The lessons of Chanukah’s women

The lessons of Chanukah’s women

Francine Klagsbrun
Francine Klagsbrun

It’s time to revisit the women of Chanukah. So much of this holiday is devoted to celebrating the heroic Maccabees, so much centers on lights and latkes, that the brave women associated with it can be easily overlooked. Yet our rabbis decreed that “women are obligated to light the Chanukah lamp, because they too were involved in the miracle.”

Three women’s stories have been connected to the holiday, each reflecting a different aspect of Jewish tradition and women’s lives. For centuries, the best known was the narrative of Hannah and her seven sons, which, like the Maccabee saga, appears in the Apocrypha (works not included in the canon of the Hebrew Bible). Hers is a familiar story in Jewish history, one of suffering and martyrdom, and she plays the familiar woman’s role of a strong and pious mother. In this case her strength and piety are put to the ultimate test as the cruel Antiochus, Seleucid king of Syria, tries to force each of her sons to eat pork, forbidden in Judaism. As each refuses, each one is tortured and murdered while his agonized mother looks on. The king urges Hannah to persuade her remaining youngest son to save his life by eating the pork. Instead, she encourages him to follow his brothers’ example and martyr himself. Torn by grief, with her sons gone, she dies also. Hannah’s commitment to Jewish law under the direst circumstances encouraged generations of Jews in many lands as they faced pogroms and persecutions.

A very different Hannah takes center stage in a second Chanukah story, generally told in books of legends. This is a young Hannah, sister of the Maccabees, and about to be married. Determined to prevent the local Syrian ruler from exercising his “droit de seigneur,” the right to have sexual relations with a new bride, she strips naked before the guests at her wedding feast. When her brothers threaten to kill her because of her shameful behavior, she demands that they save the honor of all Jewish women by fighting the Syrians. As the tale goes, her action sparks their rebellion. Although this Hannah relies on men to fight her battles, she seems quite modern in taking a stand — a radical stand — against sexual assault. 

Then there is the story of Judith, which at first blush would seem unrelated to either Chanukah or contemporary life. Its events take place several centuries before the Maccabean era and its heroine is an obscure widow. Yet with its message of faith and courage, it became closely connected with the Chanukah story, and with her unbending fearlessness, Judith seems to speak especially to our age, an inspiration for women everywhere. Her story is also in the Apocrypha, in a book bearing her name. 

In this narrative, Holofernes, an Assyrian general, sets out to conquer Judea, but is stopped by the people of Bethulia (possibly Jerusalem). He besieges the city, and, worn down by hunger and thirst, the elders decide to surrender. Enter Judith. The beautiful widow berates the leaders for their lack of faith and devises her own plan. Taking her maid and a sack of food to eat (she observes Jewish dietary laws), she talks her way into Holofernes’ camp. There she convinces the general that she deserted her people, and by praying to God she can bring him victory. For three days, she leaves in the nighttime to pray, and returns in the morning, thus accustoming the guards to her coming and going. On the fourth day, Holofernes gives a banquet in her honor. Overcome by lust and planning to seduce her, he dismisses his servants, then drinks himself into a stupor. Judith grabs his sword and with all her might hacks off his head. She and her maid leave, this time with Holofernes’ head in their sack. After discovering his headless body, the Assyrian army flees in disarray, and the Jews win a great victory, “by a woman’s hand.”

Never mind the violence; that goes with the plot. But it is Judith’s strength and sense of self that resonate, especially at this #MeToo moment, when women are speaking out and standing up for themselves as never before. To be sure, Judith utilizes feminine ploys to gain her ends, like putting aside her widow’s weeds and adorning herself with clothes and jewels to play up her beauty. But she always maintains control of her actions. She rejects martyrdom for herself or her people, and she relies not on men, but on her own wisdom and skills.

Each of the women’s stories has something to teach us — Hannah, the mother, about bravery even in moments of devastation; Hannah, the bride, about women’s dignity and men’s duties; and Judith — more than any, for life today — about belief in oneself and the courage to act on it.

Francine Klagsbrun’s biography, “Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel,” was named the 2017 Book of the Year by the National Jewish Book Awards.

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