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Beyond the Inner Mehitza

Beyond the Inner Mehitza

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Published by shlomo2274
Beyond the Inner Mehitza - article by Prof. Vered Noam. Originally published in Makor Rishon, Mussaf Shabbat, 13.1.2013. Translated by Avi Woolf.
Beyond the Inner Mehitza - article by Prof. Vered Noam. Originally published in Makor Rishon, Mussaf Shabbat, 13.1.2013. Translated by Avi Woolf.

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Published by: shlomo2274 on Mar 10, 2013
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03/20/2013

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Beyond the Inner Mehitza
1
 By Vered Noam
2
 
Translated by Avi Woolf 
The exclusion of women from shul activity doesn’t just harm women. It also harms
the institution itself, which loses its authenticity and exists in a lost reality. A callfor honesty and tenderness
Much like our shul, our spiritual life is divided by a
mehitza
. We push elements of critical thinking, compassion and common sense beyond this internal divider.Spiritual events require internal and external openness. For how can one sing God'spraises with a clenched fist?
While visiting the States, we found ourselves one Shabbat evening in Rabbi Avi Weiss' shul inRiverdale, New York. After
Kabbalat Shabbat 
, the Rabbi suddenly asked the congregation torise. He drew everyone's attention to the entry of a female member of the congregation, amourner in the middle of a
Shiva
. Rabbi Weiss mentioned her name and the name of her just deceased father and the entire congregation - men and women
 –
spoke to her as iscustomary on such occasions, saying the beautiful words of comfort which halakha gave us:"
Hamakom yenahem otah im sh'ar avlei tziyon veyerushalayim
".I stood there elated, as if a miracle had taken place before my eyes. It was as though anunattainable and long-desired destination of acceptance, of compassion, of warm embrace,was suddenly materializing before me. One could sense an unbelievable gust of tenderness,of partnership, recognition and communal support in the air. This excitement forced me tosee a truth that the
mehitza
of habit had hidden from me until that point
 –
the truth of thegreat void which screams from most of 
our 
shul
s
.After all, this couldn't happen by us. In Israel, this woman would have been transparent. Noone would notice her entering the shul nor recognize her mourning. At least on the "wrong"side of the
mehitza
,
our 
shul radiates the exact opposite; a legacy which is heavy on tradition
1
 
This article was first published in Makor Rishon, Mussaf Shabbat, 13.1.2013.
2
 
Professor Noam teaches in the Department of Hebrew Culture Studies at Tel Aviv University. Herbooks
Megillat Ta’anit: Ve
rsions, Interpretation, History 
 
(Hebrew) and
From Qumran to the RabbinicRevolution: Conceptions of Impurity 
(Hebrew)
 
have been published by Yad Ben Zvi.
 
and light on halakha forces onto the atmosphere an alienation and rigidity which havebecome a kind of binding religious principle.The feminist discourse has long since proposed to pay attention to the architectural messageof the shul directly, without external excuses. The traditional shul, with its
ezrat nashim
 located on the balcony, says simply: women have no part in the religious act. They need tobe as far away as possible from the focal points of 
kedushah
. It is very important that theirpresence be hidden and denied by those who are engaged in Tefilah and Torah. One pointthat is not sufficiently stressed, in my opinion, is that the male space 'below' is an opencommunal one. The female space 'above' is narrow and circular, focusing its attendants nottowards one another but rather towards the common focus of attention below.In other words, men are a
tzibur 
, a community, among whom interaction takes place.Meantime, those above not only have no part in that which takes places below, they alsohave no connection among themselves, being merely a collection of individuals. Our shulopenly declares that a woman has no community, not even a woman's community. Her
avodat Hashem
is solely an individual effort, nothing more. Her connection to any
tzibur 
isonly through her father or husband, members of the community in which she is a passiveobserver. This is an exact reflection of an ancient and long-lost social reality, a reality inwhich women had no foothold in the public arena or a partnership in something other thantheir private family.Aside from the more frequently discussed subject of the feeling of transparency in the
ezrat nashim
, (somewhat similar to the weird sensation of weightlessness when in an elevator
…)
,women in this situation also feel a great sense of loneliness. Within the religious space forwhich the shul is but a symbol, women lack not only existence and visibility, but also acommunity. This is what was so exciting in Rabbi Weiss' small gesture. It succeeded inbypassing the loneliness and the transparency and delivering a message of comfort.
Three Responses
 Here I will only make brief mention of a number of well-known truths, as they are not themain point of this article. It goes without saying that this picture represents a growingdissonance, one almost impossible to contain, between the authentic world in which we liveon the 'outside' and our religious space. The complete silencing and concealment of educated, creative, involved and leading women in the shul is so glaring that one need onlybriefly observe it from the outside to see just how absurd it all is. The norms of modesty
 
which are observed in the shul are also completely foreign to our world. Your averagereligious male watches a movie every so often and will gladly attend a performance byYehudit Ravitz. Does his sexual inclination really overwhelm him just by hearing a womanmake the blessing of '
asher natan lanu Torat emet ve'hayei olam nata betocheinu
'? Do a freeman and woman who converse with mutual respect on the sidewalk suddenly become theproverbial fox and hen once they cross the shul's threshold? It is well to mention in thiscontext the statement that 'where the Shechina resides, the Sages did not fear lustfulthoughts' (Rav Ovadyah Yosef,
Yehaveh Da'at 
4:15; He derived this from the fact that '[theSages] allowed a woman to read from the Torah when there are not seven who know howto read').How does all this affect women? Let me stress once more that this is not the main focus of my argument. I have not come to discuss the troubles and interests of women, but ratherour religious life as a whole. But I cannot avoid a brief survey before I continue. The modernreligious woman lives in two worlds. In one she has an area for intellectual development, asense of belonging, recognition and expression. In the second, she is forced into the role of awoman from Roman Eretz Israel, Sassanid Persia or Medieval Ashkenaz. She is mute,receives only a partial Jewish education, deliberately filtered and naïve (the one-yearprograms in some Midrashot are far from correcting this state of affairs, see below) and herpresence in the realms of 
kedushah
is denied. In one world she earns all the power,encouragement, belonging and joy which a community provides. In the other she stands insplendid isolation.The response of women can be categorized into three types:For a small minority, the shul and the world of Torah is the very core of being. These womenstruggle for years for a place in that world in various roundabout ways, motivated by thepain of 'for they have driven me out this day from abiding in the inheritance of the
 
Lord,
 
saying, Go, serve other gods' (1 Sam 26:19) and striving determinedly to realize 'Give unto ustherefore a possession among the brethren of our father' (Num. 27:4). Other women arecomfortable to stand in the same place their mother did, and they are content with theprivate and personal worship of God for which they were raised. But most women make thesimple and obvious choice. 'To the place that I love, there my f 
eet lead me…if thou wilt not
come to my house, I will not come to thy house' (Sukkah 53a). They place the center of theirlife in the secular world and remove themselves from the territory that is not interested inthem anyway.

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