Mehitzah: Separate Seating in the Synagogue

A curtain or other divider separates men and women while they pray in some synagogues.

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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.

Denominational Demarcation

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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Dr. Norma B. Joseph

Dr. Norma Baumel Joseph is Director of the Women and Religion specialization. She is also an associate of the Concordia Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies. Her teaching and research areas include women and Judaism, Jewish law and ethics, and women and religion.