I recently received a Bar Mitzvah invitation that was addressed to “Teddy Weinberger and his spouse.” The Hebrew text of the invitation was fairly standard, thanking God and giving the details of the celebration. Standard too, unfortunately (since the family in question is ultra-Orthodox), was the fact that for each of the three sets of couples that appeared at the end of the invitation (the parents and the two sets of grandparents), the woman’s name was designated as had been my wife’s on the envelope: “and his spouse.” Apparently, it is immodest for a woman’s name to appear in print.
The invitation was at the cutting edge of what passes for women’s modesty these days in Israel: a restriction on women’s presence so that, ideally, there is no presence left. Other examples: certain public bus lines that travel through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods are segregated by gender, women’s images on public advertisements are frequently defaced, ultra-Orthodox men refuse to sit next to women on airplanes and very religious male soldiers refuse to be instructed by female soldiers or to hear them sing at army ceremonies.
I might have been prepared to overlook Sarah’s absence from the invitation, were it not for the fact that at such a Bar Mitzvah men and women are seated separately. And unlike a few years ago, when I attended the Bar Mitzvah of this family’s older son, I have consciously made a decision that may sound humorous but is really very important to proclaim: I only attend celebrations where there is mixed seating. You probably have never heard of such a policy. What you might have heard about is the practice of only attending a simcha if there is separate seating for men and women. This “custom” is relatively new. Decades ago one could find even ultra-Orthodox rabbis at simcha tables seated alongside their wives, and it is only fairly recently that such a practice has become treif. Yes, separate dancing (where the women cannot be seen) is no longer enough to appease the strictly Orthodox. Separate seating is de rigeur if you wish to have “very religious” people as your guests.
It’s time for Orthodox people like myself to speak up and say that we don’t enjoy simchot without our spouses present beside us. But perhaps this will lead to temptation? Perhaps. Life is full of temptations, and one cannot eliminate them. I just know that a simcha is literally supposed to be joyous, and I will not be fully happy if my wife is seated beyond a separating partition.
Did I call up the family of the Bar Mitzvah boy and tell them why I wouldn’t be attending the simcha? No, of course not. I took the easy way out and did not respond and did not attend the Bar Mitzvah. (Like many simchot in the ultra-Orthodox world, the invitation arrived without a request for an RSVP. I’m not sure what the the ultra-Orthodox tell their caterers, but they must over time have worked out some kind of formula.)
I strongly believe that the modern religious have to stop acting as if the more stringencies the better. Because guess what? Sometimes stringencies are not stringencies. Sometimes stringencies are just plain old wrong. Forcing families to separate when they come to your simcha is wrong. So if you want me to dance (okay with men only) at your wedding, make it a mixed seating event, and if you can refer to my wife as “Sarah Ross” on the invitation’s envelope, that would really make us happy.