Judith: Hanukah Heroine in Art & Imagination

Judith: Hanukah Heroine in Art & Imagination

Judith. A story written 2100 years ago, set in the time of the Maccabean revolt…

General Holofernes and his army lay siege to the city of Bethulia, where the mayor tells his people, “If God doesn’t help us in five days, we will surrender.” The beautiful, wealthy widow Judith confronts him, saying, “Who are you to give God an ultimatum?! It’s much better to make a plan!”

Accompanied by her handmaid, Judith visits the camp of Holofernes. “Oh great general!” she says, “Our city is about to fall to you. Please let me join your side!” Flattered and intrigued, Holofernes invites her to stay. “Yes,” says Judith, “as long as my handmaid and I can leave camp each night to say our midnight prayers, and eat from our bag of kosher food.”

On the fourth night, Holofernes invites Judith to a private banquet. He toasts her with a glass of wine. She refills it many times. He invites her to his private chambers, where he climbs onto his bed and falls asleep. Judith lifts the general’s own sword and strikes his neck until she has cut off his head. She puts the head in her food bag, and leaves camp with her handmaid for midnight prayers.

The women walk all the way to Bethulia. At dawn, Judith climbs the city walls, and holds up the head of Holofernes. His soldiers scatter in panic. Judith has secured the city.

How do you see Judith?

A woman avenging an assault on her city – and on herself?

A gender-bending warrior, with both feminine and masculine qualities?

A risk-taker, who believes that God helps those who help themselves?

Or another expression of the message of Hanukah: a determined few can succeed against the powerful?

Figuring out how to “see” Judith was a popular project for Renaissance painters (and for some modern painters.)

Botticelli (1445-1510) saw her as a luminous Goddess, as if a divine mythological drama behind the scenes had saved the city.

Lucas Cranach the elder (1452-1553) saw her as a composed, self-confident soldier.

Caravaggio (1571-1610) saw her as a very young woman, squeamish in her task, but encouraged by her older housekeeper who had seen much life and death in her time.

Artemisa Gentileschi (1593-1653), a woman herself, saw Judith as an older woman, focused and confident, doing what needed to be done.

Not surprisingly, feminist scholars (such as myself) also offer insight into Judith’s story.

Whenever trouble strikes the Jewish people, the Tanakh uses metaphors to express how devastated we become. We’re spoken of as if we are a person low on the social ladder – usually a woman: a widow, a rape victim, a wife whose husband kicked her out.

The poets and prophets who offer these metaphors are trying to teach several things at the same time.

Think of the metaphor:

An entire city or country is like a woman with no safe place to go.


A woman with no safe place to go is like an entire country, devastated.

If you can imagine a devastated city, the metaphor raises your awareness about the difficult life many women lead. Some live their entire lives as if under siege.

If you are familiar with the plight of women, multiply that by several thousand, and you understand life in a devastated city.

The book of Judith emphasizes the metaphor. The name of the hero, the widow Judith, means “a Jewish woman.” Her city is called Betulia, which means, “God’s virgin,” or as we might say today, “God’s single woman.” In the Book of Judith, this vulnerable single woman saves a city that is like a vulnerable single woman.

What are the messages hidden in this metaphor? That women must organize to help themselves, as they have done in contemporary movements against domestic violence, and in favor of job equity? That the powerful should be careful about taking advantage of others, because the oppressed can organize and prevail? That the survival of the Jewish people depends on the actions of every individual, no matter how socially insignificant they may be?

Earlier this week, I told a dramatic version of Judith’s story to about 30 students at King David High School as part of a Chanukah learning celebration. I asked the students some open-ended questions, and here are some of the answers they were willing to write down.

Q. Did Judith’s ends justify her means?

The minority opinion: Murder should never be accepted or allowed at any time.

The majority opinion: She put herself in danger to save people she may not even have known. It was necessary in a time of war to save her people. She disposed of a non-civilian to save many civilians. We are taught that one person is a whole world. Killing one world [like Judith did] is better than killing multiple worlds [as Holofernes was doing]. The good vastly outweighs the bad.

Q. Should holidays have both male and female heroes?

A composite answer: There are a variety of holidays with one or the other, and some with both. The stories are not meant to empower a certain sex, but to encourage the Jewish spirit. It is very important to have male and female heroes because it inspires people in today’s time to do what they believe, no matter what gender.

I also received an unsolicited reflection:

There’s always the question of validity. I believe the story is true in the sense that the themes and morals have a lot to teach. But I don’t believe it really occurred. Not that my opinion would be widely accepted. Don’t tell the Orthodox, they’ll expel me.

And I received an unsolicited limerick:

There was once a woman with beauty and brains.

With her city in danger, one plan remains.

She tricked a man into bed,

Ruthlessly chopped off his head,

The worst part was removing the stains.

Whether you want to take the last line as a joke about the difficulties of doing laundry to get rid of literal stains, or as a deep observation about psychological trauma is up to you.

After these reflections: How do you see Judith? What messages are expressed in a plot where a single, vulnerable woman saves a city that is like a single, vulnerable woman? Do Judith’s noble ends justify her deceptive, violent means? Should Jewish holidays have both male and female heroes? Please pursue any question that got you thinking.

  1. I love your commentaries and varying insights, thank you…….The story of Judith reminds me of Yael. Their stories certainly parallels one another. I personally believe that these two women were very brave women, who set out with the intention or attitude of going where no man could.. What gave them this courage ? No doubt, their courage came to them through life’s experiences that toughened them, as you surmised in your article. Tough times require tough action. Really, Hadasseh and other women of valor may of not had the same circumstances…however…they performed their particular task with HaShem’s help, to be at the right place at the right time, fulfilling destiny. May we all follow suit.

    1. Thanks, Deborah, for reminding us how these women can be models of what courage looks like in times of war. Happy Hanukah and Happy New Year.

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