I find myself fascinated by this article in Haaretz. While I myself would not to live the lifestyle of complete segregation of genders, even in one’s home, I am not looking to offer a critique of this Hasidic practice. Rather, I would like to comment on the article’s descriptions as to why separate tables has become a way of life for many in the Hasidic world.
Gender separation in schools and synagogues has always been an important facet of ultra-Orthodox life and is generally not contested. But the Hasidic members of the ultra-Orthodox community are now determined to extend gender separation to other venues in the public domain, such as banquet halls, buses, health clinics, and even some sidewalks in Jerusalem on certain days of the Jewish calendar.
Among the various Hasidic sects, the Gur Hasidim are known to be most vigilant, going so far as to keep tabs on the activities of families and couples to ensure that the rules of gender separation are not violated. Among the most devout Gur Hasidim, a married couple will never be seen walking together in the street. Instead, the husband will walk ahead and the woman will follow, a few paces behind him. Not surprisingly, when gender separation was first instituted on buses about a decade ago, it began on those lines traveling from Jerusalem to Gur Hasidic neighborhoods in Bnei Brak and Ashdod.
Hebrew University lecturer Dr. Benjamin Brown, who specializes in Jewish philosophy and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, notes: “In the Gur Hasidic community, measures are taken to ensure that there is no mutual understanding between men and women, even between husband and wife.” Total gender segregation, especially among adolescents and young adults, he notes, is enforced. For this reason, a yeshiva student in the Gur community will never be present in the same house with a female guest, even if the female guest is a relation of a young woman who has just become engaged to a brother of the yeshiva student. Similarly, when they are invited to the wedding of a peer, Gur Hasid yeshiva students stay only for the ceremony and do not partake in the subsequent banquet. They also make a point of avoiding conversations even with their sisters-in-law.
According to Brown, this rigorous code of conduct is rooted in a desire to maintain what Gur Hasidim call “sanctity” in day-to-day life. It was formulated as a response to the appeal made by their legendary leader Rabbi Yisrael Alter (known as the “Beis Yisroel” ), who headed the community from the founding of the State of Israel in May 1948 until his death in 1976, that the principle of “sanctity” be formally integrated into family life. “The motive was not really the promotion of modesty,” Brown explains, “because during this same period, despite the strict code of conduct, women in the Gur Hasidic community always dressed elegantly and maintained a well-groomed appearance.”
When it comes to the general genre of gender separation, it would appear that one of the primary purposes is to increase one’s sanctity. It is interesting to note how within much of the Haredi world, the idea of men learning (not just Torah) from women is not something looked well upon. A women can attend a lecture given by a man, but not the other way around. Much of this is related to the famous words from Psalms, Kol Kavuda Bat Melech Pnimah (45:14 – All glorious is the king’s daughter within the palace). In the context of eating a meal together, it must be that since eating should be a sacred act, the sacredness of eating must not be done in the company of the opposite sex. Further, by sitting together, even at different ends of the table, there is an increased possibility of social interactions, which would invalidate the sacredness of the meal. A final thought comes to mind as well.
For the Hasidic world, based on an idea of the ARI, the table is like a miniature mizbeach. As such, the food we eat represents qodshim, which are to be eaten in a state of purity, The table therefore cannot be hindered by gender mixing, as the meal is symbolic of partaking of the sacrifices in the Temple.
Nava Wasserman, who is preparing her doctoral dissertation on Gur Hasidism at Bar-Ilan University, notes that the Beis Yisroel also favored separate tables for men and women. However, she points out, not all Gur Hasidim accept this strict code of conduct and there are no widely accepted norms in the community. Instead, each family applies the code or deviates from it, as it sees fit.
“In any event,” says Wasserman, “no one wants to see the woman of the family being forced to eat in the kitchen.”
But according to a Gur Hasid who asked to remain anonymous, when there are many guests for a meal and there is simply not enough space to accommodate them in the dining room or living room, the women sit in the kitchen. Whenever men and women sit separately, he notes, the men serve themselves so at least the women do not have to stand around, waiting to serve them.
To me, this was the most telling part. I remember one meal at my Rabbi’s house, a chabad Rabbi, during Sukkot, when the men ate in the sukkah and the women ate indoors. What was interesting about this separation was that the only reason was due to space limitations. For many in these Hasidic communities, space is a real problem. Even if one never invites non-family guests over, tables are full and sometimes it just becomes less of hassle to separate eating spaces instead of playing games. It is like setting up a kids table when one has many guests. It is not because kids shouldn’t be at the table, but there is no room and it becomes easier to separate kids and adults.
About the in-laws
Over the years, the Gur Hasidim have become somewhat more flexible on this point, and in recent years, according to Brown, have opened their code of conduct to internal debate. Meanwhile, other Hasidic sects, such as Slonim and Toldot Aharon, have gradually become influenced by the Gur way of life and have begun to apply similar prohibitions in the area of marital relations. In addition, in many Hasidic families, Brown emphasizes, when guests are invited for dinner, there are always separate tables for men and women. Gender segregation often begins when the nuclear family expands, as children marry and sons-in-law and daughters-in-law are brought into the fold.
According to halakha (Jewish religious law), brothers-in-law are not relatives of the first degree. As such, they are prohibited from listening to a woman in their wife’s family sing and they are not allowed to be alone with any of the female members of their wife’s family. Thus, in Hasidic families, brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law never sit around and engage in small talk. Instead, they keep their distance from one another.
This is another challenge that is faced. In addition to the shock of men and women coming together in marriage when neither side has a good understanding of the other gender, but then there is the greater challenge of interacting with others of the opposite gender who are not directly related. As such, many find their meals more comfortable with less intermingling. Nevertheless, there is a clear distinction between separate areas of the table and relegating women to eating in the kitchen.