HALACHA IS ALSO A POLITICAL DEVICE
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.).