Gender separation in Judaism

In Judaism, especially in Orthodox tradition, there are a number of settings in which men and women are kept separate in order to conform with various elements of halakha and to prevent men and women from mingling. Other forms of Judaism rarely separate genders any more than secular western society.


There are a variety of reasons in Judaism that are used to justify gender separation to varying degrees.

In Pirkei Avot 1:5, Yosi ben Yochanan says that a man who spends too much time talking to women, even his wife, neglects the study of Torah and will inherit gehinnom.[1]

Chapter 152 of Kitzur Shulchan Aruch details a series of laws forbidding interaction between persons of the opposite sex who are not married or closely related.[2] Some of the prohibitions include physical contact, isolation with members of the opposite sex, staring at women or any of their body parts or attire, or conversation for pleasure.

By setting


Main article: Mechitza

During prayer services in Orthodox synagogues, seating is always separate. A mechitza is used to divide the men and women, and often to block the view from one section to the other, though mechitza heights and opacity vary by synagogue.

Conservative, Reform, and other types of synagogues generally do not have separate seating.

Western Wall

While during the late 19th century, no formal segregation of men and women was to be found at the Wall,[3] conflict erupted in July 1968 when members of the World Union for Progressive Judaism were denied the right to host a mixed-gender service at the site after the Ministry of Religious Affairs insisted on maintaining the gender segregation customary at Orthodox places of worship. The progressives responded by claiming that "the Wall is a shrine of all Jews, not one particular branch of Judaism."[4] In 1988, Women of the Wall launched a campaign for recognition of women's right to pray at the Wall in their fashion.[5][6] Their form and manner of prayer elicited a violent response from some Orthodox worshippers and they were initially banned from holding services at the site. In response to the repeated arrests of women, including Anat Hoffman, trying to exercise their freedom of religion, the Jewish Agency observed 'the urgent need to reach a permanent solution and make the Western Wall once again a symbol of unity among the Jewish people, and not one of discord and strife." The Israeli Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the Women of the Wall have the right to worship in their fashion.[7]

Women of the Wall has also protested the fact that at Hanukkah every year a giant menorah is erected in the men’s section of the Western Wall and each night of the eight nights of the festival, male rabbis and male politicians are honored, while women are kept at a distance, where they are barely able to see the ceremony. At the Women of the Wall ceremony, women brought their personal menorahs. They invited Jews around the world to light a candle for WoW on the third night of Hanukkah.[8] Western Wall rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, accused WoW of ulterior motives of trying to change the customs at the Wall. Responding to Rabinowitz' accusation, Anat Hoffman noted: "Rabinowitz has never invited Women of the Wall or any other women to participate in the ceremonies or to be honored with the lighting of a candle at the Kotel on Hanukkah, despite the fact that women are obligated equally to men in this religious act.” In 2014 the personal menorahs the women brought to the Kotel were initially confiscated, but they were returned when police were called.[9][10]

Weddings and Bar Mitzvahs

At many Orthodox weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs, seating at the ceremony and often the reception is separate, sometimes with a mechitza.


A sign forbidding men entering the women's section a Tel-Aviv beach, 1927

In Orthodox Judaism, many believe that men and women should not swim together. The laws prohibiting mixed bathing are derived from the laws of tzniut. This is due to concerns that bathing suits are inherently immodest, and do not meet tzniut requirements. In particular, a woman who comes dressed in a bathing suit to a pool is appearing publicly not meeting the requirements of tzniut, and a man who comes to a pool where women are dressed in bathing suits will inevitably see women dressed in this manner. Indeed, many pools within Jewish communities have separate hours for male and female swimming to accommodate those who follow this law.

Some women following the laws of tzniut will wear a long T-shirt style dress over their bathing suit that meets tzniut requirements, considering this to be sufficient for swimming in the presence of men. Men, though, are more strict about the presence of immodestly-dressed women, due to concerns over the possibility of arousal.

Conservative, Reform, and other forms of Judaism do not have any restrictions on mixed swimming. Some Modern Orthodox Jews will also participate in mixed swimming.


Some ultra-Orthodox communities enforce or attempt to enforce gender segregation on sidewalks. In New Square, N.Y., signs remain posted telling women to abide by modesty rules, and streets are strictly separated by gender, with women on the opposite side as men.[11] In the Mea Shearim section of Jerusalem, some ultra-Orthodox Jews have also tried to segregate sidewalks.[12]

Parks and athletic facilities

At Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic community in New York, a public park was opened that included separate sections for boys and girls, with a great distance between. Rabbi Gedalia Segdin, the town's treasurer, announced the park would be under the scrutiny of the town "Modesty Committee" to ensure gender segregation. Yiddish signs distributed throughout the park making sure everyone kept to their specified color. Civil rights organizations protested gender segregation in a public space in New York.[13]


Orthodox Jews do not participate in mixed dancing, since dancing in most forms involves some contact between dancers.

In 2013, the Rabbinical Court of the Ashkenazi Community in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Beitar Illit ruled against Zumba (a type of dance fitness) classes, although they were held with a female instructor and all-female participants.[14][15] The Court said in part, "both in form and manner, the activity [Zumba] is entirely at odds with both the ways of the Torah and the holiness of Israel, as are the songs associated to it." [16]


Some followers of Haredi Judaism have taken on the practice of separate seating while traveling. These range from abstaining to sitting adjacent to a member of the opposite sex, to having separate vehicles altogether.

When Haredi have attempted to enforce gender segregation on public transportation such as buses and airlines, conflict with anti-discrimination laws have sometimes ensued. There have been complaints by airline passengers who have been subjected to Orthodox male passengers attempting to impose gender segregation on flights.[17] The New York Times interviewed Anat Hoffman on the phenomenon on ultra-Orthodox males asking female passengers on airlines to move. IRAC had started a campaign urging women not to give up their seats.[18] In Israel, religious practice and civil rights have come into conflict in the running of Mehadrin bus lines.

El Al airlines has future plans to fly single-gender flights for Haredi Jews following this practice.[19]

See also


  3. The Women's Wall Tablet Magazine, 30 April 2013
  4. From the Archive: First rumblings in the battle for pluralism at the Western Wall JTA, 24 April 2015
  5. "Mission Statement". Women of the Wall - נשות הכותל. Archived from the original on March 8, 2016.
  6. "History". Women of the Wall - נשות הכותל.
  7. Kershner, Isabel (April 11, 2013). "Court Rules for Women in Western Wall Dispute". New York Times.
  8. "'Light One Candle with Women of the Wall' (Dec 11) Women of the Wall"
  9. "Maltz, Judy 'Rabbi bans Women of the Wall's Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony' (Dec 14, 2014) Haaretz"
  10. "Judy Maltz 'Sarah Silverman joins Women activists at Western Wall Hanukkah ceremony: Kotel security confiscates prayer group's menorahs, returned only after complaint lodged with police.' (18 Dec 2014) Haaretz"
  11. Sex-Segregation Spreads Among Orthodox The Forward, October 28, 2011
  12. Gender segregation on rise in Israel YNET, Nov 15, 2011
  17. IRAC Newsletter " Rights on Flights" 5 Jan 2015
  18. When a Plane Seat Next to a Woman Is Against Orthodox Faith The New York Times, 9 April 2015
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