Segregating men and women is not sexist? Really, rabbi?

By Lindsay Simmonds, February 1, 2014

Rabbi Daniel Levy’s anachronistic article in the JC’s Judaism page earlier this month is peppered with flawed reasoning. He suggests that “segregating men and women is not sexist”. But sexism is defined by the differentiation between sexes because of their sex alone — based on no other personal characteristic — and this is indeed the case with the mechitza. Separating men and women for prayer may be halachically obligated, but is nevertheless sexist.

Historically and in contemporary life, men and women have been separated for regular prayer in Orthodox synagogues in very different ways. It is almost exclusively women in the UK Orthodox synagogues who are seated behind or above, not the men. Consequently, it is the women whose ability to see or hear the service is hindered. Shivah houses are not permanent places of worship and therefore are of little relevance in the argument which questions the sacred spaces of synagogue or Temple life. The sharing, limiting and appropriation of space is always a telling sign of who has authority over whom. Recent photos of the Kotel in Jerusalem are an unsettling testament to who “owns” holy space – the men’s section expands ever larger, as the women’s shrinks year on year.

Rabbi Levy suggests that men and women were never equal. He mistakenly conflates equality with sameness. Equality does not mean sameness, it means an identical level of respect, merit, value and purpose. It does not always mean equality of opportunity — the blind cannot become pilots, unfair (and arguably unjust) as that may be. But it does not render the blind unequal — but merely different from the sighted, just as the sighted are different from the blind.

The issue at hand is the fact that white males have been the overwhelming subject of history. “Difference” has meant anything “other” than this particular subject. Hence women — or blacks — have been considered extraordinary and often objectified.

Women need equal access and equal education

If, as Rabbi Levy suggests, a community thrives on diversity, he must surely accept that each person should be accorded equal dignity, not despite their differences but because of them; they must all be equal subjects of our shared history.
There has always been vibrant debate among Orthodox scholars and lay people – Judaism is always contemporary, that is the point. Its current failure is to regard conversations and debate around subjects like partnership minyanim in terms of what Rabbi Levy calls “rulings”.

A far better, more substantial and religiously meaningful approach would be to engage with those whose ideas and practices differ from the mainstream, lest they, too, be rendered “other”. For women to be considered equal partners in the service of God and the observance of Torah, they need to be equally educated and acquire equal access to contemporary halachic leadership and ritual participation.

And, finally, for Rabbi Levy to intimate that the mechitza has the ability to minimise or eliminate the possibility of abusive relationships within the Orthodox community is profoundly disturbing. It is also incredibly poor timing. For those who are involved in supporting women who are victim-survivors of abuse within the Orthodox community, it is indefensible to propose the religious practice of mechitza as a substitute for personal responsibility.

In favour of the “ultimate respect for both sexes”, perhaps Rabbi Levy should pay more attention to the agunot in his community – it would be judicious to eradicate this issue urgently, to have a religious ruling on this issue today. If partnership minyanim are “one of the biggest challenges for the Orthodox rabbinate today” for Rabbi Levy, he has failed markedly to embrace those “others” in his community, those who have been rendered invisible and different, those who have been treated with unprecedented sexism. He has failed to address Orthodox Judaism’s most pressing contemporary challenge —sexism.

Lindsay Simmonds lectures on Judaism and gender

Last updated: 10:45am, February 1 2014