Explained: separation of men and women during traditional Jewish prayer services
Bestselling author and rabbi Joseph Telushkin explains the reasons behind separation of men and women in a traditional synagogue setting:
Today, many non-Orthodox Jews feel that a separate women’s section is offensive, that it consigns women to an inferior status. While there are Orthodox laws that clearly disadvantage women–most notable, the laws of divorce–it is by no means clear that the mekhitza [DM: partition erected in the seating section of an Orthodox synagogue to prevent the mixing of men and women] is, or was, intended to be discriminatory. It seems, rather, to have been a response to human nature. G-d is abstract, and it is an effort for people to focus on an abstract Deity while praying. For me, and I think for many other men, it is a natural reaction to look around when a group of women is present and let one’s gaze rest on a pretty woman. Indeed, people usually dress up before going to synagogue, in an effort to look attractive. In the “battle” between an intangible G-d and a tangible member of the opposite sex, Jewish law assumed that the tangible member is more likely to win. Hence, the physical separation can help bring about spiritual concentration for both sexes.
… The issue of the mekhitza provokes powerful emotions in Jewish life. Jewish feminists have on occasion demanded that all Jews committed to women’s rights refuse to attend any service in which women are segregated and denied public participation. Orthodox Jews, on the other hand–men and women alike–, will not participate in a service at which men and women sit together. (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History, pp. 645f.)