Segregating men and women is not sexist

Religious groups should be allowed to have separate seating for men and women at campus events


By Rabbi Daniel Levy, January 17, 2014
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Protesters in London last month denounce segregated seating for men and women at religious meetings in universities

Protesters in London last month denounce segregated seating for men and women at religious meetings in universities

In early 2013, several British universities followed University College London by allowing separate seating for men and women during talks organised by certain Muslim groups. At the time, Universities UK, the representative body for British institutions, issued guidelines to say it was happy with this policy, yet some journalists lamented that "the sexist eccentricities of some religions" were being given "priority over women's rights".

By the end of 2013, Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesperson had waded into the debate, arguing that "gender segregation" should be banned in all circumstances in British universities, even where audiences voluntarily separated themselves. Universities UK has now dropped its policy pending a review.

Such boundaries between the sexes have long existed in our tradition. In the Bet Hamikdash (Temple), there were places where only women could go and places where only men could enter. Within the men's section, some areas were accessible only to Cohanim and one place restricted solely to the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest. Neither men nor women complained of discrimination or disrespect.

Orthodoxy has always been clearly identified by its mechitzah and the boundaries which separate the sexes. It is as much about keeping the men away from the women, as it is about keeping the women away from the men. At a shivah house, it is not simply that women go into "another room" or move down the room, but equally that men go into "another room" or the men move down.

When the Reform movement emerged in the 19th century, one of the first things it abolished was the mechitzah. Shabbat was moved to Sunday, the consumption of treif was encouraged and the passion for Israel extinguished. Reform ripped down boundaries with the aim of enabling the liberated Jew in the post-ghetto renaissance to advance in the modern world.

But for 200 years, we have seen that true liberation and advancement of the Jew has not been dependent on the removal of religious boundaries. On the contrary, religion is embraced and respected by many and virtually no area of professional success or global commerce is inaccessible from the Orthodox person, whatever their faith.

The contemporary issue of partnership minyanim - services where women can read from the Torah and lead certain prayers - has blurred the boundaries: this is one reason, among others, that they are halachically problematic. The long-term impact of such minyanim on the equilibrium of Anglo-Jewry remains to be seen. Will rabbis who attend or participate in them be allowed to continue giving their shiurim and lead services in Orthodox shuls and educational institutions? A ruling needs to be given on this as a matter of urgency as it is one of the biggest challenges for the Orthodox rabbinate today.

Protagonists claim that "separate is never equal". But whoever said men and women are equal? They are no more equal than, say, fish and chips. I love fish and I love chips, I cannot have one without the other. Indeed, I would never philosophise that they are in some way equal. Men and women are not equal; they have different abilities, strengths and weaknesses. We, of course, must value their respective differences equally.

People confusingly define a united society to mean that everyone does the same thing. Rather, unity means having a foundation of core shared values and living in harmony. If, within that, people wish to express their religious convictions and observe their faith without harming others, then all the better, since societies thrive on diversity.

It is understandably hard for many to appreciate the benefit of boundaries, especially when their children and grandchildren are obsessed and mesmerised with the likes of Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus. No different to how their parents idolised Madonna and their grandparents Marilyn Monroe.

Publicly, adults will tell you these are not role models, while in the next room their 12-year-old daughters are enthralled by their pop idol's every move and together with their parents and grandparents dance to their music at their batmitzvahs.

For many students, licentiousness is integral to the "university experience", which makes it all the more imperative to respect the choice of chastity and demarcation between the sexes for those who wish to uphold it. Surely an open-minded and free-choice society should not seek to impose one way on everyone.

We live in a time of increased abuse, whether mental, physical or sexual; women suffer more at the hands of the abusers than men. As such, we should embrace the mechitzah and separate seating since it does not represent placing women beneath men - it never has done. On the contrary it is the ultimate mark of respect for both sexes.

Rabbi Levy is senior minister of the United Hebrew Congregation, Leeds

Last updated: 9:37am, January 21 2014