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Judith in the Enemy’s Tent

This condensed version of the Girls in Trouble curriculum, a project by Alicia Jo Rabins, is based on Alicia’s art-pop song cycle of the same name, and follows individual women through their stories in the Torah. In each lesson, students are encouraged to engage with both the Torah text and Alicia’s songs, to consider the story’s relevance to their own lives, and to generate their own creative interpretations. This curriculum brings Biblical women to life, demonstrating the power of these often under-studied stories, and highlighting the ways in which they can help us navigate our own complicated lives.

Overview

Enduring Understandings

  • There is often hidden bravery and power within us that we can harness to effect positive change
  • Our past informs our present and future selves, but it does not fully determine them
  • Creating art about women in Torah continues the millennia-old tradition of interpretation, while bringing female characters to the center of the process

Essential Questions

  • Why is Judith’s story important?
  • How can we bring Judith’s courage and daring into the context of our own lives?
  • How does Alicia’s song contribute to our understanding of Judith’s story?

Notes to Teacher

We encourage you to make this curriculum your own. For instance, if there isn’t time during your class period to have students sketch out their own creative interpretations, you can either leave this part out or treat it as an extension activity.

We also encourage you to include as much hevruta (partner) study as possible. If you are new to hevruta study, you can think of it as discussion between two partners who can help each other learn by challenging each other’s first impressions. Breaking the group into pairs and having them read texts out loud, rather than silently, is an essential part of hevruta study.

Lastly, when studying the Torah text, we find it helpful to have students identify every problem, difficulty, or moment of confusion they can find in the text, as if they were on a scavenger hunt. This opens up the door to midrash, the Jewish tradition of creative Torah interpretation, which imagines answers to those questions.

Introductory Essay(s)

"Who Sent the Heat:" Explanation of a Musical Midrash

by Alicia Jo Rabins

Like so many who have read Judith’s story over the centuries, I was captivated by her. In particular, I loved the dramatic narrative power of a young woman who singlehandedly wins a battle against all odds, using only her brilliant strategy and her physical beauty.

As I wrote the song, I got to imagine myself as the heroine. I imagined what it would feel like to dress up and walk directly into the enemy encampment, just as my people are on the verge of losing a war. Was Judith unbelievably brave, was her faith unshakeable, or did she simply have nothing to lose?  In the annotated song lyrics below, you can find the specific verses I chose to comment on, as well as a few of the details that I added or modified, and additional thoughts about the lyrics.

Musically, I chose a minor melody in three (a waltz rhythm) to reflect the grace and danger of Judith’s actions. I also chose to begin where Judith’s story begins in the Catholic text - with her young husband’s sudden death in the barley fields. I based the beginning of the song, as well as the title, on the mysterious phrase that describes her husband’s death - perhaps it’s sunstroke? - when “a heat came upon his head.”

In my imagination, Judith’s life was going along just fine until her husband’s sudden death knocked her off her comfortable trajectory. She seems relatively privileged; even three years after his death, she has a maid and enough resources that procuring a gorgeous dress and jewelry at a moment’s notice is no problem. Still, with her life suddenly turned upside down by the loss of her husband, I imagine Judith questioning everything she’s been taught, and losing faith in her assigned role as a genteel young woman. And so she puts on her clothes of mourning, and keeps them on for three years, stepping out of her role as a beautiful young woman.

In my re-telling, the experience of losing her husband teaches Judith to see through the structures that hold our lives intact. This causes her great grief, but in a moment of crisis, it also gives her the audacity to challenge those in power, and to risk everything - including her life - in order to save her people. Through her loss, Judith has learned that everything can change in a moment, that we never know what’s around the corner, and that cause and effect are not as simple as they seem. And so she sees through the simple faith of the city’s leaders, who assume that if God wants them to be saved, God will save them. Instead, Judith takes matters into her own hands, changing the course of (fictional) history.

Does faith in God mean that we have no power over what happens? And conversely, does faith in our own potential for action cancel out the idea of a divine power? Personally, I think this dichotomy is too simple. I understand faith and action as being intimately connected, and I see Judith reflecting this connection.

