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Mechitza: Kosher Seating by Rabbi Hillel Goldberg
Mechitza: Kosher Seating by Rabbi Hillel Goldberg

Volume 3 , Issue 1

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 in Jerusalem, roughly the first 1,000 years of Jewish national existence, men and women observed the sacrificial order from separate precincts. With the destruction of the Second Holy Temple and the consequent shift from national center to local community-- from Temple to synagogue-- the Temple pattern was retained as extensively as possible.

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 Temple, but the sages made certain they could never sever the historical link. And so, the morning and afternoon prayers (shacharit and minchah) are timed to correspond to the hours when the morning and afternoon sacrifices were offered in the Temple. The musaf prayers added to Sabbath and holiday services correspond not only to the timing of the sacrifices, but to their themes, reflected in the prayers' wording. In sum: Services. The word automatically used to connote prayer is a direct translation of the word used to connote the sacrificial order, avodah. Prayer corresponds to avodah, ?services?; and since men and women observed the services in the Temple from different precincts, so too, they pray in different precincts in the synagogue.

That's History.

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.



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