The little-known heroine of Chanukah is an independent woman who is unafraid to take action to do what is right on behalf of her people. The Book of Judith did not make the cut to become canonized in the Jewish sacred textual tradition, and so Judith is relatively unknown in many circles of diaspora Jewry.
I have been thinking quite a bit about Judith this Chanukah season. In my time this year as an Elissa Froman Fellow, I’ve come to see how the values she represents are those shared by the New Israel Fund.
Judith is a remarkable character for several reasons. She is known for her wisdom and for having her heart in the right place. When she learns that the elders of her town have decided to respond to an Assyrian military threat by waiting for God to act — and handing over the city to the Assyrians if God does not — she responds by imploring the elders to take action. “[L]et us set an example for our kindred. Their lives depend on us” (The Book of Judith 8:24). When the elders respond by telling Judith that they must stay their course, she decides to take matters into her own hands.
“Listen to me!” she tells them. “I will perform a deed that will go down from generation to generation among our descendants… before you will surrender the city to our enemies, the Lord will deliver Israel by my hand” (8:32-33).
Judith and her maidservant then head off to the camp of Holofernes, the head of the local Assyrian army. Judith uses her cunning and beauty to gain access to the inner circles of the camp. She and her maidservant bring with them a bag of their own food and ask permission to go out of the camp each night to pray. During their time in the camp, the women eat their way through their bag of food. On the last night, Holofernes gets Judith alone in his tent hoping to seduce her. But she plies him with so much of her salty cheese that he needs to drink an exorbitant amount of wine to counteract it.
Holofernes passes out drunk before he can prey on Judith, and the heroine seizes the opportunity to take his sword and decapitate him. She puts his head in her now-empty food bag, then she and her maidservant leave the camp “to pray,” only this time they head back to their town, where the revelation of Holofernes’ demise gives the Jews the strength they need to take up arms and defend their town. Without their leader, the Assyrian army is easily defeated by the Israelites, and Judith is hailed a hero. Her act of innovation and courage is celebrated with a parade, and a declaration is made that, from that day forth, Judith is to be commemorated with a yearly festival.
Despite having unfolded before the Maccabean revolt, Judith’s story has been adopted as part of the Chanukah narrative. In popular tradition, Judith is said to be the aunt or daughter of Judah Maccabee. And by the 14th century, it was common practice to eat cheese on Chanukah in her honor. The preferred method of preparing cheese during this festival of oil was to fry it as a pancake. That is to say, the original latke may very well have been cheese, not potato.
This Chanukah, I invite you to share Judith’s story with your family and friends, and shine light on what we can learn from those who take action to repair the world.
Here are 8 lessons I learned from Judith this Chanukah:
- Turn first to the powers that be and implore them to partner with you in making positive change.
- If those in charge fail you and your people, don’t be afraid to do what is right without them.
- The world is full of naysayers and those too afraid to act. But those who rise above and take action are the ones who make change.
- Partner with those who support your cause.
- Rely on your wisdom, on the tools at your disposal, and on the skills of those you partner with to make positive change.
- A great plan is ninety percent of the battle.
- Be bold and fearless when you know you are fighting for the greater good.
- Measure twice, cut once.
Happy Chanukah from Jerusalem!