The mechitza section of this is crossposted to The Sisterhood
As a rule, my husband and I don’t pray in non-egalitarian minyanim (or at least in ones that don’t count women in a minyan), so while I have been following the progress of Partnership minyanim with respect and interest for a number of years, I hadn’t participated in one on a Shabbat morning until recently when I attended a bar mitzvah of some very good friends. ( We also previously attended a simcha at a partnership minyan during a mincha service).
Here were my impressions from the perspective of someone who has been immersed in egalitarian practice from birth and has always had family members of both genders at her side in shul.
Partnership minyanim try to maximize women’s participation in an Orthdox service by extending women’s roles, pushing at the boundaries of a traditional halackic framework. Women lead parts introductory of the service, have aliyot and read Torah and there is a mechitzah (physical barrier) between the men and women’s sections. At this, but not all partnership minyanim, the mechitzah is also on the Bimah and reading table , with the open Torah passed back and forth during the reading.
Tallit- My first impression was that I missed my tallit. It felt very odd to daven without it. (I realize I could have probably worn it without upsetting anyone even though no one else was, even the women who were leading the prayers, but I also felt like as a guest I should follow minhag ha makom, the custom of the place.).
The traditional, Talmudic rationale behind a mechitzah is that seeing women during a service will lead men to have sexual thoughts that distract them from prayer, and that sexual thoughts, more than run-of-the-mill day dreaming, especially defile the worship space. As I find unsegregated seating normal and everyday, I have almost never been distracted from my prayers by being amongst men. The men I’ve spoken to who have grown up egalitarian agree. (Unless you count my family members pointing out interesting commentary in the hummash during the Torah reading a distraction).
I found the mechitzah very distracting. There was much more peering across the room then there is at egalitarian shuls. Especially when there were aliyot, people on both sides craned (mostly unsuccessfully) to see the friends and family who were honoured. Personally my thoughts wandered to my husband more than they normally did while praying (Did he get a seat near the front? Did he like the siddur?). The physical barrier, as an object, was also a distraction when near the back a 9-year-old boy kept gleefully lifting up the curtain to say hi to his female friend on the other side. By directly drawing attention to men and women as categories of shul goers (as opposed to say age or shoe colour), people tend to think about what is on the other side more than they would think about the opposite sex in an unsegregated situation. Through the psychological phenomena of priming and saliency, putting up a mechitzah functions like someone saying, “Don’t think about pink elephants!”. Suddenly, even though you were not thinking about elephants of any kind at all until then, no matter what you do you now cannot drive them out of your mind. A physical barrier is very good at keeping people from wandering to physical spaces they are not supposed to go. But, because of the way our minds work, its presence actually makes it harder to keep thoughts from wandering to areas that they are not supposed to go. Moreover, by highlighting the category of gender by sorting everyone by it, that category now becomes one by which people sort themselves and others, much like social psychology experiments where merely asking people to indicate their gender on the top of a form makes them respond to questions as more stereotypically male or female.
The mechitzah also interfered with our ability to look after and educate our children during the service. As parents, this duty is an unavoidable distraction in prayer. Our kids need to be taking in and out of babysitting (maximizing their presence in the service and minimizing disruption to others). They also need to be encouraged to follow along, to pay attention, to sound out the Hebrew words, to recognize cantillation marks etc. In our home setting, my husband and I are able to share these jobs seamlessly so that our children’s needs are met and we both get time for attentive prayer. Passing children back and forth (or discreetly deciding who will take them out of the room) was not possible with the mechitzah. At the service we attended, the vast majority of young children, including mine, were on the women’s side of the mechitzah.Partnership minyanim give women opportunities for public prayer and understand that to get women’s full participation providing babysitting is a necessity for that aim. But the mechitzah creates a barrier for women’s prayer time in making shared childcare during the service more difficult.
When it was introduced, at a time when people lived lives that were often highly segregated by gender and childcare was solely a women’s responsibility, the mechitzah may have fulfilled its intention of helping men concentrate on prayer without distraction. For people who spend most of their time working, studying and enjoying recreation in unsegregated situations, and understand parenting and Jewish education as joint responsibilities, the mechtizah can end up having the opposite effect than its intended purpose.
Numbers– When we arrived there were more men than women present. I suspect that some women were home with their children, which I can’t confirm, but most of the women (but not most of the men) who arrived later came with children in tow. My friend who was very active in the minyan told me about the importance of babysitting- that if you want to promote female participation, babysitting is essential. And it was indeed provided. Unfortunately if you believe that men must and women may and then when men must (fill in religious obligation of your choice), then guess who will be dealing with the kids in the morning. At the end of the service, there were still more men. The majority of the young children were in the women’s section.
Our lives are not so neatly compartmentalized; the barrier between public ritual and private childcare is permeable and inequality on one side does travel to the other.
Voices- This is where the feeling was very different from even the most modern Orthodox services I have been to. When women lead with strong voices from the bimah, women sing along– and without muted voices or slight hesitation that I have witnessed elsewhere. And without trying to adjust to the pitch of a male leader. In fact it was the men who hesitated very briefly to adjust to the female leader on one occasion. Everyone truly enjoyed the davening and their participation in it. This is also an oft-noted difference between a big shul and small minyan.
Inclusion- The father of the bar mitzvah refered to the beautiful tallit his son had designed, which “by now we had all seen” when actually I could only see the top of the bar mitzvah boy’s head over the mechitzah. This underscores the lack of community and the lack of understanding of who is in “the congregation” that mechitzah (or any catagorical or physical barrier) creates.
The Torah Dance- In the processional and recessional the Torah was marched through first the women’s section, then the men’s. This presented a problem as the woman carrying it couldn’t go into the men’s section. Their solution was to pass it to a man waiting in the men’s section . I thought what about the dangers of the impure thoughts between the man and the women, while holding the Torah no less ( Is it ok in this context because it is a short time? What if they touched hands accidentally during the exchange?). That morning it was a wife passing to her husband. I am not sure if that was a coincidence or not. From the unsolicited perspecive of RBTv.2.0 (my then 10 year old daughter), this seems awfully silly. It reminded me of the even more silly menstruation baby dance (where very frum couples won’t pass any objects directly between a mensturating women and her husband, including their own babies so they have to first put the baby on a bed or something and have their spouse pick it up from there… more here or here).
The dividied bimah for Torah reading. In this minyan the mechitzah extended right up and through the bimah and the table on which the Torah was read. Women who read torah were checked by a female gabbai on their side and men by a male gabbai on their side. Women were called to the Torah by a a female gabbai and men by a male gabbai. As far as I could tell the open Torah was passed back and forth through the mechitzah on the reading table so it could be read from either side. To me seeing a barrier dividing the Torah itself went beyond silly. It made me think of the story of King Solomon and declaring who the true mother of a baby claimed by two women- the one who would rather see her child taken away than cut in two. (The Judgement of Solomon).
One More Thought on Distracting Thoughts: There was one time when I did briefly think of my husband in a physical way, during the singing of the Song of Glory / Shir HaKavod אַנְעִים זְמִירוֹת Anim Zimirot a hymn which portrays God embodied as a warrior and the author’s deep longing for God. It reads much like many love poems, but is intended to be metaphorical. It describes the warrior’s dark curls. My husband, like many Ashkenazi Jews, has dark curls. I wonder if men find Lekha Dodi (Come My Beloved, a song in which the Sabbath is personified as a bride) similarly difficult to take purely metaphorically. If you are going to worry about this kind of distraction, why not take a look at the perils of anthropomorphic prayer.