Meḥitza: Do Orthodox prayers count in a Conservative Synagogue?

Before I accepted my present job, I was asked many times by my interviewers how I would deal and interact with other Jewish denominations. In other words, would my Orthodoxy impinge upon my ability to adequately execute my job? Without fail, I would respond that I plan on treating all Jews equally. However, I was quick to point out that I personally do endorse certain beliefs, and while I would sit in on a Reform or Conservative prayer services, I would not take part in their Tefillot (any aspects of the prayer service that qualify as halakhic prayer). To be honest, I really had not put much thought into that position. I’m sure some rabbi once told it to me, and I heard that is what Richard Joel – the current President of Yeshiva University – did when he headed Hillel International. Really, I just assumed it was the Orthodox perspective (even though, obviously, some Orthodox individuals would never even enter a Reform or Conservative House of Prayer, let alone during prayers).

The truth is that there are certain issues that, if present, invalidate the possibility of a halkhicly valid prayer taking place. R. Yosef Karo in his law book, the Shulḥan Aruch, lists them, including urine, bugs, putrid smells, etc. Additionally, I was taught that the lack of a meḥitza (halakhic wall separating the sexes), position of the bimah (Torah dais), musical instrument accompaniment, employment of microphones, women taking certain roles of prominence, female choirs, etc., possibly also fall into this category. In the following analysis, I would like to focus on just one of these: meḥitzah. While this topic has been written about as if it is the holy grail of prayer by many, I believe a new look at it would prove to be beneficial.

There’s an old anecdote that I think I made part of it up. It’s a dialogue between a Conservative and an Orthodox Jew; it goes as follows:
Conservative Jew: Why doesn’t Rav Yosef Karo’s law book, the Shulḥan Aruch, have a section for the laws of meḥitza?
Orthodox Jew: Why?
Conservative Jew: We learn from this that a synagogue really doesn’t need a meḥitza.
Orthodox Jew: No, we learn from this that a synagogue really doesn’t need women. (1)

It’s true: there are no laws of meḥitza in the primary law book of the Jews. Similarly, it is true: women have no obligation to pray in a synagogue or with a quorum.

The primary source cited for the laws of meḥitza is a verse from Zachariah (12:12); it reads: “The land will mourn, each family by itself…” The Talmud (Sukkah 52a) explains that this verse refers to the Messianic era: even though the world’s populace will be freed of the evil inclination, nonethless, men and women will still congregate into distinct groups to mourn separately. Apparently, there is a need to separate women and men, even at a funeral, even when the evil inclination enjoys no hold upon mankind. Indeed, this understanding of the verse was so firmly established, the Talmud explains, the Temple officials of the Second Commonwealth augmented the Temple’s structure based on it. They erected a balcony in the Temple’s Courtyard in order to thwart any fraternizing between the sexes. While any additions to the Temple are forbidden, as the precise structural dimensions of the Temple were prescribed in detail in the Bible (2), when the option of reorganizing traffic failed, the verse from Zachariah proffered the necessary justification, through an a fortiori argument, to overrule the Divine schemata and construct a balcony.
In other words, originally in the Temple, there was no balcony. Men and women walked wherever they wanted in the Temple’s Ezrat Nashim (Women’s Courtyard). When fraternizing at Temple functions became a problem, first the Temple staff reorganized traffic, and then when that proved ineffective, they decided to build a balcony in the Temple to separate the sexes. This Talmudic text is the sole source for the possibility of building meḥitza in synagogues today in order to allow both genders to pray in one space. But can this case alone justify what Orthodox synagogues presently do? Let’s try to understand the connection between this balcony and our modern meḥitzot.

