Photo Credit: Sarah Schuman/ FLASH90


It is important to note regarding the quarter century struggle of the Women of the wall, that its historic roots are in a very American religious reality. The origin of the heat with which the Women of the Wall are attacking their target, and the heat with which they are fought back, is not in the Shulchan Aruch, but in the war to the death that was waged in the 1950s in the United States, between the Orthodox and the Conservative movements. Most of the Conservative rabbis in those days began their careers in the Orthodox world and were simply tempted by the higher salaries and better benefits provided by the new Conservative congregations that were popping around the U.S. after WW2. The members of those congregations didn’t want to sever themselves completely from the yoke of Jewish halacha, as the Reform had done. They were merely seeking a “halacha lite,” that would permit them to sit next to the wife during the service, and many more “heiterim.”


To this day, the Conservative movement holds on to its own version of halacha which, in most cases, is written with no less talent and knowledge than its Orthodox equivalents, to the point where its creativity and daring generate a jealous reaction in Modern Orthodox Jews like myself (despite what I might think of the actual level of adherence of the average Conservative layman to the mitzvot as they define them). This is why the Orthodox community has waged a battle to the death against the Conservatives, because they—and not the Reform—pose a danger to Rabbinic Judaism.

The historic Reform movement had no notion of talitot and teffilin for any of the congregants. The service at the Temple looked more like a church ceremony than anything Jewish at all (to this day, the Reform rabbi officiating the service faces the congregation, just as in a church). Only the Conservatives maintained any kind of real ties to Jewish tradition, and therefore it was there that the feminine yearnings for praying with talit and teffilin sprouted.

In the view of all the senior leaders of Orthodox Judaism, the Conservative movement posed an existential threat against Torah Judaism. The Reform were completely outside the fence, and therefore not a threat at all.

But the leaders of Orthodox Judaism in the U.S. were determined to stop the Conservatives, in whom they recognized the threat of a social landslide—a landslide much more severe than the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskala) movement of the mid 1800s, or the Political Zionism of the turn of the 20th century. This is because both those earlier movements came out while the mighty tree trunk of Polish Jewry was still at the peak of its prowess, whereas in the 1950s it was not at all a sure thing that the Orthodox world could survive the death blow it received in the Holocaust, having lost its spiritual center of the previous 500 years in Poland. It was a time for fortification, and the Orthodox leadership in the U.S. fortified and then some.

The greatest mind of that generation, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, was the most profound banner bearer of that war. Rabbi Feinstein is universally praised for his courageous and innovative rulings over the years during which he served as the halachic authority for North American Jews. We mustn’t forget that his halachic rulings were given in the midst of the grandest technological developments prior to the Internet era. On transplants, for instance, including heart transplants, Rabbi Feinstein was a fierce trailblazer, recognizing brain death as the moment following which a heart may be harvested and installed in another person – an act which until then was considered by halacha to constitute murder.

The same courageous and innovative Rabbi Feinstein more than once ruled based on what he identified as the critical political needs of the Orthodox community in the U.S. He did not hesitate to forbid certain things only for the sake of separating the Orthodox from the Conservative (For instance, Rabbi Feinstein permitted the use of an electronic hearing aid on Shabbat, by an individual, while almost with the same breath he prohibited the use of a microphone in synagogue on Shabbat, even though both devices are technologically identical. His purpose in forbidding the mic was so that an Orthodox synagogue won’t resemble a Conservative synagogue.).



  1. Sorry, but if it is acceptable according to halachah, it is no threat to rabbinic Judaism or to our identity as a people. What IS a threat is trying to change halachah to permit the forbidden, or to forbid the permitted. The latter is happening here.

  2. Charlie Hall — I'm not sure we agree on the definition of "halacha." Maimonides defines the three crucial components of becoming a Jew as being two trivial and one primary. The trivial ones are the circumcision and the dipping in a mikveh. The primary is adherence to the yoke of the sages.

    Ruling halacha on a national level requires considerations beyond whether something has been permitted previously, but it must consider the current conditions, socially and otherwise.

    On countless occasions, our sages have ruled in ways that seem completely counter-indicated by the law. That's what they do, that's why we appointed them. Et la'asot l'Hashem, heferu toratecha.

  3. Yori Yanover But don't take my word for it. Since you brought up Maimonides, here's Issurei Bia 13:4 and 14:2 (trans. E. Touger):

    Similarly, for [all] future generations, when a gentile desires to enter into the covenant, take shelter under the wings of the Divine presence, and accept the yoke of the Torah, he must undergo circumcision, immersion, and the offering of a sacrifice. A woman [who converts] must undergo immersion and bring a sacrifice.

    We inform him of the fundamentals of the faith… We inform him about some of the easy mitzvot and some of the more severe ones… We do not teach him all the particulars lest this cause him concern and turn him away from a good path to a bad path.

  4. Charlie, that is clearly not true as a matter of halachik jurisprudence. There are numerous instances in the Talmud about Chazal punishing technically legal acts because they perceived them to be some sort of threat to Judaism, legitimate authority, social order, ect. There is an entire siman of Choshen Mishpat devoted to this issue (siman 2, as well as the last half of siman 1). I always find it strange how Jews on the MO left like to view the concept of halacha in a narrow technical sense when they want to use it to find a leniency, tend to invoke all of the broad principles when such are needed in order to direct halacha in the way they want it to go, but ignore those broad principles when they can be leigtimately used to urge stringency or concersvatsim in halachic practice.

  5. Yori, I'm concerned that in your entire discussion, there is no mention of the Sephardim. Why are they not part of this argument? They predate the Ashkenazim in Israel and certainly must have a position on this conflict.

  6. "leigtimately used to urge stringency or concersvatsim in halachic practice."

