceptable? The Prime Minister needs to take an unambiguous stand against this violence.
2). It seems to me from the video that there were more than two men involved. What should happen to the men who participate in such incidents? They shouldn’t be allowed back.
Every time I read about the ongoing Women of the Wall saga, I am filled with sorrow. As I picture Jew fighting Jew, a woman being roughhoused by police, fingerprinted like a common criminal, my heart is heavy. Their fight is reminiscent of that of Rosa Parks. All these women want is the same treatment as men. How could one group be allowed to monopolize a national holy site?
These are the emotions that fill my heart. When I think about it, though, I ultimately disagree with what the Women of the Wall are trying to accomplish.
I can see things from both sides because I’ve been in both worlds. I was raised as Conservative Jew, and was outraged the first time I saw the mechitza at the Western Wall, during a family trip to Israel when I was almost 14. I had basically no real understanding of Orthodox Judaism at that point, but the message of the mechitza was clear to me: You women don’t have the same rights and privileges as men.