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Guests Or Residents? Women In Our Shuls

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A few weeks ago I was completing the silent amidah at the morning minyan I attend in my local shul. Suddenly, a cold breeze shot through the room. I headed back to the door of the bet midrash where we pray and saw that a young observant woman I know had propped the door slightly ajar in order to hear the repetition of the Shemoneh Esrei and the reading of the Torah.

The women’s section right next to the door was being used by several men. One man who had come late was putting on his tefillin while another man was taking his off; one man was praying intensely while another was wandering around, possibly looking for a sefer on the shelves in the back.

The young woman, too shy or intimated to ask them to leave the area, simply stood in the cold drafty hall, bundled up against the elements, trying to hear the chazzan and the tefillah. The door to the women’s section has a sign politely asking men not to pray in or walk through the women’s section as it is reserved for women. But like so many other rules of etiquette in shul, this one was being ignored. I quickly motioned to the men to exit the women’s section; after they noticed my gesticulations they slowly did.

The phenomenon of men praying or simply donning their tefillin in the women’s section is one we have all seen repeated countless times in our shuls and batei midrash here and in Israel. It is a practice that needs to stop, the sooner the better.

Men praying or passing through the women’s section, even if there are no women there at the moment, bespeaks (not explicitly, of course) an attitude that devalues the place of women in the synagogue. It subtly indicates the sense (again not deliberately) that women have no real place or space in the synagogue. They are there, the message resounds, at the indulgence of men.

Whatever one’s views on the hot button issues of the role of women and ritual in the shul, it should be a sine qua non that a space be always set aside for the women who attend shul during the week and that this space should be sacrosanct. Women should feel they have their very own space. No woman should have to ask a man to move out of the women’s section or wait for a sympathetic soul to notice her discomfort and push the men to leave.

A person seeking to connect with God should never be made to feel like a guest in the house of God, especially in her own shul.

This attitude is also reflected in the context of some of the Mincha minyanim that take place in offices in the midtown and financial districts of large cities. Many of these ubiquitous minaynim resist making accommodations for the small but growing number of observant women who would also like to pray with a minyan either on a daily or occasional basis. In some there is resistance to set up a mechitza, while in others, even ones that meet in shuls with women’s sections, many men, especially the latecomers, simply appropriate for themselves the space of the women’s section to spread out as they engage in prayer.

This issue is not the most urgent one on our communal plate at the moment, but it is so easy to rectify.

Our history reflects the reality that men, even those steeped in piety, often failed to appreciate women’s desire to experience and engage in tefillah.

We need look no further than the high priest Eli, who spoke harshly to Hannah, mother of Samuel the prophet, because he initially misunderstood what she was doing when he saw her engaged in prayer. But ultimately, as the Talmud teaches us, Hannah came to be considered the mother of prayer.

It is from Hannah’s sincere desire to pray and from her deeply felt prayers that we derive many of the laws of tefillah found in our halachic texts. It behooves us to ensure that all our shuls and minyanim are truly batei knesset where all of Knesset Yisrael – the Jewish people – can feel at home and at peace.

About the Author: Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot is chair of the departments of Tanach and Jewish Thought at Yeshivat Chovevei Rabbinical School; is on the faculty of SAR High School; and is spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, New Jersey.

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