Tearing Down the Mechitza

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Tearing Down the Mechitza by Alyx Bernstein - Photo by Ruby Stillman

When I was in Krakow, Poland, on a school trip, I had the unique opportunity to go pray on Shabbat in a historical synagogue, named after the famous Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the Rema). Naturally, I was excited; how often does one get to stand where such famous Jewish scholars stood and pray in such a beautiful synagogue?

But when I actually considered the prospect of going, I realized that, to pray there, in a space where men and women are separated by the barrier called a mechitza, I would have to sacrifice my values, my Jewish practice, and my safety as a transgender Jewish woman. I decided not to go, and I missed out on what my friends described as a wonderful, meaningful, spiritual experience.

In many pluralist Jewish communities, the question of “mechitza or no mechitza,” of whether women are considered equals in the synagogue, has largely become framed in terms of pluralism. “Some people prefer mechitza, others prefer not to exist in one, and that’s okay,” says the pluralist. “Respect their right to practice the way they want.”

Take the example of a prominent Jewish day school in New York City. It defines itself as “pluralist and egalitarian,” and as part of its mission, offers prayer options that include non-egalitarian services with a mechitza (as well as nontraditional options).

This is largely the standard in pluralist Jewish spaces with the numbers to sustain multiple options. It is fair to conclude that, if one values pluralism, this choice is the ideal way to balance bringing diverse groups of Jews together, without asking them to sacrifice their own values. Many pluralist Jewish gatherings act under similar models. Pluralism asks that we respect differences of opinion as a prerequisite for living in community together. A prestigious youth-serving organization open to all Jews states that it wants its participants to “value diverse expressions of ideas, beliefs, and practices.”

But does pluralism go too far in the case of the mechitza? By asking women to respect and value those who choose to partake in the mechitza, are we asking women to be silent in the face of their own oppression? When pluralism embraces practices like the mechitza, is it denying the progressive ethos of women’s liberation that many pluralists support?

It is worth, when thinking about this issue, to examine the forces that tore down the mechitza in the first place, the forces that created egalitarian Jewish communities. Susannah Heschel, in the introduction to Yentl’s Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism (2001), recounted her memories of growing up under the yoke of the mechitza in “the Vatican of the Conservative movement”—the synagogue of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

“Once, while in college, I took a friend who had never heard of the joyous, raucous holiday of Simchat Torah to services at the seminary. As soon as we arrived, he was handed a Torah scroll and welcomed enthusiastically into a crowd of euphoric, dancing, singing men. As usual, I had to sit in the back, watching with the women. After an hour, I could no longer control my rage and I simply threw myself into the crowd of men and started dancing, too. A rabbinical student angrily grabbed me and demanded, ‘Who gave you permission to dance?’ Calmly, I replied, ‘God.’ He threw me out.”

The mechitza is not just a halachic difference of opinion. It is a physical representation of women’s oppression, of a system that denies women access to the full life given to Jewish men. As Rachel Adler writes in her 1971 essay, “The Jew Who Wasn’t There,” the issue of Jewish women is that “we are viewed in Jewish law and practice as peripheral Jews.” This oppression extends far beyond the mechitza, and into all aspects of Jewish life, but the mechitza remains the most enduring and powerful symbol of this oppression. It is a physical barrier that pushes women to the periphery.

Breaking down that barrier is a necessary step for the full liberation of Jewish women, and it cannot be a norm in Jewish spaces that otherwise practice the complete inclusion of Jewish women in Jewish life. Imagine if a pluralist or a Conservative Jewish day school refused to let women learn Torah, instead placing them in a Home Economics class. Imagine if a pluralist Jewish conference refused to invite women to speak, or enforced a mechitza in a speaking session. Their communities would be outraged. Yet why would those be controversial, while the mechitza in prayer spaces is not?

The mechitza does not only create a barrier for women. For trans people like myself, gendered spaces, like bathrooms, can be dangerous and exclusive, and the mechitza is no different. Trans men and women are at risk of being “clocked” and thrown out of the synagogue, while nonbinary people are given an impossible choice that largely excludes them from existing in nonegalitarian Jewish life.

But what of those women who choose the mechitza? Should we not respect their right to choose? I recognize their right to choose, but I will say this: women can never expect to be equal participants in a system that pushes them aside in its fundamental rules. Suggesting otherwise is wishful thinking.

But they are not the ones I worry about. I worry about the women who have no choice. Heschel’s experience is not unique. There are countless Jewish women who, for a variety of reasons, do not have the agency to pick what type of services they attend. Young girls are forced to go to nonegalitarian services by their parents, while others are forced by geography. I was forced to go to an Orthodox synagogue because there was no alternative within walking distance. These women are forced to view synagogue life through a veil, never actually getting to participate in the wonder and joy. They are spectators at best. At her Orthodox bat mitzvah, my cousin, a brilliant young Jewish woman, was relegated to a bit-part role. By providing space for that, “pluralist” Jewish institutions participate in these women’s oppression and exclusion, and shut down women who object. By normalizing the mechitza as a legitimate form of Jewish expression, they legitimize misogyny.

There are also women, like myself, who are forced to choose between their tradition and their personhood. There are no egalitarian spaces that follow Sephardi traditions, and so for Sephardi women, the choice is either to sacrifice their past or their personhood.

My old high school is a Conservative Jewish day school, with several women rabbis as educators and religious leaders. My school embraces wholeheartedly egalitarianism, the value of women’s voices in Torah study, and the equality of women in Jewish life. But by taking us to the synagogue of the Rema for Shabbat, they legitimized and normalized the exclusion of Jewish women as “just another Jewish practice.” They asked the women in our community who care about Jewish practice to choose between Jewish practice and our dignity.

There are plenty of “differences of tradition” I believe Jews should and must respect. Some Jews stand for kaddish. Some Jews have different liturgies. Some Jews observe kashrut. Some Jews observe Shabbat. All of these “differences of tradition” can exist together in community. None of them ask members of the community to sacrifice their rights, or exclude them from existing in the community. The mechitza asks Jewish women to check their personhood at the door, to exclude themselves from Jewish life. It asks Jewish women to pray under the spectre of the patriarchy. Normalizing that asks Jewish women to accept their oppression as normal, as legitimate, as just a difference of opinion.

Heschel concludes her introduction of Yentl’s Revenge by saying, “What a relief to live in a world knowing that there will never again be a time when women cannot be counted for prayer, can find no synagogue in which to publicly mourn, have nowhere to dance with the Torah.” I wish I lived in Heschel’s world, but as I have experienced and seen too many times, this is not the reality. There are so many Jewish women who are forced into the mechitza or who sacrifice their personhood for their tradition.

That should never be normalized or acceptable. The mechitza should never be tolerated, and we must call for its abolition in all of our spheres of Jewish life.

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Alyx Bernstein
Alyx is a senior at Solomon Schechter School of Westchester, and lives in New Rochelle, New York, a suburb of New York City. She was born in London, and moved to the United States at the age of nine. She works with Keshet on their teen programming, and is a writer for her school newspaper. She is an activist and a motivational speaker. Her hobbies include reading, watching TV, and playing with her dog. Alyx has been a member of the jGirls Magazine editorial board since 2017-2018.
Accompanying photo: “Jerusalem Teachings” by Ruby Stillman