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The mechitzah empowers, but it also incapacitates

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Mechitzah at the Kotel, Jerusalem WIKICOMMONS PHOTO

have long been a promoter of praying in the women’s section of the synagogue. In the most recent issue, the JOFA Journal published an essay by Blu Greenberg in which she articulated many of the issues and feelings I have experienced. Addressing them today opens discussion on the controversy and conflict we’ve both considered.

I enjoy sitting by myself in the ezrat nashim – women’s section. I enjoy praying on my own, for a moment not as part of a family or as wife to a husband. Not immersed in my other roles, but as a solitary figure, within a community of Jews, praying. Me – Norma – standing alone like Hannah, Samuel’s mother, pouring out her heart to God.

I know it’s not politically correct to admit to the above. But there you have it. I appreciate it.

I also know that many people criticize women for talking too much in the ezrat nashim (as though men don’t talk incessantly). But the talkers are the ones who weren’t trained in the art of prayer, whose community failed them in not preparing them to be prayers – Jews who pray and who are significant because their prayers count.

Nevertheless, there are cogent feminist concerns about this wall that separates. The lack of equality in most Orthodox services derives from the lack of opportunities for women to lead services and participate ritually. This perception of women as passive, unequal and unimportant in prayer services is truly offensive.

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The wall that separates men from women, the mechitzah, is understood by so many as indicating women’s lack of substance in public synagogue matters. It signifies women’s irrelevance or unimportance in the ritual of synagogue service. It is an undeniable path to invisibility. But is it a clear indicator that Judaism disparages women’s ritual presence? Not necessarily.

I have been in places where the mechitzah separates, but does not demean, where it’s not considered “the back of the bus.” Rather, it’s a ritual requirement with no value added. In fact, efforts are made to enable women to stand on their own, to establish a respectable women’s place and a vehicle for participation. For some, it’s also a wonderful way for women to bond, as Blu notes in her essay.

So how do we reconcile the two opposite meanings of the wall? Is it possible to sit separate, but equal?

For years, I wavered in my feelings and perceptions about the mechitzah. At times, I felt empowered, and at other times, I was unable to pray, because I was so overwhelmed with my hiddenness or ritual non-existence. The seating arrangement often forced me to consider whether I was a Jew, part of the covenant with God.

But years of study and practice confirmed that I was firmly within that covenant, fully present. I appreciate prayer with my tallit, feeling wrapped in God’s presence and commandments. I’m not outside looking in, no matter how others perceive me. Even my position on Women of the Wall, being part of OWOW, insisting that we remain in the ezrat nashim, is consistent with these understandings.

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But alas, in the last five years, I have come to know another aspect of this wall that separates. My husband, Rabbi Howard Joseph, was disabled by a stroke. He needs help in prayer and in concentration. I sit separated from him, unable to contribute. If I sat next to him, his prayer presence would be enhanced. Without me there, he is lost. It is difficult for people to accept that their rabbi might need help. But he does, and I’m forbidden to provide it.

I’m forced to the conclusion that the mechitzah disconnects those who need help unfairly. Single parents cannot sit with all their children who need guidance. The elderly are left alone. Emphatically, no matter our intent, these walls further incapacitate the disabled.