  1. The Temple was not the Ancient equivalent of our modern synagogues. Even though the Temple was a place of prayer, the predominant method of worshipping God in the Temple was via animal offerings. Additionally, it was a place for Jews to congregate. For example, on Sukkot, the Simḥat Beit Ha-Sho’eiva (a religious type of party) was celebrated there. The Talmud identifies this party as the impetus for building the balcony. But if this is the case, it is easier to justify the need for separating the sexes at a party (even a religious one at the Holy Temple) than at a synagogue where people are praying. It is not obvious that one can make an a fortiori argument from the Temple case to all synagogues. Indeed, that parallel would have been more apt if we applied it to placing some form of separation in a synagogue’s social hall. One expects levity at parties, but not necessarily at prayers. Accordingly, there is no reason to assume Temple officials banned women from the lower level of the Ezrat Nashim, except during party hours.
  2.  A balcony, not a meḥitza, was constructed in the Temple. Most balconies can function as a meḥitza (as one of the primary goals of a meḥitza is to separate), but a meḥitza is not usually a balcony; rather a meḥitza enjoys laws that are specific to it: it must be at least ten tefaḥim (unit of length corresponding to the length of a palm) high and enjoys certain additional requirements regarding the nature of the wall itself. A balcony, on the other hand, is just a separate floor. I personally would not call a balcony a meḥitza, but rather a separate area. And, regarding a balcony, you can still see the women from the ground floor, eye to eye, talk with them, and depending on the length of the skirt…
  3. Even if the balcony can be qualified as a type of meḥitza, separating the genders by relocating one to a balcony was not the ideal way that the Temple officials would have wanted to deal with the fraternizing. They first tried to re-orient traffic. That did not work. But what if it did? Obviously that would have been good enough, and the Temple officials would not have needed to construct the balcony. So, if the traffic-change was an acceptable option, (assuming it worked) why do we assume that the Sages made an eternal decree that balconies are the only way to minimize fraternizing? Maybe we should always begin by changing traffic, and subsequently go the balcony route in our synagogues today?

Accordingly, based on these three aforementioned issues, it is quite problematic to cull the notion of the meḥitza from the Talmudic source and simply import it to our modern synagogues. However, that is not the end of the story. There is another way that we may be able to introduce a meḥitza into our synagogues. There are certain problems that might arise during prayer that are me’akeiv. (We mentioned a few above.) When something is me’akeiv, it obviates the possibility of the religious action taking place. For example, one cannot recite the Shma without some separation between one’s genitals and his heart. If he does recite the Shma without this separation, then it is considered as if he did not execute that commandment; indeed, it would have to be repeated in full once he acquires this separation if he wants to fulfill that commandment. Similarly, prayer without a meḥitzah might be me’akeiv for another reason. But what?
In general, the construction of a meḥitza will facilitate one or both of the following two matters: separation, and eliminating or at least minimizing visibility. If the meḥitza does not separate, it is not a meḥitza. In other words, a meḥitza is first and foremost a wall. Some walls don’t extend all the way to the ground, some are made of translucent material, some are not very high, some are lattice, etc. Consequently, the Rabbis derive the laws of meḥitza from the laws that regulate the definition of a regular wall (which is important for defining land ownership). R. Moshe Feinstein took this approach and it is reflected throughout his responsa writings on the topic of meḥitza (3). The second issue, visibility beyond the partition, is a bit harder to define. Different types of walls affect the line of vision between people on opposite sides of the partition differently: you can see through, over, or under certain walls. Not all walls eliminate the line of vision between the two sides at all. So now we may ask: given that the two primary features of a wall are separation and minimization of visibility, is there a specific problem with seeing or not separating from women during prayers?
(A) First there is the issue of kalot rosh (frivolity or silliness). It is forbidden to pray with kalot rosh. While speaking to women is not truly a normative example of kalot rosh, some Rabbis identify conversing with females as the paradigm of kalot rosh.
(B) When females are visible (and sometimes not visible) to males during prayers, and vice verse, one encounters the issue of forbidden (sexual) thoughts. In general, this was the primary issue that a meḥitza addresses for the Ḥatam Sofer. (4)

