My Beloved Mechitzah

I didn’t know these lovebirds, but there they were, unmistakably just that, standing at Sabbath morning services amid a sea of men and women with his arm around her waist, she leaning into his shoulder and the two of them swaying gently back and forth to the sound of the prayers. How nice, I thought, that they’re learning Torah together. Where it will take them no one can say, but they’re together on a great and splendid journey. Since then my own journey, begun in part in that same room, has led me to a place where I could not possibly stand in prayer with my husband’s arm around my waist. Praying might just be the most important thing we humans do, setting the stage for all of the rest of our behavior, but it is not the easiest. For most of us it takes tremendous concentration, a great erasing of everything outside and at the same time a bringing of everything we are into one small moment framed by a particular piece of ancient text. The problem is that love is so powerful—especially love for a spouse, but even premonitions of love like crush and curiosity—that in any given moment, prayer cannot compete. Perhaps that’s why Jewish tradition invented something called the mechitzah, surely the most widely maligned—I would say misunderstood—of any institution in Judaism today. A mechitzah, literally “separation,” is a screen or other barrier in a traditional synagogue that separates women from men during worship; in this separation, some say, the women are demeaned. The religious idea is that men should not be able to see women while they’re praying, for if they do, their prayer will not be heard. To me, that’s not demeaning; it’s a statement of obvious fact. It’s hard enough to pray when you’re alone. Try this exercise: Imagine that you need to speak with G-d. Imagine that you need something very, very badly, and that G-d really is all-powerful and the only One Who can grant it to you. Or imagine that you’ve done something terribly wrong and need some great forgiveness, or that your first child has just been born and you want to offer thanks. Close your eyes. Find the words. Now try, really try, to send them up to heaven. Could you do this while cuddling with your spouse? Could you do it while ogling the latest beauty to join the synagogue, or that guy you see each Saturday who’s so cute it makes you laugh? Maybe you could—everyone’s different—but I strive mightily just to sense G-d’s listening when I pray. Sometimes I picture great tree limbs, an overarching Father seeing every word and deed, or see myself as human clay addressing Him who formed it. Or I conjure up an awesome, holy Throne bathed in rays of light, considering with mercy my so tiny, distant plea. Yet with all these tools and more, still it’s hard. We need all the help we can get. And so we have a curtain—to center us perhaps, to make a place that forms a space where we can pray. There are as many kinds of mechitzahs as there are synagogues—I’ve seen sleek wood carved in modern shapes, and balconies where height is the mechitzah, and gathered lace on curtain rods that roll. But all mechitzahs hold us back from one another and group our prayers by gender rising heavenward. Perhaps this helps G-d hear us, too; perhaps we sound clearer, are more ourselves, unmediated by our opposites. Judaism loves categories and celebrates them every way—night and day, milk and meat, Sabbath versus holidays and ordinary days—and gender’s no exception. The men’s section is front and center because men have more ritual commandments in the synagogue, while women are responsible for bringing Torah into the home. Synagogue becomes one place where we can be with our own gender, something not without a pleasure all its own. So you can say the mechitzah exists to keep women out, that the genders are identical and all else is cultural conceit. For many of us, though, the mechitzah opens a door in, perhaps into a more concentrated experience of who we are and certainly into the presence of G-d where holiness and much direction lie. In prayer, we reach outside our earthly yearnings and search for something different, something that ennobles us, sets our sights high and improves us from the inside out. In love, we find an outlet for those improvements, for our goodness, kindness, generosity. Love is arguably our most G-d-like activity, and also our greatest earthly reward; in its physical expression, it is said to bring G-d’s presence to rest on us directly. Each paves the way for the other; I’m a better wife for praying, and drawn closer to G-d through the love my marriage brings. Each creates a chasm we can cross. And so I wonder again about those Sabbath lovebirds, trying to make their yearnings heard above the din of daily life, studying Torah and singing psalms, arms linked, perhaps journeying down paths deep into wisdom. There’s no one way to pray, and none of us can say for sure whose prayers are heard. But perhaps their love has grown so much that they can’t sit together in services anymore, or their love for G-d has grown in such a way that they don’t want to. Maybe it would take more than a curtain to keep them apart—and perhaps just a curtain to link them

  Reprinted with permission from OLAM Magazine.

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