On one hand, Judith is a woman of great faith.  She criticizes the men in power for giving God five days to subdue the enemy army, then accepting defeat (Judith 8:11-15). She argues for the omnipotence of God, and the ridiculousness of making bargains or time limits with the Divine power.

On the other hand, Judith also seems to implicitly criticize the leaders’ lack of action (8:22-23). God will carry out the victory, Judith says, through her hand. In other words, God is going to act through Judith. God may save the city, but not without the brilliance, bravery and strategy of Judith.

In other words, Judith, from her position of seeming powerlessness, directly contradicts the leaders on both their spiritual and military stance. She asserts that God will indeed save them - through her actions. In this way, Judith - a seeming non-expert - is revealed as the person who understands far more than the experts about the way God works in the world, and is in fact God’s instrument in the world. I find this fascinating, and chose to emphasize it in my song.

(That said, I did modify the original story in one significant way. In chapter 9, Judith is extremely pious, repeatedly praying as she prepares to head out of the city into the enemy tent. In my imagining, she doesn’t pray with words, she simply takes action - as Heschel might say, praying with her feet.)

Finally, I concluded the song with Judith imagining the ramifications of her action with radical compassion. Yes, she has saved her city, including the children who were about to starve because of the general’s cruel siege. But in killing Holofernes, she imagines, she is creating a widow just like herself. I imagine Judith, as she draws the sword down, acknowledging that although her action may be necessary, it is not without consequences; that in order to end a war, she creates suffering elsewhere, in a woman who may be similar to Judith herself.

Judith is a heroine, but she is complicit - as are we all - in an extremely complicated system of power, victory and loss, life and death. In my interpretation, part of claiming her power is claiming the fact that her constructive actions may also have destructive results. To me, this ascribes to Judith the ultimate bravery: the courage not only to act in ways that risk her life, but to look critically at her own actions and her own culpability in the world.

Lesson Plan

Intro

  • Invite students to introduce themselves and ask them to share a time they acted with courage in their own lives. Tell them the action can be small or large.
  • Explain that Judith’s story is apocryphal and lacks a single foundational Jewish text. You can simply read the following as a streamlined way of conveying this information to students:

Judith is an apocryphal character, which means she is not included in the Jewish Bible. In fact, there is no evidence the rabbis even considered her story for inclusion, and the oldest version of the story we have is in Greek, not Hebrew.

Because of these uncertain origins, Judith is on the fringes of Jewish text - sometimes almost forgotten, in other eras brought back into focus. She is referred to in some medieval Jewish texts, but is not considered a central character.

In addition, there are many versions of Judith’s story, often with conflicting details. For example, in the Catholic version she lives in the fictional town of Bethulia, while in medieval Jewish versions, she lives in Jerusalem.

Finally, the Book of Judith is non-historical; the story combines real and imagined kings, generals and nationalities to create a fictional setting.

Despite her story’s unclear origins and complicated relationship to world history, over the centuries Judith has been invited into the spotlight of Jewish life. Much of this celebration has come through women in diverse Jewish communities who honored Judith through ritual, food, and celebration, usually around the holiday of Chanukah. Judith has also been imagined over and over in religious and secular art, music, dance and film.

When we discuss Judith’s story and create art about her, we join our foremothers and forefathers in bringing Judith back into the center of Jewish study.

Core Story

  • Introduce hevruta, divide class, pass out “core story” sheets
  • Hevrutas read core story to each other and explore discussion questions. (Please note that the text we have provided is a summary of Judith’s story and not the original text. The Book of Judith is too long to read as a class, so we have included a summary; but if you have time, it can be very helpful to read it beforehand so you know the full scope of Judith’s story. Judith’s story is found in chapters 7-16 of the Catholic version, which is the easiest English version to locate, and probably the oldest. You can skip chapters 1-6. See the “Teacher Resources” section for information on how to access three different versions of the Book of Judith.)
  • Come back together to discuss what arose in hevruta. Begin by inviting students to share the questions they found and listing them on the board. Explain that finding unanswered questions in the text is the starting point of midrash (interpretation of Torah).
  • If you find that students are eager to debate about answers to their questions, this can lead to a great discussion; just remind them that the Jewish interpretative tradition allows for multiple answers to a single question.

