Question: What is a Mechitza?
Answer: A Mechitza (partition) is a divider used to separate men and women in Orthodox synagogues and at some Orthodox religious celebrations.
The women's section of the synagogue is called the Ezrat Nashim (women's area) after a similar area in the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Source of the Mechitza
In the Temple in Jerusalem, a divider between the sexes was used during the Sukkoth Water Drawing Ceremony (Simchat Beit HaShoevah). Each year a balcony was created for this festive ceremony. The women sat on the balcony, and the men sat below. The balcony was built to ensure the people would be more focused and less frivolous during the joyful ceremony.
According to the Talmud (Sukkah 51b, 52a), the rabbis based their decision to have this balcony assembled for this ceremony in the Temple each year on a verse in Zechariah (Zechariah 12:12). Zechariah prophesied that men and their wives would mourn separately when Moshiach ben Yosef (the redeemer who will help usher in the Messianic era by preparing the world for the coming of the Messiah) would be killed. The rabbis of the Talmud decided that if a sad occasion necessitated a separation between men and women, then the happy Water Drawing Ceremony when the Evil Inclination is certainly present - also necessitates a separation between the sexes.
Use of the Mechitza in Judaism Today
Thus, some Orthodox rabbis believe that the balcony in the Temple was biblically ordained. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a vocal adherent of this belief, declared that Orthodox Jews are prohibited from praying in synagogues without Mechitzot. There are other Orthodox rabbis who believe that use of a Mechitza to separate between the sexes in the synagogue is an ancestral custom. And they believe that such customs cannot be changed. Whether use of the Mechitza is based on binding law or custom, the overriding policy in Orthodox Judaism today is to separate men and women worshippers via a Mechitza.
In contrast, the Mechitza is rarely seen in Conservative synagogues today. The Conservative Movement does permit use of the Mechitza, and there are some Conservative synagogues (in Canada, Israel, and Europe) that use a Mechitza or seat men and women separately without a partition. However, the Conservative Movement, which places great emphasis on egalitarianism, views use of the Mechitza as a matter of custom and not of law. And as a custom, the movement sees the Mechitza as subject to rabbinic re-examination according to the changing nature of things today. Rabbi David Golinkin wrote in his responsum that there is already enough alienation and loneliness in modern families. The synagogue should be a place which brings families together and not one which separates them.
Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism
Mechizot are not used in Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues. In these more liberal synagogues, men and women sit side by side and pray together.