Ethically, should an observant (traditional or trthodox) Jewish man attend a shiva minyan when it is not known if there will be a mechitzah (divider separating the genders during prayers)? If there isn't one, can he still attend & be counted, even if he doesn't daven (pray)?
HaRav Moshe Feinstein, of blessed Memory, was considered the Halachic arbiter of Orthodox synagogue guidelines. In a posthumous publication of his responsa, the following is reported.
Rav Moshe was concerned with whether it was necessary to have a Mechitzah separating the men and women sections for prayer, in the event that there were only one or two women. He notes: "Throughout the generations the common custom was for a poor woman to be in the Bet haMidrash to receive charity, or as a mourner to recite Kaddish." His response was that a Mechitzah was necessary even for one woman [who attended] on a regular basis. On an occasional basis, it was not necessary, should only one or two women be present. (Igerot Moshe, Vol. 8, Orech Chayyim 5:12b)
Note the terminology and the concern. Rav Moshe does not question the propriety of the woman who comes to the Bet haMidrash to recite Kaddish. He seems to assume that there are no Halachic qualms at all with such a function of women at religious services.
The only problem is whether there needs be a Mechitzah during her recital. Indeed, it is apparent that Rav Moshe accepts a woman reciting Kaddish as a normal, unquestionable practice.
In addition,there seems to be a leniency in that for a few women a Mechitzah is not necessary on an occasional basis. A “shiva House”is definitely an occasional situation. As such, at a Shiva minyon it would be permitted for an Orthodox person to attend even without a Mechitzah, providing there are only a few women.
Thank you for this very interesting and relevant question. I appreciate the opportunity to study this issue through varying perspectives, as this is an issue that involves each of the Jewish ideological streams.
First, it is important to understand the mechitzah (partition) itself from both a historical perspective and halakhic perspective. From the historical perspective, we know that the mechitzah did not exist in the ancient synagogue. The first explicit account appears in the eleventh century in Egyptian Genizah fragments as a compromise with the Muslim custom, which did not permit women to enter the mosque at all. In fact, there is no basis for separating men and women in the synagogue in the Talmud or in any Rabbinic literature until the end of nineteenth century.
I should mention here that Talmud (Sukkah 51b-52a) describes the need to erect a balcony between men and women at the annual Water-Drawing Ceremony (Simchat Beit ha-Sho’evah) described in the Mishnah in order to prevent “frivolous behavior.” Some Orthodox authorities, including Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, draw from this that the separation between men and women is ordained from the Torah and included in the original Temple plans. But this is not evident from the sources at all. No mention of such a separation is in the Bible nor the Mishnah nor the Tosefta. It is clearly a Talmudic enactment specifically referring to improve the celebration of the Water-Drawing Ceremony alone.
Moreover, from a halakhic perspective, due to the absence of any explicit mention of segregating the sexes in the Talmud and other major halakhic works, the use of a mechitzah is widely understood to be a custom rather than Jewish law (Halakhah). It is true that customs can have the same force as law especially when general society reinforces the underlying idea and premise of the custom. That however is not at all the case with the mechitzah. We live in a much different society today than even a hundred years ago and men are used to being with women in all sorts of circumstances. Therefore, the mechitzah may be abolished on the basis of the changing nature of our society and culture. For more on the history and Halakhah of mechitzah see http://www.responsafortoday.com/images/Lil1-e.pdf
In light of this historical and halakhic perspective, a Jew may be counted in a non-mechitzahminyan for any occasion. By extension, the ethical thing to do for an observant Jew would be to attend the shivaminyan without a mechitzah, and he can and should be counted in the minyan.
For an Orthodox Jew participating in a Shiva minyan without a mechitzah constitutes a violation of halacha to which he is committed and therefore he cannot attend the Shiva minyan. This does not relieve him of the obligation to comfort the mourner and he should make a visit during Shiva. If his merely being present allows him to be counted in the minyan and does not constitute a violation of the halacha it would be the ethical thing to do. It is important to understand that those who are committed to an halachic way of life have no choice but to follow the halacha. Those who are not committed to the halacha should try to understand that this may mean that sometimes a person cannot do something that would seem appropriate to those who are not halachically observant.
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