Song

  • Listen to “Who Sent the Heat” with lyrics
  • Discuss questions as a group

Create Your Own Midrash

  • Time for individual brainstorming/free-writing/drawing with “Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations”
  • If time, opportunity to share creative responses. Students should resist the temptation to critique others’ responses.
  • If desired, share students’ midrashim by adding them to the Gallery of Biblical Women on the Girls in Trouble website.

Document Studies

Song Recording

Song Recording

Who Sent the Heat

Full image
Audio recording of Alicia Jo Rabins' song, "Who Sent the Heat."

Core story with discussion questions

Core story with discussion questions

Core story

Once upon a time, a powerful general named Holofernes declared war against Bethulia (or, in some versions, Jerusalem) with a great army. He besieged the city for many days, making sure no food or drink could enter, so that the people began to starve. The Israelites suffered tremendously during this siege and were in great distress. They were on the verge of surrendering when a young woman named Judith announced that she had a plan.

Judith was a young widow who had been in mourning for three years, since her husband died unexpectedly. A woman of great faith, Judith rebuked the leaders of Bethulia for their intention to surrender and declared that God would act through her. Judith devised a plan to help her people. She removed her mourning attire and dressed in beautiful clothes and jewels, and prepared a bag with wine and (in some versions) kosher cheese. Then she waited until nightfall.

Accompanied only by her maid, Judith left the besieged city under cover of darkness.  She walked into the enemy camp, and eventually entered the royal pavilion and came before Holofernes.  Since she was exceedingly beautiful, when Holofernes saw her, she found favor in his eyes. He asked, "Who are you? Where do you come from and where do you wish to go?" Judith answered, "I have heard of your wisdom and skill, and since Israel has sinned, I know that you will conquer the city and take possession of it, so I came to save myself and my father's household when you take the city." Judith offered to help Holofernes conquer the city with inside information;  the general agreed, and invited her into his tent.

Inside the tent, they feasted. Judith ate the food she had brought; in some versions, Holofernes provided his own food, and in others, he ate the cheese Judith brought in her bag. Either way, Holofernes drank a great deal of wine, became drunk, and fell asleep. Judith turned her thoughts to God, took Holofernes’ sword from his bedpost where it hung, and cut off the general’s head. Judith then took Holofernes’ head and placed it in her bag. She and her maidservant passed unnoticed through the camp until she reached the gates of Bethulia. There she summoned the gatekeepers and told them to place the general’s head as high on the city gates as they could, so that the army would see it when they awoke. When the general’s men found his body in the morning, and saw his head on the gate, they fled. The war was over, and Judith’s people had won.

[Most modern retellings end here, but there is more to the story. When the people of Bethulia saw the enemy army retreat, they stormed out to attack. They plundered the abandoned enemy camp for thirty days, returning home with great riches, and gave Judith the tent of Holofernes as well as all his silver dinnerware, his beds, his bowls, and all his furniture.

All the women of Israel came to bless Judith. Judith led the women in dance, and the men followed in song. Judith offers a song of praise to God, and all the people joined her loudly; they offered thanks to God in Jerusalem, and Judith dedicates Holofernes’ objects to God. The city continued to celebrate Judith’s victory for three months.

The story concludes: many men desired to marry her, but Judith gave herself to no man all the remaining days of her life. She freed her maid in her old age, and was buried and mourned by all of Israel at the age of one hundred and five. No one ever again spread terror among Israel during the lifetime of Judith, or for a long time after her death.]

Note: in writing this retelling of Judith’s story, we drew on summaries by Ritualwell and Jewish Women’s Archive, as well as the original texts.

Discussion Questions

  1. Does anything surprise you about this story?
  2. Which moments in this text seem most interesting or dramatic to you?