    Forbidding what previous sages have not permitted is NOT conservativism.

    The Rabbinate is perfectly willing to innovate in halachah, such as when it pasuled thousands of conversions without investigating each case and insisted that all must accept that decision. Fortunately the religious judge on the Israeli Supreme Court overturned that ruling. Another example is the declaration that believing that the universe is <6000 years old is now in ikkar of faith, despite the fact that no previous source insists on that and it is clear from rishonim that it is NOT necessary to accept the literal truth of midrashic sources.

    It is ironic that as a result of the rabbinate's insistence on forbidding what is arguably permitted we will now get mixed gender prayer services at the Kotel, which are forbidden according to all halachic opinions.

  7. My rabbi once tried to lead an ordinary orthodox Friday night service at the Kotel, with women on one side of the mechitzah and men on the other. People dressed as charedim pelted him with stones. The police did nothing. This is not about halachah or tradition.

  8. Charlie Hall — It's about who owns this country. I want my Jewish Homeland to be run according to Rabbinic tradition. I certainly want the Jewish holy sites to be run according to Rabbinic law, under the rulings of Rabbinic leaders. It's my home and I get to say how it will be run.

  9. I read the article – unlike some commentators here! It's remarkably comprehensive and thoughtful. I appreciate the author, Yori Yanover's, point that, without spiritual/religious justification for our Jewish presence in the land we're just "a bunch of European colonialists, just as our pals the Palestinians are suggesting." But then he leaps to this conclusion: "the moment we have religious pluralism in the state of Israel, we'll lose our exclusive rights to rule this place." Me, I figure that tussling and wrestling over G'd's will is precisely who and what we are, so it would be extremely weird if we DIDN'T fight with each other like this over proper procedures in the holy places.

  10. Michael Dallen — Obviously, you're right on the tussling and wrestling (is there a professional tussling circuit? I'll bet they fake it). I'm not in favor of police arresting women, but I want my country to be rabbinically-Jewish. I still want it to be democratic, so it's a tough nut to crack. Still, if I made it appear that things were simple over this issue, my profound apologies…

  11. " I'm not in favor of police arresting women, but I want my country to be rabbinically-Jewish."

    I'm not Israeli so I'm not sure I get a vote here, but it does seem weird that the only public place in the entire free world that one can get arrested for praying as a Jew is in the Kotel plaza and the Temple Mount. Even the US State Department has taken note of this lack of religious freedom.

    "I only wonder, on a practical level, what would have happened if, starting 25 years ago, instead of cursing them out and arresting them and schlepping them to court and humiliating them, we would have just tolerated those women coming once a month to sing before the Kotel an hour or two, and go home."

    A really good question, Yori Yanoveri. At least the orthodox members of WOTW would have been quite satisfied with this.

  12. I can't imagine davening/praying at the kotel, the holiest place in the world where one can devote oneself to HaShem, trying to focus on the ineffable with perfect kavanah/devotion, while being stimulated and distracted by kol isha/woman's voice. I'm just a man, not particularly over-sexed, I don't think, but it's the nature of my kind – human males – to alert to the sound and sight of women. Just saying….

  13. I can't imagine davening/praying at the kotel, the holiest place in the world where one can currently worship HaShem, trying to focus on the ineffable with perfect kavanah/devotion, while being stimulated and distracted by kol isha/woman's voice. I'm just a man, not particularly over-sexed, I don't think, but it's the nature of my kind – human males – to alert to the sound and sight of women. So… Just saying….

  14. Noting that the essence of this article is not around the halacha, but rather the impact of the decision, consider the following.
    Those firmly in favour of Rabbinic Judaism will remain in favour.
    Those against will remain against.
    It is those wavering in the middle we must consider.
    I postulate that saying no will drive them towards those against.
    By saying yes we take the wind out of the sails of those against and show that Rabbinic Judaism can be forward thinking and thereby claim the moral highground.I follow his argument, I disagree with the conclusion.

  15. nice article. it is fair what the women are doing. it does not take away from Orthodoxy. WOW should be congratulated even if they pray in the new area. maybe in the future the Haredim will understand their message.

  16. " while being stimulated and distracted by kol isha/woman's voice"

    Except that the sources do not apply kol isha to tefillah, and if you are in the men's section of the Kotel plaza, you would not even be able to see the women.

  17. " You're forgetting that ANY Jew who dares to pray on Temple Mount gets arrested."

    I certainly did not forget that! (I know people who have managed to pray on the Temple Mount and avoid arrest, but I won't say whom because I don't want to cause trouble for them.)

  18. Wowee. Such power he gives WOW. (And he needs to close that italics tag, too.) Seriously: yet another conflation. WOW=Reform Judaism. And we all know that "Reformi" is probably the worst thing one religious Jew here can call another.

  19. I don’t get it. Islam wants to destroy the Jews and control the world. This is recorded in their religion by their insane prophet. Islam has already taken over the Temple Mount on which we hear their daily calls to destroy the Jews and occasionally the Islamists thrown down rocks from the Temple Mount on our heads while we’re praying at the Kotel. Women of the Wall, Jewish for the most part, want to take over the Kotel which is a symbolic portion of a wall adjacent to the Temple Mount and they want to change Judaism to suit their Reform beliefs such as wearing Tallit and Teffilin. The Jewish Press editor supports and defends the Islamic women but rejects the Jewish women. What happened to you Yori when you wrote this article? Did your cat bite you or something? 🙂

  20. Regardless of whether he is right or wrong, the author's logic is horrible and his respect for the sages is shameful. I am troubled by the movement but I wouldn't start grasping for straws to back up my feelings. I hate when people misuse the Torah to back up flawed arguments.

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