The story of Hanukkah, the annual festival of Maccabean might and miracles, doesn’t talk much about women, although two are occasionally associated with the holiday. One is Judith, the beautiful Jewish widow who single-handedly comes up with a plan to end a major military siege of the town of Bethulia, then implements it herself: She talks her way into the enemy camp, wins the trust of the Assyrian general and chops off his head with his sword. Like the rest of the Hanukkah story, her astounding bravery is left out of the Hebrew Bible; instead it’s relegated to the body of texts known as the Apocrypha. The other woman, called Hannah in later accounts, is praised for supporting and encouraging her seven sons to sacrifice their lives, rather than succumb to King Antiochus’s efforts to force them to publicly eat pork. The story of Hannah, who martyrs herself after her sons are killed, is briefly recounted in the Second Book of Maccabees, but she is unnamed.
I’d like to make the case that these little-known figures, Judith and Hannah, are just two of many women in history we should be remembering on Hanukkah. In fact, it’s time to shine a feminist light on the holiday and further elevate the eighth night. Why the eighth night? It’s when the full complement of candles are ablaze and the menorah casts the most light, when the divine feminine aspect, Shekinah, linked with light, is at her most powerful. Let’s add a new blessing to remember all the Jewish women who paved the way for the rights women enjoy today. In this way, we can rescue more women from the flickering shadows.
Allow me to offer the following lines for such a blessing. They are adapted from the prologue of RBG’s Brave and Brilliant Women, the book about inspirational Jewish women that I wrote in collaboration with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
They lived in ancient times and in times nearer our own, in faraway lands and right here, and they each had different talents and interests. Whether of Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Middle Eastern or African descent, they were guided or shaped by Jewish beliefs or values.
Some were poor and self-taught; others were rich and were fortunate to receive a better education than most women of their era.
Some had families who understood and encouraged them; others had families who stood in their way. Some married and had children; others didn’t, some by choice.
Some had hard lives; others never personally suffered. Some lived to old age; others had lives tragically cut short by illness or the Holocaust and other cataclysms. Many faced antisemitism as well as gender discrimination.
Some never saw themselves as torchbearers for other women; others were very conscious that they were trailblazers. A few were proud to be called “troublemakers.”
What they all have in common is that they transcended what was expected, allowed or tolerated for a woman of their time despite the obstacles. They achieved what was unimaginable, and the unimaginable led to the advancement of women and to changing the world for the better.
May we remember them, learn from them and continue their work. Amen.
Since last Hanukkah, we’ve seen how easy it is to roll back women’s rights in this country, making it harder than ever to ignore that this march through history to gender equity is not finished. That’s why on this upcoming eighth night, I suggest people of all ages, faiths and genders say this blessing, name a trailblazing woman and share her story. This new ritual will make the final night of the holiday even more meaningful than it already is. Of course, it doesn’t have to be on the eighth night: any night will do or even all of them.
And don’t forget to remember Moment during the holiday. A few years before he died, our cofounder Elie Wiesel told me how much he had come to love Moment, because, as he said so poetically, it tastefully and elegantly expressed the tumult of Jewish thought. I think of this often. The staff and I work long, long hours to carefully craft this magnificent tumult and distill it into something of clarity and beauty. This holiday, please honor our labors of love and spread the word about our important work by buying print and/or digital Moment subscriptions for friends and family. It is a perfect way to introduce them to the mind-expanding breadth and depth of the Jewish world. You can even visit the Moment Shop for other holiday gift ideas!