Gender Separation and Modesty

[Be-Ahavah U-Be-Emunah – Matot-Masei 5773 – translated by R. Blumberg]


Question: I saw in the Shulchan Aruch that men and women have to stay “far apart from one another” (Even Ha-Ezer 21:1). But why? Why can't they coexist in natural, straightforward purity and modesty? Why was it ruled that they have to distance themselves?

Perhaps this was said for people who have unclean thoughts in their heads, but we are serious people with pure hearts, so what is the problem if we mix?

Answer: You have asked an important question that touches on a major issue. Indeed, the Mishnah in Succah wrote that during the Temple Period, on the second night of Succot, at the start of the celebrations of Chol Ha-Moed, they “effected a major improvement” in the Women's section of the Temple. And what was that “major improvement”?

The Talmud answers: The men's and women's sections were initially on the same level, so they installed a raised balcony and enacted that the women should celebrate on that raised section, and the men below (Succah 51b).

The Rambam comments: “It was so that the genders would not mix” (Hilchot Beit Ha Bechirah 5:9). Yet the Talmud asks: “How could they do this?” Rashi explains: “I.e., adding a floor to an entire building.” and the Talmud continues: “Doesn't Scripture state: 'All this was in writing, in accordance with G-d's wisdom' (Divrei Ha-Yamim 1 28:19), meaning that the entire plan of the Temple was given by Hashem and may not be changed?  How then is it possible to change the Temple? Weren't all its plans handed down by the prophets via prophetic intuition?

The Talmud answers: “They found a verse and they expounded on it: 'The Land shall mourn, every family apart: The family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart” (Zechariah 12:12).

What will the mourning be about?  Rashi explains: "Zechariah prophesied that in the future they will mourn Mashiach ben Yosef who will be killed in the apocalyptic War

of Gog and Magog. And it says: 'The family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart,' that even in a time of sorrow, the genders must be separated.”

The Talmud continues: “We can logically deduce this: if, in the future, when they are preoccupied with mourning and the evil impulse holds no sway over them, Scripture still states that the men and women must remain separate, then now, when they are preoccupied with rejoicing and the evil impulse does hold sway over them, they should surely be kept separate.”

Rashi explains: “When one is busy with mourning, one does not easily fall prey to frivolity. In the future, however, the evil impulse will not hold sway, as it says, 'I shall

remove the heart of stone' (Yechezkiel 36:26). In the Temple, however, they were rejoicing, and they verged on frivolity, so they certainly needed separation.”

In other words, there is a double proof of the need for gender separation. Not only (1)

will the future mourning for Mashiach ben Yosef be a sad, serious time, but (2) the evil impulse will already have disappeared. Even so, gender separation will be maintained. By contrast, in the Temple on Succot, they were obviously rejoicing, and the evil impulse still held sway.

We thus derive that gender separation is required even on a very serious, sad occasion, and even if there is no evil impulse.

Additionally, Rambam (ibid.) held that that balcony was maintained all year long and not just for the celebrations of Succot. What, then, was the “major improvement” precisely of that time?

Maran Ha-Rav Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Cohain Kook explains that during the Succot celebrations, they would organize the celebration area with even more caution and modesty than usual (Ma'amarei Ha-Re'eiyah, p. 513).

So we derive that we must constantly prevent the mixing of genders.

I am not addressing here the question of when you need a Mechitzah, a physical separation, and when you do not, or the question of how high it must be. Rabbenu Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook was not a follower of the Satmar Rebbe. Even so, in the debate between Ha-Gaon Ha-Rav Moshe Feinstein, who said that when absolutely unavoidable, a shoulder-height Mechitzah was sufficient, and the Satmar Rebbe, who said that it must be over the head, Rav Tzvi Yehuda sided with the Satmar Rebbe, and he deduced this logically.

What I am discussing here is the obligation to maintain gender separation and to prevent mixed seating under all sorts of circumstances. We are neither wiser nor holier than our Sages who enacted such separation at the Succot celebration of Chol Ha-Moed, or than the Prophet Zechariah who said, in G-d's name, that this is what will be at the future mourning for Mashiach ben Yosef, despite there being no evil impulse.

May we be privileged to increase modesty and purity.