Monday, December 6, 2010

Shining Stars of Davida: Hannah and Judith

The holiday of Hanukkah is all about keeping your identity. The story of the holiday is about the Jews’ success over the Greeks. The Greeks tried to impose Hellenism on the Jews, who refused to assimilate into the culture. This is a valuable lesson for Jews and women alike. We must keep on fighting for our ideals, despite how bleak the circumstances may look.

Throughout history, the Jews have been a minority; as Tiffany Shlain points out in her mini-movie The Tribe, if the world were a tribe of 100 people, one-quarter of one person would be Jewish. Despite the population disparity, we have managed to survive. We cannot turn our backs on the religion of our mothers and fathers and assimilate into the mass culture. We learn this lesson from the two strong women associated with the holiday of Hanukkah: Hannah and Judith.

Hannah (also identified as Miriam and Shamone) had seven sons, and the eight were brought in front of Antiochus IV, the Greek king who outlawed brit milah (circumcision), kosher, Shabbat (Sabbath), taharat hamishpacha (family purity), and all the other integral parts of a Jewish life. He ordered the boys one by one to bow to him, signifying their acceptance of his religious beliefs, and when they refused, the king had them tortured and killed. When the youngest son approached him, Antiochus wanted to spare him and offered him limitless gold and silver in exchange. When the boy still refused, Antiochus asked Hannah to tell her son to bow. She did the opposite, and Antiochus had that son killed too. How Hannah herself died is less clear: the Midrash says that she lost her mind and threw herself from a roof, while Josephus says that she died along with her sons.

However she met her end, Hannah exhibited the strength and courage that we should all strive to have. After watching six of her sons die, she still encouraged her seventh to die al pi kiddush Hashem (as a sanctification of God). She refused to assimilate, or to allow her family to assimilate, even though it meant death otherwise.

When Judith lived is not entirely clear, but often identified as the time after the official story of Hanukkah happened, and she is recognized as the daughter of Johanan, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). After the Maccabees won the war, the Greeks still occupied parts of Israel, including the walled city of Betulia. Judith lived in the sieged Betulia and was determined to end the starvation she saw. One night she left the city and entered the war camp, where Holofernes, the army general, was. She entered his tent and pretended she wanted to be a spy for him as she fed him cheese and wine, foods that make a person sleepy. He soon dropped off and she decapitated him in his sleep, taking his head to Betulia, enabling the Jews to fight back.

Judith is also a strong woman who we should all try to emulate. She had no way of knowing if she would make it back to Betulia from Holofernes, as he could have easily killed or raped her without anyone being the wiser. Nonetheless, rather than encouraging her father, the influential Kohen Gadol, to tell people to assimilate into the Greek culture and spare themselves, or assimilating herself, she risked her life to save her city’s lives and souls.

Hanukkah is associated with several numbers. It is usually represented by the number eight, as the oil in the Menorah that was supposed to last for one day lasted for eight. Eight is also considered the number of feleh, wonder. Seven, another Hanukkah number, is the number of nais, miracle, a combination of everyday and holy, like Shabbat, the seventh day of the week. The Gematria (numerical value) of the names Judith and Hannah in Hebrew (Yehudit and Chana) are 435 and 63, respectively. Together, the two equal 498. The number 49 is a multiple of seven, and the number following it is eight. This comes to show that Judith and Hannah brought miracle and wonder to the world through their courageous, strong acts. In order to bring such holiness to the world, we must follow their lead.

I dub Hannah and Judith inductees into Shining Stars of Davida - strong women and men who make feminists proud.

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