Are these two issues truly issues? The truth is, even without executing a religious action, it is forbidden to sexualize females in your head. Rav Sheishet says that whoever looks at the pinky of a woman, needs atonement as if he stared at her genitals (Shabbat 64b). Rambam explains: One may not gaze at the beauty of a (woman forbidden to him as an) ervah (forbidden sexual partner)… If he does so for pleasure, he receives lashes. Looking even at the pinky for pleasure is like looking at the place of ervah. In other words, one may not look at any part of the female body for pleasure. (Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 21:2). (5) Rambam adds: One may not look at women hanging up laundry. It is even forbidden to look at colored clothing of a woman he recognizes lest he come to have thoughts. In fact, throughout chapter 21, Rambam enumerates a list of actions that one is forbidden from engaging in because of its licentious nature. The Tur, who mostly cuts and pastes that chapter from the Rambam adds: One should stay very far away from women. He may not motion with his hands or wink at one of the arayot (forbidden relations) and he may not laugh with her or… look at her or even smell her perfume. And it is forbidden to even look at the colored garments of a woman he knows (Even Ha-Ezer 21). We see from these Rabbis that peering at females (for pleasure) is not specifically a prayer issue but always an issue, independent of when it is occurring.
Furthermore, we must note another issue which, arguably, undermines the position that peering at females (in a non-pleasure seeking way) invalidates prayers . One differentiation that halakhists many times fail to make is the difference between reciting the Shma and praying the Amida (the tri-daily recitation of the 19 blessings). The Shulḥan Arukh devotes sixteen chapters (O”Ḥ 73-88) to the different situations that would make it impossible to recite the Shma and have it count to fulfill one’s Biblical obligation. There are a whole other set of rules by Amida (O”Ḥ 90-104). There are some overlaps (like if one has to fart – O”Ḥ 92), but in truth, the two sets of rules are completely self-contained and do not apply one to the other. This concept is sometimes very hard for people to internalize. After all, the Shma is said immediately before Amida and they both feel like the same thing; they both feel like prayer. But they are not the same things. When one recites the Shma, one is fulfilling one of the 613 Biblical commandments: just like shaking the lulav (palm-frond) on Sukkot, the daily donning of tefillin (phylacteries) or affixing a mezuzah to one’s doorframe. It just so happens that the way that one fulfills this commandment is through reciting something, as opposed to doing something. Accordingly, it is just a coincidence that we fulfill the commandment to pray and the Shma through recitation, and that coincidence makes them feel so similar. That being clear, it should come as no surprise that two sets of mostly unrelated laws govern the when, how and if the Shma or Amida can take place and still be regarded as halakhicly valid. Accordingly, while females are mentioned (in certain guises) as impediments to validly reciting the Shma, they are actually never mentioned ever as an issue that can be an impediment to validly reciting the Amida. That alone should point to the fact that according to Jewish Law one is permitted to, at least, see a woman during prayers without the prayer becoming null in void.

Last, while the issue of kalot rosh should be taken into consideration when reciting the Amida, as kalot rosh is one of the listed impediments to a successful Amida, the matter should be evaluated on an individual level without making blanket statements. For example, if one cannot concentrate on his/her Amida when the other sex is in the same room, and for that person, this lack of concentration leads to kalot rosh, even with a meḥitza, it would be forbidden for that person to participate in that prayer session.

Conclusions:

  • It is not at all obvious from the Talmudic text that a synagogue needs a meḥitza. The Temple balcony itself, specified as employed during religious parties, is not a good paradigm for learning out the necessity or the laws of meḥitza.
  • The Talmud never says that having women in eye-sight is a form of kalot rosh. Also, that would be a strange usage of the phrase ‘kalot rosh’.
  • While it is forbidden to derive pleasure from peering at a female, that does not apply more so to the times of reciting the Amida than any other times. So, while it is appropriate to do all we can to ensure that such thoughts are excluded (or at least minimized) during prayer services, that does not mean women must be out of sight for men to be able to pray. Otherwise, R. Moshe Feinstein would not permit the type of meḥitza that he allowed, and the Temple would not allow the construction of the balcony as it did.
  • There is a special law not to peer at the parts of females that are generally covered during the recital of the Shma. Nonetheless, one may look away or close one’s eyes during those moments. Furthermore, as that proscription only applies to parts of a female that are usually covered, in our society, arguably, not much of the female would fall under this category.

