The Disappearing Jewish Woman

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By Rabbi Gil Student

Separate entrances. Sky-high mechitzos. Publications without pictures of women. Some people take the growing frequency of these and similar phenomena as a sign that women are disappearing from the Orthodox community. Obviously, this fear is overstated. Anyone walking the streets of Brooklyn will see that women still exist, in public, living and thriving. Setting aside the exaggerations, concerns about the diminished female presence are real for a variety of reasons—social, psychological, educational, and more. While these important concerns deserve discussion, I would like to ask a different question: is it necessary? Is there a halachic requirement for the decreasing visibility of women?

I. Separating
Men And Women

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. To solve the problem, the Sages made an otherwise forbidden change to the Beis HaMikdash—they built a balcony for women.

The separation of genders in the Beis HaMikdash post-change 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, OC: 5:11; YD:4:24:3) 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 G‑d. The Seridei Eish (2:8) requires separate seating at all gatherings but a mechitzah only in a shul. If women are dancing, there may be a further need for a mechitzah to prevent men from watching, which is forbidden (Yam shel Shlomo, Gittin 1:18). (For more discussion of this, see the recent Sefer Toras HaMechitzah Ateres Moshe by Rav Moshe Chaim Chanunu, although there is room to discuss some of his interpretations.)

II. How Tall?

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 halachah, this boils down to an apparent contradiction in the Rambam’s writings. The Satmar Rav (Responsa Divrei Yoel 1:10) understands the Rambam that the problem is men looking at women. According to this explanation, a mechitzah must be made in such a way that men cannot see women. Rav Moshe Feinstein argues that intermingling is the primary problem.

Therefore, the Satmar Rav and many others require a mechitzah sufficiently high and opaque that men cannot see women. In 1865, a group of 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 men’s and women’s sections in a way that men can look at 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 Eish 1:8, 2:14 in old editions) and Rav Yitzchak Yosef (Yalkut Yosef, vol. 2 addenda 5).

III. Can Women See?

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.

The mechitzah is part of the shul architecture of the room where people pray and may not be removed for the rabbi’s speech (there is a minority lenient opinion regarding Simchas Torah dancing (see Toras HaMechitzah 6:4). 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 view 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.

IV. Can Men See Pictures?

After Rebbetzin Kanievsky passed away, I asked Rav Hershel Schachter whether a newspaper may publish modest pictures of women. He said that if the woman is dressed modestly, there is no need to worry that a reader may be led to improper thoughts. I did not ask him for his reasoning and the following thoughts are mine, not his. Three prohibitions come into consideration when discussing the publication of pictures of men and women.

The Torah commands that Hashem should not see in our communities any “naked thing” (Devarim 23:15). Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Yabia Omer 1:OC:7; 6:OC:12) argues at length that a picture or video of a person equally fall under this prohibition even though they are just ink or pixels. Additionally, the Torah prohibits us from diverting our eyes or minds after our temptations: “Velo sasuru acharei levavchem ve’acharei eineichem, And do not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes” (Bamidbar 15:39). While earlier authorities debate whether this prohibition applies to women, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, EH:1:69) follows those who are strict. A further rabbinic prohibition forbids men from thinking romantically about women (Kesubos 46a).

Therefore, it would seem that newspapers may not publish any picture—even of fully dressed people—that generates improper thoughts. The concern is less about the impropriety of the picture and more about the impact on the reader. But what level of risk must newspapers avoid?

V. Responsibility
And Liability

Not only are we forbidden to speak or publish lashon ha’ra, damaging gossip, we are rabbinically prohibited to tell positive stories about individuals because that might lead to people responding with negative stories (Arachin 16a; Bava Basra 164b). This is called avak lashon ha’ra. The Chofetz Chaim (1:9:1n) asks why the Sages needed to forbid this if leading others to sin is already forbidden under the prohibition called lifnei iveir. He explains that there is a low likelihood that someone will respond to a positive story with a negative story. Therefore, lifnei iveir does not apply and the Sages had to institute a specific prohibition of avak lashon ha’ra.

To explain the Chofetz Chaim’s reasoning, the Dirshu edition (ad loc., n. 7) quotes the Mishnah (Shevi’is 5:6,8-9) which deals with what you are allowed to sell during a Shemittah year. You are only allowed to sell items used for working the land (which is forbidden) if those items can also be used for a permissible purpose. For example, you are allowed to sell a cow that is primarily used for plowing because the buyer could, in theory, eat it. Recent authorities like Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, YD 1:72) and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Minchas Shlomo 1:44:3) and the contemporary Rav Asher Weiss (Responsa Minchas Asher 2:30) conclude that there is no concern of lifnei iveir if there is even a little doubt whether there will be a violation. Since it is possible, even if unlikely, that someone will eat an animal even if he pays the high price of a plowing cow, you are allowed to sell that cow. Similarly, since there is a possibility that no one will respond to a positive story with a negative story, there is no prohibition of lifnei iveir and the Sages had to enact a separate rabbinic prohibition of avak lashon ha’ra.

