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Can Women See?

The architectures of women’s sections in Orthodox shuls differ greatly, offering widely varying experiences for women. The mechitzah which divides the men’s and women’s sections and the situation of the women’s section sometimes allow women to see all the way to the front. Sometimes the divider only allows a few women to see and other times it completely obscures the view. What lies behind these differences?

I. When

The primary source for a mechitzah is the Gemara in Sukkah (51b-52a). During the Simchas Beis HaSho’eivah ceremony on Chol HaMoed Sukkos, women and men gathered in the Beis HaMikdash to watch the celebrations. The men and women stood separately but still engaged in frivolity. Initially, women stood inside, close to the celebration, and men stood outside. This didn’t work so the placements were reversed, which still did not work. To solve the problem, the Sages made an otherwise forbidden change to the Beis HaMikdash — they built a balcony for women.

The Beis HaMikdash post-change separation of genders serves as a model for shuls today. According to some authorities, only shuls — the Mikdash Me’at, miniature Temple — require a mechitzah, even if separation without a physical divider is more broadly required. According to others, mechitzah is a general requirement. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Orach Chaim 1:39) rules that all public functions require a mechitzah, but not private functions. The Chasam Sofer (Responsa CM:190) requires a mechitzah at all gatherings of prayer and praise of God. The Seridei Esh (2:8) requires separate seating at all gatherings but a mechitzah only in a shul. (For more discussion of this, see the recent Sefer Toras Ha-Mechitzah Ateres Moshe by Rav Moshe Chaim Chanunu, although there is room to discuss some of his interpretations.)

II. Why

How tall must the mechitzah stand? It depends on the nature of the frivolity that the mechitzah is intended to stop. As with many things in halakhah, this boils down to an apparent contradiction in the Rambam’s writings. In his commentary to the Mishnah in Sukkah (5:2), Rambam explains that the balconies were installed in the Beis HaMikdash so that the men would not be able to see the women. However, in his commentary to the Mishnah in Midos (2:5), Rambam writes that the balconies were intended to prevent the men and women from intermingling, from physically mixing with each other. This latter explanation is what Rambam provides in his Mishneh Torah (Hilkhos Lulav 8:12; Hilkhos Beis HaBechirah 5:9).

These two views have an important practical difference. If the problem is the men seeing the women, then a mechitzah must be built so that men may not see women. If the problem is intermingling, then the mechitzah can be shorter, even if men can see over or through it. The Satmar Rav (Responsa Divrei Yoel 1:10) suggests that the Rambam meant that it is so bad when men stare at women that it is as if they are intermingled. According to this explanation, a mechitzah must be made in such a way that men cannot see women. Rav Moshe Feinstein argues that staring can lead to intermingling, which is the real problem.

III. How

Therefore, the Satmar Rav and many others require a mechitzah sufficiently high and opaque that men cannot see women. In 1865, a group of Charedi rabbis in Hungary, chief among them Rav Chaim Halberstam, the Divrei Chaim, issued a ruling forbidding several shul changes. The fifth paragraph begins: “It is forbidden to make the partition separating the mens’ and women’s sections in a way that men can look at women.” Significantly, even rabbis who thought that some of the rulings went too far, including Rav Moshe Schick (Responsa Maharam Schick, YD 77) and Rav Azriel Hildesheimer (in a collection of his German writings), agreed with this ruling that a mechitzah must prevent men from seeing women.

According to Rav Moshe Feinstein, a mechitzah need only be tall enough to prevent intermingling between men and women. Many shuls in the US with mechitzos that are relatively short or have see-through tops were built based on Rav Feinstein’s position, sometimes with his explicit approval. Other leading rabbis who reached similar conclusions include Rav Yechiel Weinberg (Seridei Esh 1:8, 2:14 in old editions) and Rav Yitzchak Yosef (Yalkut Yosef, vol. 2 addenda 5).

IV. When Not

Some shuls follow Rav Feinstein’s general approach, and other shuls follow the Satmar Rav’s approach. However, both sides of this debate agree that women may see the men. The Satmar Rav (ibid., par. 8) explicitly argues against the lone opinion (Teshuras Shai 125) which says otherwise. The Satmar Rav says that it has long been the custom, even among the greatest and holiest Torah scholars, that the shuls are built so that women can see men.

If so, why do many shuls have women’s sections in which the view is obscured? According to all authorities, women may see the rabbi when he speaks, the Torah readers, etc. I suspect that there is some truth to the cynical thought that this is what happens when men design the women’s section. I believe, however, that most of the answer lies in practical concerns of space, budgets and demand. Within halakhah, there is plenty of room to maneuver. Within the physical and financial limitations of many shuls, there is much less room.

The mechitzah is part of the shul architecture of the room where people pray and may not be removed for the rabbi’s speech or Simchas Torah dancing. However, most shuls have mechitzos that are taller than the bare minimum of the view which they follow. If possible, they always have the right to lower the mechitzah (e.g. push aside curtains) while retaining the bare minimum, in order to enhance women’s of the men’s section. Additionally, in many shuls the speaker or dancers can move to a place in the men’s section where they are more visible to those in the women’s section. If there is a desire to enhance visibility, creative minds can work together with the shul rabbi to find solutions that fit both the spirit and the letter of the Torah.

Rabbi Gil Student writes frequently on Jewish issues and runs TorahMusings.com