Now we may conclude with a case study.
 The case: An Orthodox Jew attends a Reform or Conservative prayer service. All the Jews (and possibly non-Jews) present are congregated together without a meḥitza. What does this mean for the Orthodox Jew?
First, obviously it is best to pray in an Orthodox environment for this person. Even after all we said, there is a massive benefit to a meḥitza. Most males lack the willpower to refrain from deriving pleasure from the females around them. While there is nothing the Rabbis can do for the street masses save tell them to walk with their eyes focused towards the ground (which some do, and some regularly walk into walls), it should be obvious that during the time that we devote to worshipping God (ie prayer), the Rabbis ought to place extra protections to minimize or eliminate these forbidden thoughts. That being said, considering all that we have pointed out above, it seems that an Orthodox individual may pray in that room, even though it is best not to. In other words, the meḥitza is not me’akeiv.
Given the case, however, there are many other issues that have to be dealt with:

  1. If there are ten Jewish adult males present, I do not see why this would not count for a minyan, even if they are dispersed among the women or non-Jews.
  2. Even if the Jews desecrate the Sabbath publicly (by driving or using their iphones at prayers), this does not invalidate them for counting towards a minyan (quorum).
  3. It is forbidden to stare or even look at the females in a sexual manner, but that has nothing to do specifically with prayers. That is always a rule. But, if the female presence would lead to kalot rosh for you, it would be forbidden to recite the Amida.
  4. During the recitation of the Shma, he would have to close his eyes or look away. But, as the most halakhic authorities are solely worried about a male seeing a feature of the female that is usually unexposed (S”A 75), or a voice/song that one is unaccustomed to hearing (Rema 75:3) during the recitation of the Shma, that should not be a problem in this environment.
  5. Furthermore, most Modern Orthodox Jews, in general, do not take into consideration female dress or headcoverings at the Shabbat table (and look away if necessary during Kiddush (sanctification prayer) and welcome female singing at synagogue (and some at the Shabbat table).

It seems to me that there is no me’akeiv here that would make the recitation of the Shma or prayer impossible for the Orthodox Jew at the Reform or Conservative.
To finish, I would like to offer two accounts I’ve heard many times. Famously, Rabbi Soloveitchik use to give heiterim (permission) to Orthodox rabbis to accept Conservative appointments even though the synagogue either lacked a Kosher Meḥitza or did not have one at all. This consent was only temporary, and after five years or so, R. Soloveitchik pre-warned the rabbinical appointee that the synagogue must erect or raise the meḥitza (depending on the situation) or the rabbi must quit. While Judaism embraces certain utilitarian trends, Briskers do not as quickly. Accordingly, this story always struck me as weird. In fact, this story should be enough to rule that, in fact, praying without a meḥitza is not technically me’akeiv to prayers. Otherwise, R. Soloveitchik could not have allowed such a stipulation. R. Soloveitchik would have never allowed, even temporarily, for example, prayer at a nudist colony. Furthermore, R. Soloveitchik was wont to also say it is better not to hear the shofar blown in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah – a Biblical commandment – than to hear it at a synagogue without a meḥitzah. Both these stories illustrate the fact that, at least in R. Soloveitchik’s case, there were extra-halakhic considerations directing his rulings regarding mechitzot. If it was forbidden to pray without a meḥitzah present, I doubt that Rabbi Soloveitchik would allow it under any circumstances. Similarly, even if it is was forbidden to pray at a certain synagogue for some reason, still we would not expect that impediment to be taken into consideration when we evaluate whether one heard a valid shofar blowing. (6)

Footnotes:

(1) And, for those who have visited Tzefat, note that there was a women’s section in R. Yosef Karo’s synagogue. It just happened to be behind a big wall, and hence did not need an additional meḥitza.

