Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Men Davening With Men

Orthropax the other day expressed the standard liberal view on the separation of sexes in the synagogue. He says, speaking to a woman commentator: “How do you feel about the fact that in most frum shuls, the mechitzah(partition) is so positioned that women are way in the back? What does that all say about women? That their bodies are such powerful sexual objects that men cannot think properly 'pure' thoughts when they are around?”

My response is we should all be so lucky. As we all know the atmosphere in liberal congregations is a far cry from being sexually charged. There is no reason other than architectural convenience that woman must sit in the back of men. Parallel seating, provided there is an appropriate mechitza is to the best of my knowledge equally good.

The sexual attraction of women plays a minor role to what I think is the primary benefit of separate seating. Looking first at the male side of the equation, I believe two things occur when men pray with men. The first is male bonding, which is exceptionally valuable in any marriage. It’s a Jewish version of “Boys Night Out.” It is fun and interesting to sit with your male friends and talk over what happened during the week. We all know there is ample time on a Saturday morning service to do a fair amount of schmoozing, kibbitzing, and kvetching. Friendship between men is an important component of a happy marriage. The alternative is to socialize only in the company of one’s wife. Over time, the absence of male bonding places unnecessary strains on a marriage . There’s a place in life for guys acting like guys with guys. Such bonding is not particularly homoerotic, though occasionally it might play a minor role. It is first and foremost the experience of same-sex friendship. The Greeks knew and wrote of friendship as a virtue. Jews also know how important friendship is in a good life. The quest for piety and the obsessive quality of Torah study prevented the various musar seforim (tractates on ethical and moral improvement) to speak positively about male friendship. They tend to think of males hanging out as a moshav latzim, a meeting for the purpose of joking around. And indeed, many times there is a fair amount of lighthearted banter. I say a certain amount of moshav letzim is uplifting to the human spirit. It is part of friendship.

The second major benefit of separate seating is that it provides a vehicle for a father to be a father to his son. Competency in shul is a religious capital that is built up slowly. When a father has an opportunity to walk to shul with his son, teach him how to function in a shul society, it is a special way of enabling a child to identify with his father. In addition, the existence of all these men around the father who tease and talk and fool around with the young boy enables the young male to have role models other than the father. Each of these models is like one strand in a rope. The more strands there are, the stronger the rope. A self is constructed by having multiple connections to the world around you. As the father’s friends slowly accept the growing boy into their circle, the father’s burden is lightened. Idiosyncratic failures in a father are dampened because there are alternative versions of adult males. When a family is isolated the failures of the parents are accentuated. Living in a community organized around a congregation provides more models for young people than a world that is more individualistic and private. A doxological community, i.e. a community organized around prayer in a church or synagogue, is almost by definition inclusive. The inclusive quality of such communities affects the children and makes growing up much easier. (see my blog of 8/17 on gedolim )

There are similar remarks to be made about women klatching with women and bonding with their daughters. The situations, however, are not completely symmetrical. Women have more opportunities to bond with their daughters than men with their sons. So the increased opportunities that synagogue services provide are somewhat less meaningful. It’s also true that women more easily bond with other women in mid-life, than men bond with men. Men from latency until their forties find it easy to socialize with other men. Over time men have to make an effort to seek out other men. There is a tendency for men to become more isolated, and to rely on their wives for company. It is one of the reasons why country clubs and golf are so popular. It is therefore understandable why women feel less of a need to sit with other women.


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