The first rabbinic text that explicit forbids gender intermingling during prayer, however, appears only in about the ninth century (Seder Eliahu Rabba, Ch. 9), while the first definitive depiction of a permanent women’s section appears in an 11th century geniza fragment. While the Temple had a so-called “Women’s Courtyard,” some men entered this area for different purposes, such as the Torah reading on Yom Kippur and the Hakhel ceremony (Sota 41b), while women crossed the main “Israelites courtyard” to bring certain sacrifices (Bikkurim 1:5, 3:6). While some point to this phenomenon to show that gender separation was not mandated in the Temple, Orthodox defenders contend that these were temporary intrusions for a specific need. Most Orthodox proponents of a mehitza point to a different Temple ceremony to show the necessity of gender separation.
In describing the seating during the festive water drawing ceremony of Succot, the sages taught, “Originally, women were inside [the gates of the Women’s Courtyard] and men were outside, and they came to frivolity. [The sages] instituted that women would sit outside and men inside, but they still came to frivolity. They therefore instituted that women sit above and men below” (Succa 51). The Talmud further cites a verse from Zechariah to justify this addition to God’s blueprints for the Temple. Orthodox proponents of the mehitza cite this enactment against frivolity as requiring gender separation in synagogues, since Jewish law frequently cites these new houses of worship as “mini sanctuaries.” While Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (d. 1986) argued that erecting a biblical-level law requires an actual physical barrier (Igrot Moshe 1:39), Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (d. 1993) asserted that the barrier itself stems from rabbinic mandate, with the original law only requiring physical separation (Sanctity of the Synagogue, p. 141). Conservative opponents like Rabbi David Golinkin, however, retort that this was a temporary rabbinic enactment for a specific ceremony. Others have accused Orthodox decisors of trumping up severe prohibitions for polemical purposes, an allegation which Rabbi Gil Student has recently attempted to debunk (B.D.D. 17). In 1851, the first American Reform synagogue instituted mixed pews after purchasing its new temple from a church. Prof. Jonathan Sarna has argued that this innovation, and its subsequent spread into other denominations, stemmed from both convenience and a desire to modernize by emulating the decorum of the Christian majority. While certain Conservative rabbis from the Jewish Theological Seminary opposed this innovation, their more compromising or liberal colleagues won the day, especially as the growth of the nascent feminist movement turned the issue into one of egalitarianism. Additionally, the modern motto, “Families that pray together, stay together” became a formidable sociological argument for mixed pews. Orthodox rabbis, however, took an uncompromising stand, deeming such practices beyond the pale. While their seminary graduates continued, until the 1980s, to take positions in synagogues with mixed pews, they frequently demanded, over time, that the synagogue add a mehitza. This partition thus created a clear division between Orthodox and Conservative synagogues,as in other movements , a barrier which came to physically separate men and women and, symbolically, Jew from Jew.