How do we want our views to be remembered in 100 years?

By Jennifer Lipman, June 7, 2013

They "assert these things with a violence bordering on mental aberration," complained one aggrieved gentleman in a letter to this newspaper a century ago. "Things are implied, all of which are the last word in absurdity to the really Jewish imagination."

The source of such frothing outrage? A rabbinic proclamation that Shabbat was to be cancelled every other week, but Yom Kippur would be observed twice? A claim that Moses had actually just got frightfully lost? In fact, it was the extension of a basic measure of equality. With the Great War still a year away, votes for women was the issue of the day and, as history tells us, it wasn't quite the self-evident reform we now see it as.

Our disgruntled writer went on: "A movement pledged to saddle women with responsibilities foreign to the female temperament and physical capacity." In his not-so-humble opinion, extending the franchise would condemn Judaism by triggering the demise of "the glory of Jewish home-life" - presumably because liberated women would refuse to cook Friday-night dinner.

Ninety-six years after women won the vote, I think we have proved him wrong (and shown that men can roast chickens, too). That's not to say our community is the same - nor even that it remains as sturdy - but that it survived what was once deemed an incredibly radical change.

Stay safe or take the risky path? The dichotomy goes to the heart of Jewish life; the religion teaches us hope, but history and experience have given us the impression that things can only get worse. That was the sense I was left with, anyway, after rifling through Foreign Office files newly released at the National Archives.

We still entertain the prophesies of pessimists

In 1941, officials intercepted David Ben-Gurion's papers. They were particularly enthralled by a meeting between the Zionist firebrand and prominent British Jews, including Anthony de Rothschild and Sir Robert Waley-Cohen, at which these gentlemen let it be known they considered a Jewish homeland a low priority. Sir Robert "wondered whether they could not achieve their aims without asking for something so peculiar and so dangerous as a Jewish State". Later, de Rothschild wrote: "At the present juncture no useful purpose would be served by further talks and anyhow this is not a favourable moment for bothering our Government." As he told Chaim Weizmann, he and his associates were "unalterably opposed to the establishment of a Jewish state".

For many of our great and good, when it came to rocking the boat and challenging the government, the instinct for caution triumphed over any enthusiasm for the gamble. With hindsight, knowing that the Wannsee Conference was only months away, it is tough to digest the reasoning.

It is "impossible to foretell what would happen at the end of the war," said de Rothschild, and of course they could not have known the extent of the Nazi campaign, so to condemn them for lacking this foresight is unfair. In the same vein, by no means all those opposed to women's votes were intolerant chauvinists.

Indeed, few societal changes have come about with universal backing and just because the opponents were defeated does not mean we should dismiss all their arguments as worthless.

Those who fought for the losing side presumably did so in good faith. Still, looking back, we can see clearly when people were standing on the wrong side of history, warning of disaster and upheaval that would never come. How perplexing, now, to read that suffrage would represent "the last word in absurdity to the really Jewish imagination".

Yet we continue to entertain the prophesies of the pessimists. In the community today, warnings fly around about the effects of such changes as equality for men and women in shul, gay marriage, or the potential consequences of publicly criticising the Israeli government. How often have I heard the argument that to change anything - reduce Yom Tov from two days to one, for example, or alter our archaic divorce laws - would lead Orthodoxy down a slippery slope, or that interfaith co-operation could have dangerous ramifications, so should be avoided.

We should not let the naysayers drown out those who push for change. It may be easier to choose the status quo over the unknown, but look to the words of one female correspondent, arguing in support of suffrage in 1913: "Why should it not be the function of the synagogue to take the lead in social reform?"

Today, we celebrate the courage and conviction of those like her who took the leap.

Of course prudence is necessary. But we should still be wary that our instinct for caution does not put us on the wrong side of history.

Last updated: 9:45am, June 7 2013