Certain reagents used in chemistry are called “pyrophoric,” for a unique property they possess: spontaneous reaction with oxygen or water vapor to ignite. These reagents are strong bases and are extremely useful in synthesis, but their inherent danger demands an absolute focus on the task at hand whenever they’re being used. When I’m working with pyrophoric materials, I’m thinking of nothing but the pyrophoric material in front of me.
Prayer experiences with this same intensity are rare but incredible. Lately, a major distraction of mine in trying to get to that state are structural issues with prayer that come from being gay. Thinking about my sexual orientation is the main distraction which infringes on my religious life in a way that it doesn’t in my life in the lab, and one of the main things that causes me to think about my sexual orientation while praying is the mechitza. It can cause certain distractions of attraction.
If I was working with n-butyllithium, a pyrophoric regent, I would clear my schedule for the afternoon, remove any superfluous materials from my fume hood, and plan out what I was going to do step-by-step before any chemicals were opened. The idea is to minimize surprises, because when working with pyrophorics, unexpected distractions can be dangerous.
One of the results, for me, of intense focus during prayer is a heightened emotional awareness. In the case of these distractions of attraction, this means that unpleasant emotions feel a bit more urgent or dramatic. My biggest problem with this heightened awareness, however, is the way it amplifies the feeling that these distractions are a minority issue. It’s not pleasant to feel like you’re one of a few, or perhaps the only one, whose needs are not being met by the structure of the prayer space, and further to feel that perhaps you are the only one who cares about that. The first time these thoughts entered my mind, I avoided the mechitza for at least the next month.
Does this structural feature of the synagogue have a logical queer defense? Rabbi Steven Greenberg has done much to improve LGBT inclusion in Jewish life, and in his book, Wrestling with God and Men, he offers a lot of solutions to dilemmas I’ve faced . Right around the time he was coming out, however, he published an article, “The Mechitza and Community“, that I find absolutely mystifying. In this article, he writes about a joyous celebration in which he recognized the value of the mechitza as opening up a “wider range of emotional expression than would otherwise be possible” for men. Regarding the men’s side of the mechitza at this gathering, he writes, “[e]ither the presence of women in their midst would have transformed the ecstatic gathering of men into an orgiastic rite or (more likely) it would have worked to tone down the male wildness, to … mute the emotional power of the event.”
“Personally,” he continues, “I have come to feel that there is a quality of community enjoyed by men and women who pray separately that cannot be attained in mixed pews.” Though I can see why that makes sense for the heterosexual majority, I can’t say that I’ve ever personally felt it at all, because anyone around whom I have ever felt a need to tone down my behavior for reasons of attraction was sitting on my side. In terms of prayer safety, what I’ve actually discovered is that “a wider range of emotional expression” is closed off to gay Jews when praying in Orthodox settings.
Observant life is not designed with the intention of helping people reach a state of intense focus during prayer all the time, or even all that often. But still, straight community members experiencing the emotional vulnerability of those occasional focused prayer experiences are shielded from distractions by the mechitza in a way that gays and lesbians are not. This has led me to conclude that I need to put my trust in other members of the community. When you’re working with pyrophorics, you let your lab-mates know that you’re working with pyrophorics. This puts them on alert both for their own safety and for your safety, as you will not alone save yourself from an n-butyllithium fire. Even if I am to face surprise distractions which lead to discomfort during prayer, I have to believe that they won’t be so uncomfortable as to turn me off from observant Judaism completely.
It’s likely that the mechitza will remain a part of my life for the foreseeable future. I agree that it can be a useful institution for most, which is why I can accept it, with this request to my straight peers. Look out for the people who are choosing to show up in these spaces which are not ideally structured for them, and understand the challenges they present. To queer Jews, the mechitza can come across as saying, “You do not belong. Our society is not meant to support you.” I hope there is a significant population who do not believe this is the case.