On August 12, 2012 Agudat Israel will renting out the MetLife Stadium in New York City to celebrate the end of a seven year cycle of Daf Yomi. It isn’t enough for men and women to sit separately. To welcome the right-most members of the ultra-orthodox world they are spending $250,000 on a Mechitza.
A donation of $250,000 could
- provide 50,000 meals in soup kitchens around the USA or Israel ( $5 per meal )
- fund BirthRight trips to Israel for 1000 college students ( $2,500 per trip)
- pay for the wedding dress of 222 brides ( $1124 per dress )
- send 80-160 children to Jewish summer camp for 4 weeks ( $4000 per child )
- pay for 16 day school tuition scholarships (average $15,000/year)
The need for a mechitza, even in a synagogue has a long history of dispute even among the more observant. Historically synagogues were modelled on a biblical verse describing the Beit haMikdash in the messianic age (Zechariah 12:12-14 ). This verse indicated a seperate gallery for women. However, there wasn’t a firm halachic argument to explain why this verse also applied to synagogues.
Even among those who agreed that a mechitza was needed, there were still disputes about the nature of the mechitza and its purpose. Rambam’s own discussions of separation of men and women gave two possible reasons: men and women mixing and men seeing women.
The lack of a firm argument caused polarizing responses. On one end, liberal Jews gave up on mechitzas and women’s galleries all together or else regarded them as merely custom. At the other extreme, in 1866 Shlomo Ganzfried the Rabbi of Ungvar, the author of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch along with 70 other rabbis signed a declaration declaring that the Mechitza was necessary to prevent men and women from seeing each other.
However, many Orthodox affiliated synagogues in the USA had mixed seating up through the first half of the twentieth century. Others simply sat men and women separately on either side of an aisle or knee-high divider.
This changed when Moshe Feinstein did a careful analysis of different technical categories of holiness (kedusah) and concluded that a building built and used solely for the purposes of prayer and study fell into the same category of holiness as the Beit haMikdash. Thus both a dedicated synagogue building and the Beit haMikdash required a Mechitza. As a result of his teshuva, mechitza gained a firm footing in the Orthodox community, even in communities that previously had mixed seating.
Because of the way the argument is built around the k’dusha, Feinstien’s argument for mechitza only applies to dedicated permanent locations for prayer. Any temporary venue for prayer requires neither mechitza nor even separate seating. Thus a sports stadium does not need a mechitza. The money spent on this mechitza places a chumra over explicit biblical comands to feed the hungry, facilitate marriage and procreation, and nurture Jewish identity and learning.