Tuesday, September 21, 2004


For Rosh Hashanah, I left my relatively homogeneous neighborhood and spent the long holiday in a more religiously diverse place. This was brought home to me on the first night of Rosh Hashanah after services, when everyone in the synagogue was standing by the doors trying to decide whether to run home in the downpour or try to wait out the rain. I was shocked to see a young woman, in her late teens or early 20s, in a totally sleeveless blouse. For whatever reason, she had dressed in an entirely inappropriate manner for synagogue. So why do I care?

This episode demonstrates the necessity of a mehitzah - a barrier between men's and women's sections in the synagogue. And not just any mehitzah, such as one with glass above waist level, but one that cannot be seen through. Regardless of one's views of the architecture of the ancient Temple and how it relates to contemporary synagogues, there is a more practical need for a mehitzah.

A man may not pray, recite a blessing or say the Shema while seeing a woman immodestly dressed (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 75:1, 5). This is considered to be a biblical requirement. While the Shulhan Arukh allows a man to do so if he closes his eyes, later authorities almost unanimously reject this and require a man to leave the room or to (discreetly) turn his back on the immodestly dressed woman (Bah, Magen Avraham, Taz, Gra, Mishnah Berurah, Arukh Ha-Shulhan, etc.). In other words, had there been no mehitzah in this synagogue, none of the men would have been allowed to pray because this woman was under-dressed!

Therefore, regardless of whether contemporary synagogues must mimic the Temple in Jerusalem, a synagogue must have a non-transparent barrier between the men and the women or have the women situated behind all the men so that the men cannot see them. Again, this is a biblical requirement. The only other option is to have a clothing police to decide whether women are dressed appropriately, which is not a very pleasant proposal.

Thankfully, the synagogue I attended had a sufficient mehitzah so that this under-dressed woman did not prevent all of the men from praying. She was not turned away from the synagogue but was welcomed and, hopefully, she will progress in her religious development so that next year she will come to synagogue dressed sufficiently modestly.

I recall once attending a synagogue that had glass above approximately waist-level. Additionally, the seats were arranged in such a fashion that the men and women were all diagonally facing a central location, so that I ended up sitting almost face-to-face with a woman on the other side of the mehitzah who, shall we say, was not dressed like a typical Beis Ya'akov student. I switched my seat so that it would not be obvious that I was turning my back to this woman and never stepped foot in that synagogue again.

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