December: Judith and the Hanukkah Story
In the Middle Ages Hanukkah festivities celebrated more than just the valiant deeds of the Maccabees. For several centuries there was another hero associated with Hanukkah: Judith. The Book of Judith promised that her praise would "never depart from the heart of those who remember the power of God," and that her actions would "go down through all generations of our descendants." While not historically connected to the story of the Maccabees, the Book of Judith shares the theme of Jewish faith and courage overcoming a larger force.
The Rabbis who included Judith in their Hanukkah narrative could not have imagined a time when the story of Judith's bravery in the face of enormous danger would cease to be part of the legacy of the Jewish people passed down from one generation to the next.
And, yet, like so many other Jewish women, Judith has been virtually written out of the Hanukkah narrative as we know it. Who was she? Why should we remember her?
In the second century B.C.E., as the powerful Assyrian army invaded the Near East, the town of Bethulia was besieged by the cruel and domineering Holofernes, the Assyrian emperor Nebuchadnezzar's top general. If Bethulia fell, the whole country would come under Assyrian control. Discouraged, the city's elders agreed to surrender if they were not rescued within a few days. Judith, a young widow and most unlikely savior, challenged them to take responsibility for the survival of their famine-stricken community. Accompanied only by her maid, she set out for the enemy camp. Smitten with her beauty, Holofernes invited her to a banquet. When he fell asleep in a drunken stupor, they were left alone in his tent. After praying for God's help, Judith took his sword and decapitated him. With the Assyrian army thrown into confusion, she urged the Israelites to launch a surprise attack; they emerged victorious.
Judith's faith and courage changed the course of history. Modern-day Judiths carry on her legacy as they dare to act, to speak, to teach, and to write themselves into the record of American Jewish history. Examples include artist Judy Chicago, writer Judy Blume, social and political activist Judith Epstein, and other Jewish women whose deeds continue to inspire us.
We have listed some of the women who inspire us on the next page, along with links to their stories. Who would you add? Who are the Judiths who have inspired you? Publicize the miracle of Hanukkah by telling Judith's story, and by spreading the stories of modern Jewish women.