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Sunday, 28 September 2014

Creating a More Congenial Prayer-Space for the Women

Daf Yomi Chagigah 17

Our synagogue is configured with four seating blocks.  The men sit in the middle two sections and the women in the outer two.   A number of years ago, the Rabbanit and I proposed that instead of the current seating arrangement, we reposition the mechitzah to run straight down the middle and have the women seated in the two sections on one side of the mechitzah and the men in the two sections on the other side.   When we initially proposed this amendment, we were rebuffed by the powers that be, not because they did not agree that it was a good idea; rather, they were not ready to face the headache of dealing with all the people broygez (upset) with being moved from their favourite seats.

After receiving current board approval, this past Rosh Hashanah, I finally mustered up the courage to address the idea from the pulpit.  Thank G-d, the response was overwhelmingly positive. 

Concerning the mitzvah to lean one’s hands upon a sacrifice prior to bringing it as a Temple offering, the Torah states, “Speak to the Children (Sons) of Israel . . . he shall lean.”
Expounding the use of the singular form ‘he shall lean,’ the Beraisa (16b) teaches:  The sons of Israel have an obligation to lean, but the daughters of Israel do not.   Rabbi Yossi and Rabbi Shimon say: The daughters of Israel have the option to lean. 
Rabbi Yossi explains: Abba Elazar told me the following story, “We once had a peace-offering calf which we brought to the Ladies’ Section of the Temple.  And the women leaned upon it, not because they have an obligation to do so; rather, to give them pleasure.”

While women are not obligated to perform many of the mitzvos, our Sages always sought ways to be as inclusive as possible.   No doubt, taking the sacrifice to their section of the Temple would have delayed the service and there were probably zealots who felt that the practice of taking the offering out of the Main Sanctuary and into the Ladies’ Section was immodest and unbecoming.  

Our Sages were not swayed by the naysayers.  They endeavoured to do everything possible to make the women feel as comfortable and included as possible.   True, Judaism has different roles for men and women.  But instead of viewing that distinction as a dichotomy, our Sages viewed it as a challenge: Despite the differences, how do we ensure that everyone feels as connected as possible?    Are they obligated to lean on the sacrifice?  No, they are not.  But will they be excited at the opportunity?  Yes, they will.  So, let’s make sure they get the opportunity. 

Are we taking the challenge of making sure everyone on both sides of the mechitzah feels they are part of the service?  Are we ensuring that our synagogues are designed in such a way as to maximize participation and inclusiveness?   Are we as attuned as our Sages to the needs and sensibilities of all?  

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