(2) See I Chronicles 28:11

(3)

  •  The meḥitza need be at least shoulder height. In other words, one can see over  it (O”Ḥ 1:40, 42).
  • Glass is permitted to be used as a meḥitza even though you can see right through it (O”Ḥ 1:43).
  • A synagogue that does not have a meḥitza should at least have the men and women sit at separate sides (O”Ḥ 1:44).
  • The meḥitza can have tiny holes in it (O”Ḥ 4:32).  All of these laws reflect the fact that R.  Moshe Feinstein viewed the primary function of a meḥitza as separation.

(4) Accordingly, when one reads through the Ḥatam Sofer on the topic of meḥitza, there is a
focus about ensuring that males and females cannot see one another through the meḥitza.

(5) Note how Rambam adds the words “for pleasure” ensuring that one is not sinning every
time that he looks at a female.

(6) See the Laws of Shofar blowing

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9 Comments

Filed under Halakha

9 responses to “Meḥitza: Do Orthodox prayers count in a Conservative Synagogue?

  1. Gil Student

    I disagree with almost everything here. First, there are responsa on this subject! See Responsa Maharam Schick, Orach Chaim 71 who forbade praying in a shul without a mechitzah, even at the risk of losing your job. Even a moderate like R. Azriel Hildesheimer forbade praying in a shul without a mechitzah. See his Gesammelte Aufaetze, p. 26.

    The issue is not whether praying without a mechitzah invalidates the prayers but whether doing so is a sin. If it is a sin, then you cannot fulfill a mitzvah while sinning.

    Regarding Rav Soloveitchik, he told his students to pray by themselves earlier. See, for example, R. Shlomo Riskin, Listening to God, p. 141 about Rav Soloveitchik’s three conditions before R. Riskin accepted the pulpit of Lincoln Square Synagogue, which at the time had no mechitzah: “Thirdly, I could not pray with them, although I should lead the prayers. ‘Daven by yourself, early, and they must know you are not davening with them,’ he said.”

    Of course, every question that involves conflicting personal issues requires a personal conversation with your rabbi. I am only speaking in general.

    • Russ Shulkes

      You make 3 points:
      1. I ignore the fact that there are responsa on this topic
      2. Praying without a mechitza is a sin. A mitzvah (shma or amida) cannot halakhicly count when it is being executed despite a sin occurring concomitantly. Accordingly, prayer cannot take place without a mechitza (in a mixed synagogue).
      3. The concluding story of Rabbi Soloveitchik misinterpreted his psak halakha.
      1. First, I do and I don’t. Yes, I am familiar with the fact that Orthodox rabbis insist on the presence of a mechitza, and in the post-Enlightenment period, they forbid one to pray in a prayer service that lacks one. My goal was to start from scratch: analyze the Gemara and analyze the exact issue with attending a prayer service that lacks a mechitza. Indeed, there are a many 19th century rabbis, aside from the two you cite, who forbid praying in a prayer service without a mechitza. First, those rabbis were dealing with Reform challenges that we need not concern ourselves with today (and that must be taken into consideration when paskening the matter). And, second, our question was from the start a case of a she’at dechak. I say in the conclusion, obviously, one ought to seek out an Orthodox mechitzaed minyan lehatchila. But, my conclusion should stand, despite the two 19th century rabbis cited.
      2. I think you believe this is a case of mitzvah ha-ba’ah me-aveira. But, the prayer does not exist as a consequent of the existence or lack of mechitza, but independently of it. They exist as two separate laws. A person must pray. A synagogue must have a mechitza. (Ignoring the fact that one can pray at shiva houses or baseball games without a mechitza even though females are present because the place of prayer does not have the status of a fixed house of prayer). Really it is closer to a case of Shofar gazul (O”H 586:2) of “ein be-kol din gazul” where it is halakhicly valid to blow a stolen shofar (ie the mitzvah counts even though a sin occurred, as they are somewhat unrelated). But, of course, this is really only true if it is in fact a sin to pray without a mechitza as opposed to a geder established by rabbanim. Again, I started from scratch, from the Talmud, in order to identify what a mechitza accomplishes and if, in fact, there is a specific sin of praying without a mechitza. I list certain sins that can occur if one chooses to pray without a mechitza, and how to deal with those issues. For example, It is forbidden to pray in front of a married woman’s uncovered hair (putting aside the Arukh HaShulhan), yet one can close his eyes or look away.
      3. I have seen R. Riskin’s book, but it is equally interesting that he allowed R. Riskin to lead prayers at all (even if it was excluding devarim shebikdusha) if it was a sin as you said. Second, see http://lukeford.net/blog/?tag=soloveitchik for an example from Beit Yitzchak of R. Soloveitchik allowing prayers at a non-mechitzahed place for High holidays. Third, my point was that R. Soloveitchik took extra-halakhic things into consideration when paskening mechitza…why?

