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When most of us think of Hanukkah, we think of the Maccabees--the High Priest Mattathias and his five sons--and their religious and military struggle against the Hellenist Syrians. It's a pretty male-dominated story. But there is an additional Hanukkah tradition in which a woman plays a central role as warrior. The source for this tradition is the book of Judith. Judith is, of course, not part of the Jewish Bible but is one of the books of the Apocrypha a set of writings that, for one reason or another, were not included in the biblical canon. Scholars think Judith was written in Hebrew around 150 BCE., roughly at the time of the Maccabees' revolt, and was translated into Greek. Only the Greek version survives as the basis for modern translations.

The Judith story can be summarized as follows. At an unspecified time in history, the powerful King Nebuchadnezzar of Assyria orders his general, Holofernes, to conquer the land of Judea. Holofernes besieges the city of Bethulia and cuts off its water supply. The city's desperate leaders are approached by Judith, a particularly pious young widow, who says she has a secret plan to save the city. Judith walks into the Assyrian camp and feigns surrender. She meets Holofernes and beguiles him with her beauty: "There is not such a woman from one end of the earth to the other, either for beauty of face or wisdom of speech!" he exclaims (Judith 11:21). Holofernes invites Judith to his tent. He "was ravished with her and he was moved with great desire to possess her." (Judith 12:16). They drink wine together until Holofernes passes out. Then Judith cuts off his head with his sword and carries the head back to her city. The Assyrians are frightened, the Jews are emboldened, and the Jews plunder the Assyrian camp. Judith sings a song of praise to the Lord. She never marries again, and she lives to the ripe age of 105.

Purely as a matter of narrative skill and literary style, Judith falls far short of the standards set by familiar biblical books such as Ruth and Esther. It takes sixteen chapters to tell the basically simple story, and the book is marred by considerable repetition and a good deal of extraneous detail. In fact, it becomes easier to appreciate the beauty and charm of the biblical narratives after reading through Judith a few times.

Interestingly, nowhere does the unknown author of this apocryphal Judith narrative mention King Antiochus, the Syrians, or the Maccabees. In fact, Nebuchadnezzar and the Assyrians form part of a much earlier historical era. But over the centuries, the story has become associated with the Hanukkah celebration for many people, perhaps because it reflects a triumph of relatively powerless Jews over a foreign enemy. Some Jews even have the custom of eating dairy foods on Hanukkah in commemoration of the tradition that Judith served salty cheese to Holofernes to make him thirsty for wine, a detail not mentioned in the version of the Judith story that survives in the Apocrypha.

The Judith story is reminiscent not so much of the national epic of the Maccabees as of a much older narrative in the book of Judges, one with which the author of Judith was no doubt familiar. The fourth chapter of Judges recounts the victory of Deborah the prophetess over the Canaanites and their general, Sisera. Although Deborah and her own general, Barak, lead the rout, Sisera is actually killed by Jael, a non-Jewish woman, who takes him into her tent, serves him milk, and plants a tent peg into his skull while he is sleeping. The eventual outcome is foretold by Deborah in Judges 4:9, where she tells Barak, "For into the hand of a woman will the Lord deliver Sisera."

To a warrior of the time, to die in battle was heroic; to be killed by a woman was ignominious. That concept, and probably the specific verse in Judges, is clearly alluded to in Judith. Just before Judith crosses into the Assyrian camp, she prays to God, "Crush their arrogance by the hand of a woman" (Judith 9:10). And after she has killed the oppressor Holofernes, she takes his head out of her bag and says, "The Lord has struck him down by the hand of a woman." So Judith was acting in a noble and time-honored tradition, one that the original readers of the book would recognize.

This story also has elements that resonate well with readers of the 21st century. Judith's skill and courage in operating under cover behind enemy lines puts her in the company of the heroic U.S. special forces operating today in Afghanistan. And strong women role models are always important. However, it's worth noting that Judith, like Jael before her, achieved her goal by taking advantage of her feminine allure and playing on a man's weakness.

Ruth and Esther succeeded in their tasks partly for the same reason. Deborah, on the other hand, won her military victory in the same way that a man would have--by superior strength and better tactics. Those of us who are raising young women should continue to recount the Judith story but should also recognize that there are other models for women's leadership.

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