Song lyrics with discussion questions

Song lyrics with discussion questions

Who Sent the Heat

A song in Judith’s voice, by Girls in Trouble/Alicia Jo Rabins

Who sent the heat
that fell upon my husband’s head
and killed him in the harvest field
three years ago

And what will they eat
the children of a city under siege
by a general whose cup overflows

I fasted for three days
then I arose and dressed myself
in crimson silk and necklaces
and bracelets of gold

Towards the city gates
I walked alone through empty streets
and I could feel a thousand eyes
watching me go

They said our city was lost, lost
and it was true that we were surrounded
they said our only hope lay with God

But I didn’t pray
I brushed my hair with oil of myrrh
and smiled at the general
while he drank his wine

I wondered as I watched him
did he have a wife at home
and would she grieve for her husband
as I grieved for mine

Discussion Questions

  1. What is your initial response to this song?
  2. What questions does this song raise for you?

Footnoted song lyrics

Footnoted song lyrics

"Who Sent the Heat," annotated

A song in Judith’s voice, by Alicia Jo Rabins/Girls in Trouble

Who sent the heat
that fell upon my husband’s head
and killed him in the harvest field1
three years ago2

and what will they eat
the children of a city under siege
by a general whose cup overflows3

I fasted for three days
then I arose and dressed myself
in crimson silk and necklaces
and bracelets of gold4

towards the city gates
I walked alone through empty streets5
and I could feel a thousand eyes
watching me go6

they said our city was lost, lost
and it was true that we were surrounded
they said our only hope lay with God7

but I didn’t pray8
I brushed my hair with oil of myrrh9
and smiled at the general
while he drank his wine10

I wondered as I watched him
did he have a wife at home
and would she grieve for her husband
as I grieved for mine11

1 “And Manasses was [Judith’s] husband, of her tribe and kindred, who died in the barley harvest. For as he stood overseeing them that bound sheaves in the field, the heat came upon his head, and he fell on his bed, and died in the city of Bethulia” (Book of Judith, Catholic version, 8:2-3)

2 “So Judith was a widow in her house three years and four months” (8:4)

3 “Therefore their young children were out of heart, and their women and young men fainted for thirst, and fell down in the streets of the city, and by the passages of the gates, and there was no longer any strength in them” (7:21). I wanted to emphasize the cruelty of this strategy, a powerful general starving children out in order to win a war.

4 “And she took sandals upon her feet, and put about her her bracelets, and her chains, and her rings, and her earrings, and all her ornaments, and decked herself bravely, to allure the eyes of all men that should see her” (10:4)

5 Although in the story Judith is accompanied by her maid, I imagined her walking completely alone, to further dramatize the moment and the isolation of a single, unarmed body walking through the darkness in a time of war.

6 I imagined all the people of the city peeking from their windows. Writing this line, I thought of the parallel story of Yael; after Yael kills the enemy general, Sisera, his mother waits in vain for his return: “Through the window she looked forth, and peered, the mother of Sisera, through the lattice: 'Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the wheels of his chariots?’” (Judges 5:28)

7 In the story, Judith admonishes the men for giving God a five-day deadline in order to win the war (“And they came unto her, and she said unto them, Hear me now, O ye governors of the inhabitants of Bethulia: for your words that ye have spoken before the people this day are not right, touching this oath which ye made and pronounced between God and you, and have promised to deliver the city to our enemies, unless within these days the Lord turn to help you....For if he will not help us within these five days, he hath power to defend us when he will, even every day, or to destroy us before our enemies” (8:11-15). I chose to twist Judith’s words slightly; in the text she is quite pious and criticizes the men in power for not trusting God enough, while in my song I emphasize the fact that they relied on prayer, while Judith takes action.

8 I chose to make a bold statement in this line, which departs in some ways from the original story. In fact, the story describes Judith as a very religious woman; she “feared God greatly” (8:8) and she does indeed pray extensively (chapter 9) before heading out to Holofernes’ tent.

But I also see Judith’s character and her relationship with God as more complex than one of simple piety. First, she rebukes the men in power for relying on God in a way that is both helplessly dependent, and strangely controlling (see note 7). Then, she makes this rather startling declaration: “Hear me, and I will do a thing, which shall go throughout all generations to the children of our nation. You shall stand this night in the gate, and I will go forth with my waiting-woman: and within the days that you have promised to deliver the city to our enemies the Lord will visit Israel by my hand” (8:32-33)

Reading the phrase “The Lord will visit Israel by my hand,” I think of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s famous statement about participating in the civil rights March on Washington: “I felt my feet were praying.” I read Judith’s assertion to mean that God will indeed intervene, as the leaders hope, but - and this is a major caveat - only through human action. I imagine a Judith who understands God acting through people, and who bravely risks her life by praying with her body, rather than simply her mouth.

