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.
- 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.
- 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…
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)
(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
- 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