The latest movement of Ultra-Orthodox women calling for a boycott of Haredi parties, unless women receive representation within them, is portrayed by the media as an exceptional act of bravery. Indeed, the general Israeli public’s concept of a Haredi woman is one of a woman trapped in a community that expects modesty and child bearing. For her to have an opinion and to publicly express it is not a common sight. Moreover, there are voices within the Haredi community that consider these brave women fighting for their right to be represented as not “real” Haredi women. If they ‘truly’ were, they would not partake in the public sphere. If these women want to be part of a change, they are expected to act from within the confines of their communities.
The classic portrayal of these women by the general public and by the Haredi community is as an exception to the rule; a surprising voice heard for the first time. However, if we examine Jewish tradition carefully, we find that throughout history, Jewish women are no strangers to speaking up and demanding their prerogatives. When one questions these daring women, one should ask oneself what the Jewish tradition has to say about women speaking their mind.
We read that following the Exodus story, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcha, and Tirzah, the daughters of Zelophehad, were left with no inheritance when their father passed away with no male offspring. The sisters petitioned Moses, Elazar the Cohen, and the whole assembly for their right to inherit their father’s allocated plot in the land of Canaan. G-d, after Moses brought their plea to him, ruled that their petition was just, and that they were to be granted the right to their father’s property.
This story is not only a famous case of halachic innovation, but more so, it is a story of women who were not afraid to stand in front of their community and speak up for themselves. I see a direct link between the daughters of Zelophehad who actively sought what is theirs by birthright and between the latest movement of courageous women, looking for a chance to speak their mind.
It is clear that during times of change, some people will always want to hold on to their set ways. They use tradition as a way to stop new ideas from prospering, all too frequently at the expense of others. But if we look closely to the lessons learned from the Jewish tradition, we will find that acts of bravery portrayed by women are not a new idea at all. Instead, the right to be heard is a freedom that people have always stood up for.