The Feminist Hanukkah Story I Didn’t Know I Needed

I had never heard of a biblical Jewish woman who wasn't defined by her marriage and children — until Judith.

Most of the women in Bible fall into a few distinct categories. There are the wise wives and mothers like Sarah, Rebecca and Yocheved, required to make hard decisions to protect their children. Then there are the tragic romantic damsels, the ready-for-soap-opera players: Rachel, Leah and Bathsheba. Silent sufferers who survive humiliation, poverty and assault with grace — like Tamar, Ruth and Esther — are credited with saving Jewish continuity and tradition. But supporting figures who speak their minds, women like Miriam and Michal, often pay for their unruliness, their misdeeds defined in the eternal text as a warning for generations to come.

And then there’s Judith.

Most people learn about Judith in art history class from Artemisia Gentileschi’s iconic Baroque painting, “Judith Beheading Holofernes” (1620). I learned about her in day school as a third grader.  I must have been 8 or 9; my teacher, probably Rabbi Gold or Gordon, went over the story of Hannukah for the umpteenth time. Greeks, Maccabees, teensy weensy bottle of oil — I’d been there before. But then he started to add in new details: a tyrannical Greek general named Holofernes, the sort of military leader who never rides out into battle but still claims his legion’s body count as a personal victory. The scale of his wickedness is rivaled only by that of his security detail. Somebody needs to kill him (and take his army down with him), but nobody can get close enough.

Enter Judith. She sweet-talks her way into his tent, plies him with cheese and wine until he passes out, lops off his head and brings it back to the Jewish resistance on a pike.

I can pinpoint the exact moment my pre-adolescent heart short-circuited.

Growing up in a tight-knit Orthodox community and attending Jewish Day school, I learned a lot of stories from Tanakh, the Hebrew bible. The ones I didn’t learn in school, I read on my own time whenever I ran out of children’s fiction. I quickly learned that the women in these stories were not — could not be — like the outspoken warrior-princesses of my favorite grade-school fantasy novels.

When Miriam dares to criticize Moses’s treatment of his wife, God infects her with a spiritual malady and she is forced outside of the camp, banished from the presence of God. Bathsheba does not play an active role in her relationship with King David: she neither protests when King David makes advances upon her, nor does she aid him in plotting to kill her husband. Ruth’s plan to save herself and her family from poverty hangs on the involvement of a man.  These are stories of women existing, manipulating the rules of, and suffering through a man’s world. Either they live to support righteous men, or they need men need men to save them and act for them.

Judith is the exception.

In the storybook narrative fed to me as a child, she takes orders from no one but herself. She’s oddly detached from the male figures of the Hannukah story, the Hasmoneans. There is no male military leader behind her assignation mission. Judith doesn’t have a husband; she’s a widow who never remarries. Even better, though she gains Holofernes’ trust by seductive means, she never actively seduces him. Unlike Yael, the other woman in the Jewish tradition to slay a general, the Sages do not hypersexualize her in their commentary. She’s never married off to some righteous man as a reward or scolded by the midrashim for some mild infraction. She exists in her own right, independent of and unhindered by the men around her.

As an adult, I sought out Judith’s story at its source, “The Book of Judith.” In this version, Holofernes has besieged Judith’s city. Unable to watch his people die of thirst and starvation, the local leader, Uzziah, makes a public demand that God help them or he’ll surrender the city to their enemies. It is Judith who criticizes Uzziah for this dangerous ultimatum, and it is Judith, portrayed as devout yet practical, who refuses to wait for God or to let desperate men decide the fate of her city.

In her painting, Artemisia Gentileschi depicts a mixture of the two stories, the fairytale and the ancient text. On the canvas, Judith holds down Holofernes with the help of a handmaid. Neither woman is beautiful, and neither is the murder being committed. Judith slowly saws through the general’s neck, her eyes filled with fury and determination. There is nothing gentle or modest or even heroic about her. This is a woman doing what she believes she has to do; she does not shirk her responsibility, but she also does not revel in the bloody act. Nobody showed me that picture when I was eight. If they had, I would have known that Judith was more complex and more real than the sexy warrior princesses of my favorite novels.

Artemisia Gentileschi, “Judith Beheading Holofernes;” Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Already, at 8, the idea that my influence on my world was limited to my influence on the men around me, that I could never directly alter destiny by myself, was frightening. The quiet message that you cannot just be, but must become a wife and mother of, instead, followed me from my elementary school classroom into an Ultra-Orthodox high school where I was taught that a woman’s role was to rule through whispers and hints, to lead only in the shadows, to speak through the men around whom her life revolves. One teacher told me that women were created in the image of God — but the version of God that did not perform open miracles, the God who preferred to let human beings believe they controlled the narrative.

And yet, still, there was Judith. Judith who takes no orders, who invades a man’s tent and walks out with his head on her pike. Judith who attacks alone, who is neither punished nor silenced. Judith, who alters the destiny of her people, my people, independently of her generation’s male heroes. Judith, who does the work of the God of open miracles, the God who splits the sea — the God who does not merely influence, but acts.

Every Hanukah since I learned her story, I do not just commemorate the victory of the small against the mighty, the miracle of a small bottle of oil lasting for eight nights. I celebrate the human miracle of a Jewish woman defined not by her marriage or children, but by her actions alone. And I pray that even in the ultra-Orthodox community of my youth, this may cease to be a miracle during my lifetime.

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