Tonight for services we visited a much-spoken-of shul called Shirah Chadasha. It's run by an Orthodox community who push the bounds of Orthodoxy with regard to gendered restrictions - most notably, women lead the kabbalat Shabbat services.
We met our friends at the front entrance and walked into the building together. When we arrived at the sanctuary Amanda and I went into the women's section and Daniel and Jon into the men's section. Amanda and I were greeted warmly and ushered into seats. All around us were women, some wearing pants but most wearing long skirts and long-sleeved shirts with high necklines. Several of the women were wearing head coverings. The women smiled at one another in greeting, but mostly were otherwise intense in prayer. Unlike in other traditional prayer environments I've experienced, the women were praying audibly, confidently, reading the words and chanting the melodies aloud. Their voices were solid but delicate, and the music of the prayers filled the modest room. The men sat on the other side of the room, on the other side of the mechitza which was a flimsy white chiffon curtain. They seemed like ghosts clouded, obscured, and distant, praying in partnership with the women, like mirror images, like echoes of our words and motions. There was something beautiful in the separation and the sameness, in seeing one another and yet being apart. And the white of the mechitza made the men seem somehow like the Sabbath bride. I found myself feeling strangely attracted to the mechitza, strangely inspired by it, while nevertheless repulsed by the notion of sex-segregated worship.
The music was beautiful. Melody followed melody, each intertwining with improvised harmonies from both sides of the curtain, as though the men and women were reaching accross to one another, defying and celebrating their separation. The beauty of the voices - and they really were quite talented singers -moved me, and though I had come to the services in order to say I had been to this synagogue, in order to experience a new cultural curiosity, and certainly not in order to pray, I found myself praying.
I did not expect to like Shira Chadasha - I was predisposed to think that any place that separates by sex was not a place in which I would comfortably be able to pray, because it is a place that perpetuates social injusitice and inequality. Although my feelings at Shira Chadasha directly contradicted my sense of disapproval of sex-segregated prayer, I am still not convinced that Shira Chadasha is doing enough - often people speak of this synagogue as "so progressive for Orothox", as really unusual, as making great strides. And before I visited I was frustrated with this idea, because they were still separating by sexes, and so they simply weren't doing enough. I felt this way and I still feel this way. And yet...I also really enjoyed services this evening, found them meaningful, perhaps, because of the beauty of coming together through separation, of separating to find one another in sound and voices, because of the eerie, holy sensation of seeing another through a veil, of the transformation of the familiar, of the community created by breaking the whole into halves. And so, I am torn about Shira Chadasha. I disapprove, and I am moved.