Much “hoo-ha” about mixed prayer
As much as I love my wife, I’m very happy to not sit next to her at shul. And as much as I might like other people’s wives (as people), I’m equally content to not sit with them at prayer time either. It’s bad enough that I can feel my own wife’s judgement burning at the back of my neck when my behaviour starts to stray during services, I can’t imagine being told to keep the noise down by people I’m not married to.
Which makes it difficult for me to understand the “hoo-ha” that has continued to plague the egalitarian section at the Western Wall.
The situation is so bad that this week, the Israeli government chose to ban any separations from being brought into the so-called mixed section at the Kotel. This followed an incident in which a few ultra-Orthodox members of the public attacked an American group who were celebrating Barmitzvahs and Batmitzvahs in blended company.
The behaviour of those objecting was objectionable. In the name of G-d Himself, they blew whistles and their noses to prevent the service from continuing. Some of them were no older than children themselves, which speaks volumes about lack of parenting. Considering their actions, perhaps praying under their mother’s watchful eye might have been just what they needed.
Several years ago, when this issue reared its traditional ugly head, I wrote an article for The Times of Israel in which I suggested that we have a greater chance of encouraging a person to be Shabbat observant by inviting them to dinner than by throwing stones at them. To my mind, if someone is allowed to talk to G-d in a way they’re comfortable with at the Western Wall, there’s a greater chance that conversations can be had and minds and hearts can be changed. Blowing whistles in their ears and ripping up their prayer books is unlikely to result in anything positive.
The South African community, while wholly imperfect, is an excellent example of this. For years, traditional self-identifying Orthodox Jews drove to shul on Friday night. For the most part, the rabbis chose to not focus on this but rather to reinforce the positives of them being in shul rather than anywhere else. This resulted in generations of Jews who might not have attended synagogue being comfortable and familiar with it, rather than finding it alien.
This is partly the reason that South African Jewry has experienced a massive return to observant Judaism. Had people been insulted and demeaned, the result would probably have been very different.
The issue of a mechitza isn’t without emotional complexity. Even in Orthodox synagogues, the separation often represents areas of conflict and flashpoints that illustrate the tensions that exist in the community. And whereas once again South Africa hasn’t been forced to confront these challenges as other communities around the world have, they still need to be handled with empathy and sensitivity.
And with constant adherence to what G-d would expect from us.