By Eric Segall
Last winter my wife and I attended a Bar Mitzvah at an orthodox temple in Atlanta, Georgia. Once we entered the sanctuary, it became apparent that we would have to sit on separate sides of an ornate barrier. I had heard about this practice but thought it had been abandoned everywhere but Israel. I noticed as the services went on that the women’s side was filled with people in colorful dress engaging in conversation and even a bit of merriment. This atmosphere was quite different than on my side, where the men were either reading silently or praying.
I wondered why men and women would sit separately in temple in 2015 and engage in quite different activities (at least at this temple). So, I did some research. Historically there were two primary reasons for the separation of men and women in temple. First, the temple is a place to pray and think about God, not the opposite sex. That explanation seems reasonably non-sexist. The second reason, however, is that under the Torah women are supposed to be the primary caregivers and managers of the household. Married women or women with children do not even have to attend temple in the first place. Thus, their prayer obligations and how they are supposed to participate in the services are quite different than the obligations placed on men.
These differing roles did not strike me as innocuous so I did more research into gender and religion. Here are just a few facts: Women cannot be ordained in the Catholic Church and of course the Vatican’s views on contraception and abortion (not to mention divorce) don’t do a lot for the cause of equality; women cannot be rabbis in Orthodox temples, and in Orthodox communities women still labor under numerous discriminatory rules such as a man may force a divorce upon a woman but the reverse is not possible, and only sons, not daughters, may inherit property.
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