Sadly, I heard this week that a self proclaimed feminist organization is trying to force the entire Jewish community to abandon our tradition--and indeed obligation--to separate men and women during public gatherings. They claim that this violates women’s rights.
I once visited a certain city in Uruguay, and delivered a drasha (discourse) of chizuk (inspiration) to young people. The audience noticed that I avoided looking at the women who attended. Afterwards they asked me in astonishment “Aren’t the women here dressed modestly? Why is the Rebbe avoiding looking at them?” I responding by asking them a question of my own, “What is the divorce rate in this community, and how many couples are living together in harmony their entire married lives?” They replied that unfortunately the divorce rate stood at 60%. I told them that in the frum communities in New York is way lower. A contributing factor to this is that the men avoid looking at women outside of their own family. This brings them, husbands and wives, and the entire family a happy life with much satisfaction. The audience understood my response very well. They conceded that when a man gazes at women, particularly with intent to admire their beauty (an act forbidden by Jewish law), it disrupts Shalom Bayis. This can cause a husband to be unhappy with his wife, which then leads to discord and conflict. The Gemara (Temurah 16a) relates that there once was a certain beautiful woman who when men saw her they would be angry at their own wives’ simple looks. She was given the nickname “Achsa” which in Hebrew contains the letters which make up the word Kaas, Hebrew for anger, due to the anger she introduced to many homes.
When men and women gather together and the men are able to study the women, this causes terrible jealousy and strife between husbands and wives, often leading to claims of infidelity, which destroys harmonious family life, and cause untold pain and damage.
This is even more true today when the world is filled with vulgarity and frivolity, and we must create protective barriors from sin. In the days of the Bais Hamikdash the sages saw that public celebrations could bring about the mingling of men and women, so they instituted that the women watch the festivities from a balcony or behind a mechitza. When people began to pray in synagogues, a mechitza was erected to separate the genders. This was a universal practice which was unchallenged until the nineteenth century when the Maskilim in Germany began to undermine this. This caused the pious rabbis to take a stand and insist that the mechizos be even higher than before.
It is worth relating a story that I heard from my father, the previous Rebbe zt”l. When our family came to the United States we had no means of income and were in terrible financial straits. My father also had tremendous stress from past accumulated debt. In 1949 he was invited to visit the Jewish community of Chicago and meet the local philanthropists who would help him. He arrived to Chicago on a Thursday and planned to spend two Shabbosos there. How shocked the family was when he arrived back home on the first Sunday. We asked him what happened. He told us the following story: On Shabbos morning he went to a certain Orthodox synagogue and noticed that there was only a small mechitza separating the men and women. The Rebbe immediately to the rabbi of the congregation and rebuked him saying “ How do you allow such a thing which goes against Halacha to take place in your synagogue? The rabbi responded “I have absolutely no influence on my congregants in this matter. If the Rebbe wishes to speak to the congregants about this he may do so, but you should know that you will not accomplish anything. You will not convince them to change the mechitza and you will lose any chance of making any money in Chicago.” My father wasn’t fazed by this and went up to the bima and without any preparation delivered a drasha with words that only Hashem placed in his mouth. He spoke about the serious nature of praying with an inadequate mechitza. He ended off by saying that although he came to Chicago to raise much needed funds for his family, he would nevertheless be happy if the congregation used this money to build a kosher mechitza instead. The congregants became very angry and told him in no uncertain terms that he might as well go back home to New York because they have no intention of giving any money, not to him and not for a mechitza. As a result, on Sunday morning my father packed his bags and returned home empty-handed. Our sages teach “Words from the heart penetrate the heart”. A short while after this my father received a letter from that same Chicagoan congregation asking his forgiveness for their rude insolence. They had thought over what had occurred and realized the tremendous sincerity and mesiras nefesh that the Rebbe demonstrated for the sake of the mechitza. They concluded that the Rebbe words were true and correct, and they put together enough money to build a new mechitza , which was kosher according to every opinion. It didn’t take long and the congregation recognized the tremendous value and benefits if the new mechitza. To demonstrate their gratitude to my father, they sent my father financial support every year.
This week’s parsha contains the Ten Commandments. The final commandment begins with “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife etc.“ The Ramban explains that of all a man’s possessions, his wife is most desired by others, and therefore the Torah specifically highlights this.
The question is asked, How could the Torah circumscribe coveting? A person has no control over his thoughts and feelings? Perhaps we can understand this commandment that the Torah is ordering us to take action to prevent coveting, such as proscribing the public mingling of men and women. By doing so we are preventing people from coveting what belongs to others. This is beneficial to men and women and their family, as it is written in the verses which follow in which Hashem says “If only there would be the possibility that your hearts be like this to fear Me and to keep all My commandments all the days, in order to benefit them and their children forever”.