Mehitzah: Separate Seating in the Synagogue
A curtain or other divider separates men and women while they pray in some synagogues.
Consideration of all the above questions, plus other factors such as the equation of synagogue with Temple and the authority of biblical law versus rabbinic law, play a major role in the decision-making process of today's rabbinic authorities. Primary attention is given here to the responsa--teshuvot--of Rabbi Moses Feinstein, in an attempt to elucidate the halakhic process surrounding this one issue. As one of the major Orthodox rabbinic authorities of the 20th century, his views and decisions on this issue are significant.
For Feinstein, separation of the sexes is mandatory and is mide-oraita--having biblical authority. He deals directly with mehitzahin 14 separate teshuvot. Many responsa in the collection Igrot Moshe (IM)--the seven volumes of questions and answers authored by Feinstein--deal with the ways and means of separating men and women. For Feinstein, gender separation is essential in order to preserve biblically mandated morality. He strives to maintain this pattern in many different aspects of daily Jewish life, not just in the synagogue. For example, a large number of his decisions require separate schools for boys and girls, even at the primary level. Having taken such a consistently strong position on male-female separation, it is understandable that he will legislate a strict position on mehitzah.
The halakhic issue aside, the debate became one of denominational polemic that reached its peak in the 1950s in America. At that time, there were Orthodox congregations that had mixed seating. The Orthodox Movement's Yeshiva University even allowed rabbinical students to accept posts in mixed seating congregations, with the hope that they would influence their congregants to change. Both those practices are no longer permitted.
Legal battles were fought in the 1950s in America, as Jews used the civil courts to force one or the other practice. One of the most famous cases was the Mt. Clemens case, in which one man, Baruch Litvin, sued his congregation for depriving him of his rights by changing the seating to mixed pews. The court ruled in his favor and the mehitzah remained. This case was an important element in the hardening of the Orthodox position. Litvin collected various rabbinic sources, statements, and responsa in the book, The Sanctity of the Synagogue. Though Orthodox responsa forbidding mixed pews had been written before, after the publication of Litvin's volume, all Orthodoxy became defined by this one practice. Today, an Orthodox congregation is largely defined by the presence of a partition.
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