My Take on Mechizot: The Gender Affinity Behind Segregated Prayer – Aitan Maeir

One of the key aspects of my life as a modern Orthodox Jew is prayer, and in religious communities, one of the physical particulars of prayer is gender segregation. In prayer spaces in religious synagogues, there exists a dividing wall or curtain between the men’s side and the women’s side known in Hebrew as a mechitza (מחיצה), which in English literally means partition or division.

My experiences with mechitzot have not only occurred in synagogues, but also in the various day schools that I have attended throughout my life, and my opinions and thoughts about mechitzot have changed throughout this period. These shifts in my understanding of mechitzot have been due to the fact that not all my experiences with Jewish prayer have been in spaces where mechitzot exist. For example, the Jewish high school that I attended belonged to the Jewish Conservative movement, which does not segregate genders during prayer; whereas, the elementary school belonged to the Jewish Orthodox movement. When I first entered high school, I was not used to the mixed prayer; however, I grew to enjoy it.

As I became more familiar with mixed prayer spaces, I began to speculate as to some of the reasons why more religious or Orthodox spaces, similar to my own synagogue, segregated genders. One undeveloped speculation that I had, was that the division in Orthodox spaces was due a desire to set the tone that men and women are unequal in their participation in the services; in reality, most synagogues with mechitzot are congregations where women are not allowed to participate in the prayer service. To be frank, I believed the division was unfair and a nod to chauvinist underpinnings in the traditional Jewish faith.

Throughout my time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I have become very involved with the Chabad on campus and I have also developed very close relationships with the rabbi, his wife, and their children. In the numerous conversations I have had with the rabbi, I brought up some of my sentiments regarding the use of mechitzot in religious prayer spaces. He explained to me that the intention of the Rabbinic rulings and laws surrounding segregated prayer was, among other reasons, to foster a sense of gender affinity within the respective genders. Generally speaking, gender affinity is the love or bond that one has for their respective gender. The point of cultivating gender affinity is not to privilege one gender over the other, but rather to convey and reinforce strong feelings of connection to one’s gender. In addition to fostering gender affinity, I also contend that mechitzot help communicate the understanding that women and men have varying prayer experiences and this variance is unique and beautiful. The variance reminds us that while we are all Jewish people, we also have different genders, which is beautiful.

My adoration for mechitzot does not come without my understanding that mechitzot are not completely comfortable or accessible for folks who do not fit into the biological or social constructs of gender.

Ultimately, mechitzot are extremely important to me because they separate the normal from the holy. More explicitly, in my everyday life, I interact with people from a variety of genders and that is normal. However, when I walk into spaces where mechitzot exist, I am reminded that there is an inherent sacredness in the place because we are separated, unlike the rest of the day where we are all together. I believe that a firm separation helps to maintain the sacredness and holiness of the prayer space.

5 thoughts on “My Take on Mechizot: The Gender Affinity Behind Segregated Prayer – Aitan Maeir”

  1. Hello, Aitan! This is a really interesting perspective. Actually, I only learned about mechitzot from your blog post! I fully agree that it’s a fine line to walk between seeming like the genders are being separated due to inequality vs. them being separated to encourage community and affinity. I certainly believe that women developing community, supporting each other, and bonding is crucial to any healthy society. However, I also understand how this division may feel unfair to some, as you mentioned. Are there any traditions in Judaism that bring the genders together in unity and collaboration?

  2. Hi Aitan,

    I really like your perspective on Mechitzot. Growing up reform, I had a similar perspective that the gender segregation was out of sexism or a subtle way to elevate men over women. While I don’t have a super coherent thought on them now, something I’ve learned to appreciate is that Judaism’s gender segregation is more to elevate what Gd made holy in each.

  3. Aitan – great post! Similar to Maya, I did not know about the mechitzot. When attending the Gurdawara (Sikh Temple), I have seen that men and women are often separated into two sides; however, there is no restriction on men and women sitting together in the same space – nor does the holy scripture Guru Granth Sahib Ji prevent people of all genders from sitting together. Sikhi also emphasizes treating men and women equally, and this point is heavily emphasized. I personally do not know the exact reason as to why men and women sit separately – it could be to avoid distraction or to increase comfort level among people who identify as the same gender and emphasize focusing on the teachings of Guru Granth Sahib Ji (Sikh Holy scripture). When attending the Gurdawara’s that are located in Punjab, India, I have actually noticed less separation between men and women compared to Gurdawara’s in the US. I think at this point, it has become tradition for men and women to sit separately which is not based on one gender being above the other (as mentioned before, Sikhi emphasize equality between men and women). I think it can be hard to determine the boundary between sitting separately to increase attachment with God and members of the same gender versus separation based on gender status. I also wonder how this affects people who do not conform to the gender binary and where they would sit.

  4. Aitan, I learned alot about your faith and the perspectives of it as a whole and for you personally, that I hadn’t thought about or explored on my own. Thank you for sharing this and helping educate us more about the gender division in Judaism. Similar to what Amy said, Hindu’s and Jains, specifically, have always separated seating arrangements in places of worship, separating men on one side and women on the other, and to be completely honest I had never thought about the gender division within our places of worship. Now that I am reflecting on this issue, we also don’t have any Gurus or priests that are female in the United States in the Hindu temples. However, something unique is that are these gurus in India that practice Swaminarayan, that are all females who learn and practice the religion, as well as teach to others in their communities or even to people who travel all the way to India to learn from their teachings.

  5. Aitan,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts about the mechitzot in synagogues! It was interesting to see that there is something similar to how your prayer space is organized and that you have an actual term for that. In many Gurdwaras, there is, rather, an unspoken understanding that men and women sit on different sides of the prayer space. This division, though, is not part of our scripture — it’s perhaps a cultural practice that doesn’t always get questioned. The fundamental basis of Sikhism is that there is gender equality, but cultural norms end up dominating, which makes thinking about the role of gender and praying confusing at times. Nice job!

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