By Vered Noam
From Mussaf Shabbat, Mekor Rishon, Jan 11, 2013
The segregation of women from synagogue activities does not only hurt women but also hurts the place itself, which loses its authenticity and lives in a gone reality. A call for integrity and softness.
Our spiritual lives are divided by a partition, just like a synagogue. We push to the other side of that internal partition all the vital foundations of healthy critical thinking, compassion, and common sense. Spiritual experience demands openness and listening, both inward and outward. How can we sing Lord’s song with a clenched fist?&
During a visit to the United States, we spent one Friday night in the synagogue of Rabbi Avi Weiss in Riverdale, New York. After Kabbalat Shabbat, the rabbi suddenly asked the congregation to stand. He turned his attention to a woman walking in, a member of the synagogue who was in the middle of her seven days of mourning. He announced her name and the name of her deceased father, and the entire congregation – men and women alike – turned to her and recited, as is the custom, the lovely words of comfort that the halacha has given us: “May God comfort you, etc.”
I stood there, very moved, as if a miracle were happening in front of me. As if I were encountering a mass of unexplainable longing for acceptance, comfort, and enlightenment, right before my eyes. There was an incredible responsiveness of softness, cooperation, awareness, and communal support. This feeling of being moved assaulted me with an old truth that the partition of habit had not allowed me to see until then. This truth is about the screaming absence in most of our synagogues.
After all, this could never happen by us. By us, the woman is invisible. Nobody would notice her entering the synagogue, and nobody would acknowledge her mourning. Our synagogue transmits the opposite message – at least on the wrong side of the partition. A heritage that is mostly custom and only minimally halacha pushes invisibility, alienation, and intransigence into that vacuum, and they have become a kind of religious principle.
Feminist discourse has been urging us for some time to listen to the architectonic message of our synagogue – with clarity, without external excuses. The ancient synagogue, with the women’s section in the balcony, says very simply: women have no part in the religious act. They have to be as far as possible from the centers of holiness. It is crucial for their presence to be hidden and denied among those who are truly engaged in prayer and Torah. A point that is not sufficiently emphasized, in my opinion, is the fact that the space “below” is open while the space above is narrow and circular, directing its residents towards one another rather than towards the common center of attention below.