We Can All Learn from Judith’s Fierceness
If you like Wonder Woman and Xena, you’ll LOVE Judith, heroine of Hanukkah .
Although Judith is believed to have lived four hundred years before the Maccabees, over time her monumental actions have become associated with Hanukkah, yet another Jewish tale of “they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.”
As legend tells it, the Assyrian army, led by general Holofernes, was attempting to destroy the city of Bethulia. To stop him, Judith took matters into her own hands. After convincing the elders of the time to let her infiltrate the general’s camp, Judith carried out her plan to earn Holofernes’ trust and TAKE HIM DOWN.
Cue badass theme song.
Judith got the job done. When Holofernes became infatuated with her, Judith waited for the perfect moment of vulnerability, lowered his defenses further with some delicious homemade goat cheese, and seduced him. (Normally, cheese has the opposite effect on me...but hey, to each their own.) When Holofernes was least expecting it, Judith literally took his head off.
Although women’s leadership has, thankfully, changed dramatically since the sixth century BCE, there is something to be learned from the fierceness of women like Judith.
When it comes to Jewish femmes fatales who eliminated the threat against their people, Judith is in good company. Twelfth century sage Rashbam likened Judith to Esther from the Purim story. Esther, you might recall, “auditioned” to be the next Queen of Persia, and because her beauty and charm were unparalleled, she got the part. Her cousin Mordecai pleaded with her to approach the king and ask him to repeal a decree to annihilate the Jewish people. After rubbing the king’s “scepter,” Esther won over the king and saved her people.
In my own collection of badass Jewish heroines, I also include Yael, another spy who took down a general looking to annihilate her family. While Judith cut off Holofernes’ head while he was passed out, Yael took a different approach, killing General Sisera by driving a tent peg into his temple while he slept.
We might expect traditional texts to shoot some disapproving looks toward Judith and Yael, but no—on the contrary. Rashbam illustrates his gratitude to Judith by suggesting that all women take a vacation during Hanukkah, and the language about Yael in Jewish literature is similarly celebratory. While many Jewish texts get squeamish about women and extramarital sex, the Book of Judges shows no such hangups:
Extolled above women be Yael,
Extolled above women in the tent.
He asked for water, she gave him milk;
She brought him cream in a lordly dish.
She stretched forth her hand to the nail,
Her right hand to the workman's hammer,
And she smote Sisera; she crushed his head,
She crashed through and transfixed his temples.
Clearly, these sages were on board with Yael’s provocative and deadly maneuvers, and so am I. In fact, I think it’s the reason why I became a rabbi.
I’m only half-joking.
These stories convey a sense of power and influence for women that was truly rare at the time, and their lessons still resonate today. Judith and Yael surely did not follow the rules. Because they were not distracted worrying about being “good girls,” they made things happen. These women reached beyond their expected roles—the quiet, beautiful widow, the expectant hostess—and shattered some serious glass. While I’m not going to advocate the use of seduction and tent pegs in women’s leadership today, I do want to channel some of that energy.
As women leaders, many of us spend so much energy worrying about how we are perceived that at some point, it detracts from our leadership. I’ve lost count of how many precious minutes and hours I have wasted wondering if what I was wearing was “too much.” I tried to appear as vanilla as possible so no one could disapprove of me.
Eventually, I got sick of my attempts to be a cardboard box of a leader and color within the lines. When I finally let myself be myself, and broke some of those self- and society-imposed rules, I reclaimed some of the energy I needed to move things forward in my leadership. I started wearing more colorful and shapely clothing that reflected my personality. I shared opinions that contradicted “how things were always done.” I made jokes in my sermons that veered away from the serious persona I thought I had to project.
Today, I lead by focusing on what I can accomplish rather than on trying to manage people’s expectations. If we put our confidence on hold until we gain people’s approval, then we miss opportunities to effect change. If instead we allow ourselves to break some rules and tap into our creativity, we will walk in the footsteps of Judith and Yael and get things done.
As I continue to embrace my own leadership, I do so with pride in the resourcefulness of these Jewish women who came before me, gratitude that we have other avenues for leadership today... and a strange craving for goat cheese.