Women in the Hanukkah Story: Not Just Judith Anymore

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In this month’s Hadassah magazine, a story about a Modi’in,   Israel educator who has added a female role to his dramatic interpretation of the Hanukkah tale of Judah the Maccabee who led the Hasmonean people in defying Syrian Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes:

Whether as martyrs, heroes or rebels, women were also involved in the Hasmonean revolt:a fact that lately has received some acknowledgment in Israel.

The crowd seated on the hilltop is gathered around a young woman dressed in a blue velvet gown. All eyes are on her when she suddenly rips open the bodice.

“What have you done?” cries one of the men near her, in Hebrew.

“On the night before my wedding, I will be forcibly handed over and violated by a Greek officer,” she replies. “So it is better that you see me in my shame before he does.”

There is murmuring in the crowd before the man thunders: “Such things will not happen in Israel; you will not be handed over to anyone but a Jewish man.” Another adds: “We will fight the Greeks and put an end to this edict and all the other evil edicts.” * * *

One son [of Mattathias the Hasmonean], Judah the Maccabee, defies the odds and defeats the Greeks, purifies and rededicates the Temple in Jerusalem and ushers in a period of Jewish sovereignty that lasts nearly 100 years. * * *

This rendition [of the Hanukkah story at an outdoor education center in Israel] is based on a midrash that alludes to “the rite of the first night,” whereby all Jewish women about to marry were forced to lose their virginity to a Greek soldier:a rite that has a questionable historical basis, according to most scholars. At her wedding feast, Hannah rails against her family’s complacent acceptance of this outrage and invokes the biblical brothers Simon and Levi, who, in response to their sister Dinah’s rape, sought ruthless revenge. It is Hannah’s provocative protest that spurs her brothers to rebel against the Greeks.

[Performer Zohar] Baram, a historical geographer who specializes in the Hasmonean period, found the story a few years ago after a journalist asked him whether women had any role in the revolt:a query that prompted him to scour through the sources. On discovering the midrash, he decided to include it in an adults-only version of his Hanukka play, which is staged at Kfar Hashmona’im during the holiday.

“Here we have another version of the events that sparked the Hasmonean revolt,” he notes, adding that “this midrash, as well as other references I found to women during the Hasmonean period, convinced me that women were as determined as the men to fight for Jewish survival and sovereignty, and when that proved impossible, they did not hesitate to choose death.”

This is an interesting twist to the Hannukah story that I hadn’t heard before.   The performer’s adding a female character to his educational vignette makes a nice broad point: there are many ways to resist injustice.   The follow-on is more familiar.   The resistance of some people — often men– to injustice historically has received more attention than the resistance of others — often women.

-Bridget Crawford

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