I never liked mechitzas, those partitions between the men’s and women’s sections of the synagogues I attended. As a small child, they were an obstacle I had to go around in my endless quest to experience the benefits of each side (and annoy my parents in the process). As an adolescent, they restricted my view of girls, whom I found more and more fascinating every week. Since that time, however, my appreciation for the mechitza has grown considerably, but with a serious catch.

These days, the mechitza partially obstructs my view of the women’s section, as it always has. With some small effort, I can find and gaze at my lovely wife if I so choose. Except, of course, that type of distraction is precisely the purpose of a mechitza; when praying, we are understandably meant to focus entirely on that. So, at least to me, the mechitza fulfils an important function in helping to ensure that my focus is where it should be. To put it more bluntly, it helps me exercise my self-control, irrespective of its heteronormative purpose or effect.

Self-control is where the serious catch comes into play. I could see through it, but choose not to do so. Just as the desire to look lies entirely within me, so too is the choice entirely my own. Developing self-control, in this instance just as in other ones we term “growing up,” has been central to human-kind’s progress as a species. Self-control is, in turn, a choice that can best be made both before and after achieving self-awareness, i.e. literally defined as “conscious knowledge of one’s own character, feelings, motives, and desires”.

Just as the desire to look lies entirely within me, so too is the choice entirely my own.

The problem is that looking to impose external control is far easier than developing inner self-restraint. Whether it’s the relatively minor instance of an ultra-orthodox man holding up a flight over TV screens until he and his children are blindfolded, another covering up a large inflight screen so that nobody can watch a presumably ‘indecent’ film, or using the women’s section as a means of forcing women “to sit quietly and watch the proceedings,” the common denominator is that in each instance, some are choosing to exert external control rather than develop self-control.

In Judaism, free will can reasonably be said to be the driving force behind creation itself. However, as Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan once put it so well, “In order for man to have true free choice, he must not only have inner freedom of will, but also an environment in which a choice between obedience and disobedience exists.”

The problem is that looking to impose external control is far easier than developing inner self-restraint.

Put another way, we were created in order to exercise our free will, so that we would choose to do good rather than the alternative. To quote Rabbi Kaplan once more, “In order for something to be appreciated, or even detected, some degree of contrast is required.” Hypothetically, if one were to be in a corridor with only one visible door, choosing to open that door would not take much effort, and would be something of a minimal exercise of one’s ability to choose. Given a second door, however, and suddenly the choice is not merely whether to open the door, but to choose which door to open.

Rejecting reality, choosing to blind oneself to it, is antithetical to fully exercising free will. By the same token, particularly when it comes to interactions between men and women, choosing to pretend that women don’t exist, or for that matter relegating them into the background, is a cop out at best. We can choose to react by attaining greater self-control – which takes thought, reflection and considerable effort – or we can take the easy way out.

“In order for man to have true free choice, he must not only have inner freedom of will, but also an environment in which a choice between obedience and disobedience exists.”

But it is a fundamental mistake to ever believe that control over anything or anyone else is a substitute for self-control. Self-control, moreover, lies at the heart of morality itself. Of the seven Noahide Laws, two were between humanity and the divine. The other five, prohibiting murder, incest and adultery, robbery, and perversion of justice, are, to quote Rabbi Kaplan’s succinct summation, “the foundations of human morality. Finally, the prohibition against eating flesh from a living animal teaches man kindness toward lower creatures as well as control of his base appetites.”

Control is no substitute for self-control, and denial is no substitute for self-awareness. We have never been a nation of navel-gazers, and despite the unparalleled level of complexity that has been developing for the past several hundred years – sped up to an unfathomable degree by the explosive Information Age – Judaism contains within it the potentially ideal capability to consider infinite conceptual permutations and address them head on. But that will not be accomplished by putting on blindfolds, literally or figuratively, nor by institutionalizing the fundamentally un-Jewish marginalization of women that has crept into our own traditions during the past millennia of exile.

Control is no substitute for self-control, and denial is no substitute for self-awareness.

I cannot, and do not feel it appropriate to speak for anyone else in this. But the mechitza that stands between my wife and me, and only when we pray, is something I am compelled to appreciate. It does not force me to do anything, but reminds me that I have an opportunity to exercise my self-control and focus on praying itself. My wife has exactly the same choices to make, although I must admit that it is far more difficult for her to focus so long as our young sons choose to stay with her most of the time.  

Aaron Eitan Meyer is a practicing attorney, consultant, analyst, researcher, and public speaker. In addition to one book to date, with another scheduled for release within the next year, he has written or coauthored a number of articles, book chapters, memoranda and blog entries on a wide variety of subjects, including lawfare, Middle East history, Zionism, terrorism, international and comparative law, World War II General Orde Charles Wingate, and legal history.

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