Thursday, September 29, 2005

The mehitza- A Deterrent to Assimilation

I just finished reading an article in The Jerusalem Post that had me shaking my head. It is called The mehitza that made waves in New Orleans and it suggests that the presence of a mehitza is a strong deterrent to assimilation.

I strongly disagree with much of what was written in it. Let me share a couple sections. The opening of this opinion piece relates the story of a lawsuit in New Orleans that was brought when a shul removed the mehitza and implemented mixed seating.

"The New Orleans decision inspired many Orthodox Jews to go to court to stem the floodtide of assimilation, which often began with the elimination of the mehitza. Baruch Litvin, who galvanized American Jews to fight to maintain the mehitza, recorded his success in his 550-page tome Sanctity of the Synagogue. When his Orthodox shul instituted mixed seating, he obtained a 1959 ruling from the Michigan Supreme Court that returned the mehitza to the synagogue.

THE MEHITZA brouhaha had wider significance. Judaism is distinguished by its adherence to Jewish law, Halacha, and Litvin argued that such adherence is compromised by the radical change of mingling in synagogue. The issue of separation of the sexes for prayer was a test of the entire halachic system. Abandoning this principle, Jews would succumb to the centripetal forces of American modernity, jettison the rest of Halacha, and the dikes would burst.

The mehitza proponents have proved correct – the floodtide of assimilation by intermarriage for those Jews affiliated with mixed-seating congregations varies from 50 to 80 percent. Among the Orthodox it is barely 5 percent."

It is far too simplistic to sugges that separating men and women in the synagogue will prevent them from assimilation. For that matter one could just as easily argue that you are more likely to prevent assimilation by using mixed seating because it enhances the opportunity for nice Jewish boys and girls to meet each other.

The question of what causes more non-Orthodox Jews to assimilate ( I am trusting the authors figures here which have been provided without support) should have a broader framework and we should better define what we mean by assimilation. For the purpose of this discussion we'll say that assimilation refers to Jews who not only stop practicing Judaism but marry outside of the faith and allow the spouse's faith to become dominant within the household.

If we were truly to explore this I would want to know about belief in G-d and the belief in Torah. That is, do people believe in G-d and what is their opinion of Torah. Was it handed to us as the precise word of G-d or is it divinely inspired and perhaps subject to interpretation.

I would also wonder about how many Orthodox Jews would like to stop living as Orthodox Jews but refrain for fear of the problems it would create within their families.

These are just a few questions to be asked and I haven't even bothered to think hard about them which is part of why this gives me real pause as to the validity of this allegation. I have serious doubts that it really holds up. It really makes me shake my head because it is just narishkeit.

Here is another selection from the piece that irritates me.
"Prayer requires deep concentration, kavana. Women realize that men can be in a state of inner distraction by virtue of the presence of women at a time when it is essential for people to be as fully engaged as possible in their concentrated awareness of their conversation with God. The situation of men and women is not symmetrical; men are more easily stimulated by viewing women, as the advertising industry well knows."
I find this part to be offensive. Men are not animals and what this does is suggest is that we are unable to control ourselves. An attractive woman is not the reason why men sometimes have trouble davening.

A pretty face or nice legs are not going to interfere with saying the shemoneh esreh, or be the reason for a lack of focus. My davening has been interrupted by the whispered stories of what happened during last nights ballgame or conversation about what little Sammy is doing now.

And then the final part of this piece that made me shake my head is this:

"RABBI JOSEPH Soloveitchik, who established a Jewish day school with mixed classes and promoted teaching girls Talmud, surprised many with the stringency of his ruling on mehitza.

"A young man moved into a suburb of Boston where the only existing synagogue had men and women sitting together. He asked me what he should do on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. I answered him that it were better for him to pray at home and not cross the threshold of that synagogue. The young man practically implored me that I grant him permission to enter the edifice, at least that he might hear the shofar blasts. I hesitated not for a moment, but directed him to remain at home. It would be better not to hear the shofar than to enter a synagogue whose sanctity has been profaned."

This story is nothing more than a divisive device that pushes us away from each other. It does nothing to encourage inclusion, only exclusion and it will be seen by many as snobbery.

I was there at Har Sinai and I don't remember Hashem instructing us in this manner.


Anonymous said...

I've given up on saying anything about mechitzas. People get too mean. :-(

Stacey said...

I have a lot to say about them. See Jack's blog for my comments.

Mirty, why be so concerned about what others think? Your opinion has as much merit as anyone's.

Anonymous said...

My opinion is in my feet -- if the mechitza's up, I walk away.

(And if the mechitza had been up, I would never have walked back into synagogue, as an adult, at all.)

Most congregations in Austin do not have mechitzahs.

Drew Kaplan said...

I think what's so untenable about the article's argument is that there are more variables in people's adhering to Judaism, not marrying out, or whatever it is, rather than just the setting up of a מחיצה or not in a shul. Any study (though I wouldn't call this article a study, per se) needs to make data based on one variable.
Nevertheless, I do think that they were trying to point to at least the peculiarity of less intermarriage in those shul(s) with a sex/gender separation in shul. Granted, a physical barrier in shul is not the answer to assimilation....

Bkbuds said...

I had my first experience with a mechitza and I give it mixed reviews. On the one hand, I could breastfeed without the usual feelings of complete mortification. I'm the klutzy sort and have never managed to nurse discreetly. The blanket falls off my shoulder and I flash everyone, my bra strap travels down to my navel and requires pretzel twists to recover, or I spray half the room and have to apologize profusely.

I've left shopping malls and restaurants in tears, even when people are being excruciatingly polite, even encouraging. Just the thought of nursing in a synagogue with men around threatened to undo my already tenuous link to Judaism and my fledgling attempts to find and nurture my soul. The mechitza created a man-free zone where I could fumble and grope around freely.

On the other hand, the mechitza made it much more difficult to see what was going on and to feel engaged. I don't understand any Hebrew though I can make out most of the letters, so I just read in English to myself. I could do that at home, frankly.

The mechitza drives home the point that my presence there was optional. Even moreso, it said I wouldn't be missed. I found that disheartening. Maybe you have to be made of stronger stuff than myself to sit there and make yourself pray in the face of official indifference.

As it was, I got discouraged and left after about 90 minutes. Next year the baby'll be weaned and I'll try the Reform shul.

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