Q. Why do Orthodox synagogues not permit mixed seating?A. In the Temple in Jerusalem the crowds that came to celebrate the festival of the water drawing (simchat bet hasho’evah) on Sukkot were so large and boisterous that, as the Mishnah puts it (Sukkah chapter 5), a gallery was erected in the ezrat nashim, the court of the women, as there was a fear that the overflow of men into the women’s section would lead to levity and immorality. Hence “it was enacted that the women should sit above and the men below” (Sukkah 52b).
It had, however, already been customary that men and women should pray separately: when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea (Ex. 15) Moses and the men, and Miriam and the women, sang their songs of thanksgiving separately.
The halachic position is therefore that separate seating is both the long-established Jewish pattern and also, as Rav Soloveitchik puts it, required by “the Jewish spirit of prayer.”
“Prayer,” he writes, “means communion with the Master of the World and therefore withdrawal from all and everything. During prayer man must feel alone, removed, isolated… The presence of women among men, or of men among women, which often evokes a certain frivolity in the group, can contribute little to sanctification or to the deepening of religious feeling, nor can it help instil that mood in which a man must be immersed when he would communicate with the Almighty… Such a state of being will not be realised amid family pews.”
But if prayer requires existential loneliness, why do we not pray on our own without a congregation? The answer is threefold.
1. King Solomon says, “In the multitude of people is the King glorified” (Proverbs 14:28), i.e. though each worshipper has an individual dialogue with God, all join in a chorus of acclamation of the Creator.
2. Yehudah HaLevi states that in a congregation each worshipper helps the others spiritually: one helps to overcome the spiritual defects or hesitancy of the other.
3. We are at one and the same time separate individuals and members of society.