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.

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  1. Anonymous October 3, 2005 at 7:30 pm

    As a non-Orthodox but fairly observant woman, I’ve been to quite a few shuls with mechitzahs. And while I’m happy my own shul doesn’t have a mechitzah, I don’t think every mechitzah is equally offensive. It’s not the separation that I mind, it’s the attitude.

    When I go to a shul with a low mechitzah (so I can see at least the tops of the heads of the people on the other side), which runs from the front to the back (So I can see the leader and the Torah), and there are lots of women in the women’s section, singing loudly, and sometimes a woman gives a d’var torah or they announce that a woman will be teaching a Torah or Talmud class…in a shul like that, I don’t care if there is separate seating. I feel like things have been set up so that I can be (a somewhat passive) participant. I feel perfectly comfortable.

    On the other hand, when I go to a shul with a high mechitzah (so I can’t see anything about what is going on on the other side, which runs from side to side (So I can’t even see the Torah), and there are almost no women in the women’s section until almost the end of services, and the women who are there are chatting instead of davvening, and you never hear of a woman in a public role in the shul…in a shul like that, I start getting more and more annoyed. I feel like things have been set up so that women can’t participate even if they want to–they want our cooking, not our prayers. And I want to get back home as fast as possible!

  2. Anshel's Wife October 3, 2005 at 4:38 am

    My husband has mentioned a few times over the last (frum) years that he misses the times when we all (3 of us, at the time) sat together in shul on Shabbos and holidays. He misses me sitting close to him. He misses swaying together when we are standing up singing. He misses having our son on his lap and trying to keep him occupied and quiet. Now he just concentrates on davening……

  3. Stacey September 30, 2005 at 3:41 am

    PT: In regards your point #2, I would argue that intermarriage and assimilation occur more in unaffiliated Jews, meaning those who do not belong to or attend shul.

    It has been my experience (as a lifelong non-Orthodox Jew) that people (whether Conservative or Reform) who belong to a shul and participate are committed to their Jewry and don’t tend to intermarry. It is the unaffiliated Jews that we lose.

    I am sorry — I do not mean to offend, but I find the mechitzah to be sexist and completely unnecessary. Frankly, I am just completely not interested in worshipping that way.

  4. PsychoToddler September 30, 2005 at 1:28 am

    I didn’t read the book or the article. But I would not be surprised if the premise is correct.

    1. While I don’t think that having a mechitza stems assimilation because men and women are not mixing (I think that has nothing to do with assimilation, and mixing of men and women is one of the main techniques of outreach organizations), it is a symbol of adherance to orthodox halacha, which was the only halacha prior to the institution of the reform movement. A shul that jetisons the mechitza is more likely to jetison other facets of halacha. Whether keeping halacha is more likely to prevent assimilation can be discussed elsewhere.

    2. A shul that removes its mechitza is likely to lose its more orthodox members. If you believe the figures that orthodox members are less likely to intermarry, then the makeup of the members that remain will skew to those who are more likely to intermarry.

    Stacey I agree with you on your observation about kids who are shomer negiah. They tend to marry early and usually for physical reasons.

  5. Stacey September 29, 2005 at 7:08 pm

    Yes, I went there and read it. And then I also searched that same website for ‘mechitzah’ and found the text that I quoted in my last response. I stand by my opinion.

  6. Jewish Blogmeister September 29, 2005 at 6:58 pm

    It didn’t work because it’s long if you highlight the whole thing you can view it:


  7. Stacey September 29, 2005 at 6:32 pm

    Blogmeister: Your link did not work. I went to that website and found this:

    “And neither should we make young ladies feel that they are objects, that they are less “important” if they are not attractive to men. “

    As a woman, I will tell you that being isolated due to my gender and forced to sit separately most definitely makes me feel like an “object.” In my egalitarian shul, the men and women sit together.

    “Let men and women consider marriage when they are emotionally and psychologically ready — not when they are physically interested.”

    Uhhh, wrong. In the frum communities where men and women cannot touch nor engage in self-gratification, they instead get married. I would argue that they get married when they are physically interested, not psychologically ready.

  8. Jewish Blogmeister September 29, 2005 at 6:05 pm

    There is nothing sexist about a michitza but I can understand how you might have that notion if you wasnt to truly understand where the mechitza is derived from the torah go to:

  9. Stacey September 29, 2005 at 5:17 pm

    As a child I often went to an Orthodox shul and sat in the women’s section.

    But as an adult, I would never pray where I wasn’t allowed to sit with my husband. I find it completely sexist.

  10. Jack's Shack September 29, 2005 at 5:17 pm


    This has nothing to do with the post, but that is ok because I expect that kind of nonsense from you. Try not to get shot crossing the street. 😉



  11. Michael Brenner September 29, 2005 at 5:02 pm

    I agree with you. The point of the mechitza is to keep men focused on the davening. This is something the rabbis got completely backward. Today, I find that the opposite prevailsin orthodox shuls; without women to keep them quiet, men gossip about business while women gossip about whatever they gossip about.

  12. Anonymous September 29, 2005 at 4:52 pm

    Hey Jack – getting a little Hot in LA????

    LOS ANGELES — A wind-whipped brush fire quickly doubled in size Thursday to at least 7,000 acres, destroying at least one home and prompting evacuations as flames rose along a ridge for miles.

    Last time I checked Cleveland and Detroit were Fire Free!

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