Monday, August 17, 2015

Ira Eisenstein, Baruch Litvin, and the Mechitzah

Ira Eisenstein, a founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, along with Mordechai Kaplan ( his future father-in-law), was known for his strong stance against the use of mechitzahs, and Reconstructionist synagogues from their very founding, did not employ a mechitza.

From American Jewish Archives, Spring Summer 1996: In the opinion of his biographer, Mel Scult, "Some of Kaplan's most significant departures from traditional norms concerned the role of women. Kaplan had supported women's suffrage from the pulpit of the Jewish Center, preached several sermons dealing with women in the Bible and  in Jewish history, insisted that women and men have equal voting rights in that institution and continued to encourage women's participation at the SAJ. He advocated mixed seating in both synagogues, but was forced to compromise on this issue (i.e., separate seating but with no mechitza curtain or partition at the Jewish Center). It is well known that he introduced the first Bat Mitzvah ceremony at the SAJ for his daughter, Judith, in 1922, only a few months after its founding. Of course, it was some time before women gained full equality in the congregation;  according to Jack Wertheimer, they were not counted in the minyan or called to the Torah until 1951. The opposition of some members of the congregation slowed the process of women's acceptance, as is evident in the 1945 debate regarding the granting of aliyot (blessings before and after the Torah readings) girls post Bat Mitzvah or confirmation. Kaplan was in favor of the proposal, and opinion was divided among the SAJ membership. A decision-to be made by the members was postponed pending further discussion. Nevertheless, women achieved significant equality at  the SAJ long before the issue was even raised in other American synagogues, and gender equality has remained a central principle of the Reconstructionist movement.

It was thus amusing to see a copy of Baruch Litvin's landmark pro-mechitza book, The Sanctity of the synagogue, warmly inscribed by the author to Ira Eisenstein, "that he may personally review it and "Hew to the line, and let the chips fall where they may". Trying to win him over perhaps?

The Sanctity of the Synagogue, inscribed by the author to Eisenstein

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