  2. Gil Student

    Independent study is great but you ignore the opinion of great scholars at your own risk.

    If praying in a shul without a mechitzah is a sin, then the prayer is invalid because of mitzvah ha-ba’ah ba-aveirah. A stolen shofar is somewhat of a case in point, in that it requires a special exception to avoid this problem. But here it is even worse because the sin and mitzvah are occurring at the same time.

    R. Soloveitchik said no such thing. Look up the original in the journal quoted by the blog post.

  3. Rav Soloveitchik never allowed prayer without separate seating. Rabbis who served temporarily in such synagogues were expected not to pray there. He was most emphatic about that. Mehitza, as a barrier, was negotiable, if necessary.
    This position on separate seating was his principled position regarding the sanctity of a place as a synagogue. Gil is correct. Read the material in Sanctity in the Synagogue.
    Finally, Prof Jody Magnus has recently shown that ancient synagogues that followed Hazal did have separate seating.

    • Russ Shulkes

      Thank you for making the point about Prof Jodi Magness. It brings up a great question: as you noticed I use the Talmud as my starting point for all halakha (and recognize a lot of what Orthodox do is really cultural). Accordingly, Prof Woolf, I believe, wants to point out that mechitza (or at least separation) between the sexes existed in Late Antiquity, even if it was not recorded in the Talmud (possibly because it was so obvious that it must be done). Rabbeinu Tam takes the position that there are tons of laws that just didn’t make it into Shas that we paskin by (for example, Hilchos Sni’us). So, maybe mechitza would also be like that: a law that we paskin by that just did not get into the Talmud. And, second, archaeology ought to be relied upon in order to paskin halakha…. agreed.

  4. Joshua Josephs

    Whether the halacha of mechitza should be learned out from Talmud or Torah is itself a matter of dispute. For example see Rav Henkin on this issue.
    Why a lack of mechitza should invalidate prayer is unclear to me. In the first Bais Hamikdosh there was no mechitza and yet people clearly prayed if we are to believe the piyyutim we read on Yom Kippur for example of the people bowing during the Avodah.

    • Mordechai

      No Mechitza in the temple? They were higher than the men! No greater mechitzah than that. In th Besi Hmaikdash clearly there was Ezras Nashim.
      Please see the story of the Simchas Beis Hosheivah and the details there of how the women adid and didnt participate. Youall mean well and od a fair job here but are missing some basic fundmental parts of Talmud and Halacha…and ps. Call Rabbi Riskin and ask him, he is still alive you know…

  5. Mordechai

    …. side note: I also urge you to look up the Gemora of Kibul Schar & Rabbi Yochanon: we learn that men get reward for their walking to shul from a story of a Women who who walked far to go to shul – go figure. And Laws of Maaser from a “child” in Yeshivah… All people are important – just in different ways. And Yes women who pray when their is a chorum of 10 are guaranteed as well to have their prayers answered as well…

  6. Mordechai

    …The basic premise of your question at start is just twisted: Do Prayers make their way to heaven when done in a Halachcially proper setting? Orthodox or conservative prayer is arbitrary. Does anyones prayer make their mark is the question…

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