9 The Catholic Book of Judith describes her preparations: she “pulled off the sackcloth which she had on, and put off the garments of her widowhood, and washed her body all over with water, and anointed herself with precious ointment, and braided the hair of her head, and put on a tire upon it, and put on her garments of gladness, wherewith she was clad during the life of Manasses her husband.” (10:3). The Me’am Loez version of the story, a Sephardic Jewish retelling, describes Judith anointing herself with myrrh, which I included here as well. Interestingly, both Esther and Judith prepare themselves to win over a non-Jewish king with careful applications of make-up and oils, and both are associated with post-Biblical holidays (Esther with Purim, and Judith with Chanukah).

10 “And Holofernes took great delight in [Judith], and drank more wine than he had drunk at any time in one day since he was born” (12:20)

11 In these lines, I wanted to give Judith compassion for Holofernes’ wife, who--if she existed--would become a widow just like Judith. I imagine a wise Judith who sees the consequences of her actions, realizing that brave as her action is, and necessary to save the lives of children in her city, she might also be causing the same pain she has been experiencing for the past three years since her husband died. Again, I thought of the slain general Sisera’s mother waiting for his return in the story of Yael, which is often compared to that of Judith (see note 6):  “Through the window she looked forth, and peered, the mother of Sisera, through the lattice: 'Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the wheels of his chariots?’” (Judges 5:28) I am interested in the way the storyteller of Judges imagines the grief of the villain’s mother, and inspired by this, I wanted to grant Judith radical compassion for Holofernes’ wife.

Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations

Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations

Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations

Visual

  • Sketch a map of the story as you imagine it: a map of Bethulia, the enemy camp outside the gates, and Judith’s path from her home to Holofernes’ tent.
  • Taking a cue from the Noguchi/Graham collaboration, design a piece of jewelry for Judith
  • Draw a theater set (realistic or abstract) for Judith and Holofernes’ encounter in the tent

Music

  • Write your own wordless melody (in Hebrew, a “niggun”) capturing a moment in the story.  Perhaps imagine what Judith might hum to herself while getting dressed for Holofernes, or walking through the dark streets of the city, or carrying Holofernes’ head back to the gates, or all three.

Movement

Create a short dance about one or more of these moments in Judith’s story:

  • leaving the city gates and walking into Holofernes’ tent
  • taking Holofernes’ sword from his bedpost and cutting off his head
  • walking back to the camp with Holofernes’ head
  • placing Holofernes’ head atop the city gate

Writing

  • Summarize Judith’s story in six words
  • Write a journal entry in Judith’s voice, describing her encounter with Holofernes. Take liberties; as Judith, are you confident, or shaking with fear? Are you repulsed by the general, or tempted by him? Are you disgusted by the gory scene, or do you delight in it?
  • Write about your own response to Judith’s story. You could start with the phrase, “Reading about Judith’s story, I feel…” and freewrite from there. What emotions does it evoke in you? Does it relate to anything in your own life or the lives of those around you?

Rituals

  • Create a ritual based on Judith for Chanukah time or Rosh Chodesh Tevet
  • Create a symbolic meal based on Chanukah traditions around Judith. (This could be a delicious meal you might actually make at home - but you could also use creative license to come up with something you would never cook, for example, including poisonous ingredients to symbolize Judith’s actions!)

Teacher Resources

Versions of Judith’s story:

  • The canonic version, included in the Catholic Bible. This is probably the most famous and widely read version of Judith’s story.
  • An English translation of a medieval Ladino version can be found in The Torah Anthology vol. 13 pp. 225-237 (Moznaim Publishing, 1982).
  • For Hebrew readers: the full Hebrew text of the medieval Midrash Ma’aseh Yehudit from the collection Hemdat Hayamim.
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Cover Art for "Judith in the Enemy's Tent"
Full image
Cover art by Uri Berkowitz for "Judith in the Enemy's Tent," a lesson plan from the "Girls in Trouble Curriculum by Alicia Jo Rabins.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Judith in the Enemy’s Tent." (Viewed on November 21, 2017) <https://jwa.org/teach/girlsintrouble/judith-in-the-enemys-tent>.

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