Mechitza: Kosher Seating by Rabbi Hillel Goldberg
Volume 3 , Issue 1 (Sept, 1989 | Tishrei, 5750)
Mechitza: partition. Separation of sexes during prayer by partition.
What is the
reasoning behind this (pardon the pun) sometimes divisive aspect of kashruth -- ?kosher seating?? On one level there is no
reasoning. A faith commitment is a faith commitment. A tautology: without
reasoning, without need of reasoning. A faith commitment to the divinity of the
Torah. Jewish thinkers throughout the ages have perceived two categories of commandments
in the Torah: rational commandments, whose reasoning is readily grasped--
not to murder, not to steal; and arational
commandments, whose reasoning is not readily grasped-- not to eat pork, not to
mix meat and milk. Not to sit, male and female together, during prayer. On the
one level, kosher seating is faith in God's will. But there are other levels:
historical and philosophical. History says that in the Holy Temples which stood
Retained in Prayers
It was retained,
for example, in the prayers. To this day, the timing and wording of Jewish
prayers parallel the timing and themes of the sacrifices. There is an immense
difference between prayer and animal sacrifice-- obviously. Prayer:
words and self‑generated emotion. Sacrifice:
blood and externally‑generated emotion. A
difference! But the post‑Temple Jewish sages
wished the difference never to sever the link to the Jewish past. Babylonians
and Romans could sever the physical link, the
Now there's philosophy. Even though faith is self‑validating, beyond reason, Jewish faith has always sought philosophical profundity in reason, not as a justification of faith, nor as a substitute for it, but as a complement. Accordingly, there is a philosophy of kosher seating. Separation of sexes during prayer, some say, connotes a philosophy of sexism. It can seem that way in a social climate intolerant of subtleties, especially when prayer's purpose is seen as human‑centered, as community building or communal communing. Or socialization. But prayer, at least Jewish prayer, is in essence not human‑directed. Prayer's purpose is not to get closer to people, but closer to God. Not to keep the family together, but to keep the soul together. Not to live horizontally, but vertically.
There is, of course, a communal (?horizontal?) component to Jewish prayer, a very important communal component: minyan. Minyan represents a microcosm of the Jewish people as a whole, of Knesset Yisrael. Prayer is linked not just to other Jews, but to all other Jews-- the entire Jewish people-- in a minyan: prayer in the presence of the entire Jewish community. But as Jews pray with the community, they pray to God. They pray not to build Jewish community, but to build from it. To aim beyond it. To stretch above it. To reach the one Reality Who created it. To reach God.
Launching Pad to Prayer
The Jewish community does not give a human direction to prayer; it gives a launching pad to prayer.
And to be launched to God, sexuality is distracting. The relation of sanctity and sex per se is a separate discussion, but the sexes-- male and female-- attract each other and distract each other when the activity at hand is prayer. And the point of prayer is prayer. This isn't a tautology. To pray is more than to pray-- more than to recite words, to assume an attitude of devotion, to think about really important things of life. These alone are not prayer. Prayer is to do all these in the felt presence of the Life‑Giver and Life‑Taker-- the Source of Sanctity. Prayer is to reach beyond oneself to the Master of the World. Prayer, arguably, is the most difficult act of human existence. People are not born with the skill. It must be learned. It takes years to perfect, and it's never really perfected. It takes practice.? Separation of sexes is good for that. Kosher seating, then, is being alone with God and together with the Jewish people in microcosm, in minyan: the holiness of the Jewish people before the holiness of God.
To put it another way: the real action in the synagogue is not up front. Not with the rabbi. Not with the cantor. Not with the sermon or Torah reading. But with the Jew under God. With (as the Greek philosopher Plotinus put it) ?the flight of the alone to the Alone.? In other religions, especially Christianity, the real action is up front and in these religions the sexes are not separated during prayer. To locate meaning in other religious settings and then to impose it on the synagogue is, besides aping others, mistaking Jewish prayer: essentially a God‑centered enterprise, not a human‑centered one, not even a clergy‑centered one. Rather:
The flight of the alone to the Alone.
Real meaning is to have the sense of humanity created under the one sovereign almighty God, connected to Him in prayer. To facilitate that awesome feeling, the sexes are separated: the pray-er is tempted to look neither at a women seated next to him nor at a man seated next to her. But upward. Essentially, the male and female are separated not from each other, but for God: for the purpose of prayer.
That's kosher seating.
Copyright 1989 by Hillel Goldberg. Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, Ph.D. is the Senior Editor of Intermountain Jewish News and a Contributing Editor of Jewish Action. He is the author of The Fire Within: The Living Heritage of the Mussar Movement and Between Berlin and Slobodka: Jewish Transition Figures from Eastern Europe.