I suggest that, similarly, if a newspaper publishes modest pictures of men and women, there is no certainty that a reader will be led by those pictures to think about adultery or otherwise romantically. Even if that is a likely outcome, it is not certain and therefore does not invoke the lifnei iveir prohibition.

VI. Women’s Names

Every year, synagogues, schools, and organizations honor people for their contributions and accomplishments. Is it appropriate to honor women or does this violate the norms of modesty? Often, when a married couple is honored, only the husband’s name is mentioned. In Hebrew, this looks something like “Reb Yosef Schwartz vera’ayaso, Mr. Joseph Schwartz and his wife.” Why not mention the wife’s name also? This might be a matter of etiquette, similar to “Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Schwartz.” While in some circles this form of address is considered old-fashioned, it is still common in many more traditional communities. Maybe the omission of the wife’s name can be attributed to old-fashioned formality. However, this omission of the wife’s name is not required.

Within the Tanach, we find many women mentioned by name, from Chavah to Sarah to Yocheved to Devora to Esther. The Gemara mentions women less frequently. The more common reference is to a woman or a wife without naming her (and sometimes to a man without naming him). But some women are mentioned by name. For example, R. Meir’s wife Beruriah, Rav Nachman’s wife Yalta, and R. Akiva’s wife Rachel are all mentioned by name. Each woman was worthy on her own merit of mention in the Talmud.

It seems that there is no concern that mentioning a woman’s name violates the rules of modesty. To bring this closer to current times, I refer to a picture of the invitation to the wedding of Rav Chaim Soloveitchik’s son, Rav Moshe, published in Rav Moshe’s daughter’s memoirs, The Soloveitchik Heritage by Shulamit Meiselman. The invitation is specifically from Rav Chaim Ha-Levi and Lipsha Soloveitchik.

VII. Honoring
A Woman

While a woman may be honored with her husband and mentioned by name, may she be honored alone? There is a rule that eishes chaver kechaver, a Torah scholar’s wife must be honored just like the Torah scholar. The Gemara (Shevu’os 30b) tells of a time when Rav Huna’s widow was called to a rabbinic court. Rav Nachman, one of the judges, was unsure how to handle the situation. On the one hand, he was obligated to rise when she walked into the room. On the other hand, the other litigant might think there was collusion and fail to articulate his claims properly. Rav Nachman resolved the problem by asking an assistant to unleash a goose in the room just as the woman entered the room. In that way, Rav Nachman could rise for her while the other litigant would think he stood out of surprise over the goose. We see from this story that it is proper to show honor to a woman who deserves it. Birkei Yosef (Choshen Mishpat 17:5) quotes a dispute whether this display is rabbinically obligated or merely a proper—but not required—practice. Either way, it is not forbidden.

However, that only addresses a woman who deserves honor because of her husband’s achievements. Is it modest to honor a woman for her own achievements? Yad Shaul (Yoreh De’ah 144:2) quotes the Sefer Chasidim (578) who says that the biblical obligation to stand for an elderly person applies also to an elderly woman. We show honor to a woman for her age. The Minchas Chinuch (257:4) rules likewise but adds that the obligation to show honor to a Torah scholar applies only to a man who is obligated to learn Torah. According to the Minchas Chinuch, we do not have to honor a female Torah scholar because women are not obligated to learn Torah.

VIII. Learned Women

Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Yechaveh Da’as 3:72) quotes many authorities who implicitly disagree with this Minchas Chinuch and rule that you are obligated to show respect to a female Torah scholar. He quotes the Pri Chadash, who writes: “It seems obvious to me that we are obligated to rise for her, because of her wisdom. Even though she is not obligated to learn Torah and does not receive as much reward as a man who is obligated and does, that makes no difference to other people. Just like we are obligated to rise for a Torah scholar’s wife, we are even more obligated to rise for a woman who is wise of her own accord.”

Rav Mordechai Eliyahu (Responsa Ma’amar Mordechai 3:YD:9) adopts a middle position, based on his interpretation of a statement by the Arizal. According to Rav Eliyahu, we should value and respect a female Torah scholar. However, the outward signs, such as rising for her, are not required.

It seems that it is proper to honor a woman—by name—for her own achievements. According to Rav Ovadiah Yosef, it is proper to demonstrate that honor in person while, according to Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, we can respect her without necessarily displaying that honor publicly. Women do not have to disappear from the public. The recently published Pesakim U-Teshuvos (242:32), written by the son-in-law of the author of Piskei Teshuvos, adds that any honor shown to an elderly woman must follow proper modesty. The same can be applied to all the other issues we have raised, and more. Every community may honor and otherwise highlight women within the community’s standards of modesty and propriety.

 

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