Analysis by Rachel Avraham about women in the Chanukkah story

Just as Jewish women have held prominent positions throughout Jewish history, Jewish women played an important part in the Chanukkah story. No one who is intellectually honest can imply that the Chanukkah-story is male dominated.    

Photo Credit: Reuters

As Jews around the world celebrate Chanukkah by eating oily foods and milk products, playing dreidel, and lighting Chanukkiahs, we are reminded of great heroes throughout our history who dedicated their lives to the religious freedom and national liberation of the Jewish people.  In particular, we remember the Jewish heroes who resisted the Seleucid oppression, such as Judah Maccabbee, the leader of the Maccabean revolt, Rabbi Eleazar, who was put to death by the Seleucids for refusing to eat pork, and Eleazar Avaran, who died while killing a Seleucid war elephant as he was fighting with the Maccabees. 

 A feminist activist associated with an organization supported by the New Israel Fund recently claimed in the Times of Israel that the heroes of Chanukkah are predominantly male and implied this represented women’s exclusion from Jewish history.  She wrote, “Amidst the delicious food and the candles, the message we send to children is that, yet again, the (male) hero physically overpowers our enemies and leads the Jews to (military) victory.” However, any one who has studied Jewish history from an Orthodox perspective in depth understands that the reality is that Jewish women played a prominent role in the Chanukkah story, just as they have throughout Jewish history. 

 Unlike in Islam, which some Egyptian feminists claim lacks female prophets and influential figures in general, Judaism is a religion where women are well-represented in leadership roles compared to other major world religions.  Judaism is a religion that not only possesses female prophets such as Devorah and Miriam, as well as strong-willed matriarchs like Sarah, Rivka, Leah and Rachel, but also prides itself on having many female heroines playing prominent roles throughout our rich history, such as Queen Esther in Ancient Persia, Beruriah in the Talmud, Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi in the Ottoman Empire, and Golda Meir in the State of Israel.  

 Not surprisingly, there are also many Jewish women who played a prominent role in the Chanukkah story.  All religious Jews are familiar with the story of Hannah and her seven sons.  Antiochus IV was determined to force Jews to not follow the Torah and to become Hellenized Greeks instead.  He outlawed circumcision, kosher food, Shabbat, and the study of the Torah.   Hannah raised her seven children to stubbornly cling onto their faith and to possess strong Jewish values.   She watched all of her seven children be martyred for refusing to give up their Judaism and supported each of her sons to their last breath.   Hannah is considered the ideal Jewish mother, who raised children that could stand up for their beliefs in the face of brutal oppression.

 Another Jewish heroine of Chanukkah is Yehudit, who is believed to be the daughter of Yochanan the priest, a Hasmonean, and is one of the bravest Jewish women in history.  According to Jewish tradition, the village of Bethulia was being besieged by the cruel Holofernes, a Seleucid general known for his cruelty.  In order to defeat the enemy, Yehudit seduced Holofernes with salty cheese and wine.   When he became drunk, she decapitated him and brought his head back to the village.   This led the enemy into confusion and Yehudit arranges for the ancient Israelites to launch a surprise attack while the enemy was still in shock, which led to a Jewish victory against the Seleucids. 

 Aside from the story of Hannah and her seven sons and the heroism of Yehudit, there are numerous versions in the Jewish sources about the daughter of a High Priest.  According to the Scholion commentary to Megillat Tammit, the Seleucid Greeks also used to routinely rape Jewish brides before their weddings.  The authors of the commentary claimed that many Jews, in order to avoid this horror, abstained from public marriages and instead married women in secret.  However, the daughter of a high priest was too prominent of a wedding to conceal.  Nevertheless, when a Seleucid official came to rape the maiden, the Maccabees came to her rescue. 

 Additionally, the She’iltot of the Babylonian Rabbi Ahai Gaon recounted that the Seleucid Greeks, after corrupting all of the oil in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, attempted to rape Hannah, the daughter of a High Priest while her betrothed, Elazar the Maccabee, was forced to look on helplessly.  A Torah scroll was to serve as the mattress for the rape.   In the end, Elazar the Maccabee kills the Seleucid General and saves his bride. 

 In another tale found both in Rav Ahai’s writing and in Yelenik’s Beit Hamidrash, an unnamed woman, who learned that the elders were about to permit her to be raped, decides to protest by dressing in rags, drinking a bottle of wine, and drinking with random passer-bys.  In Yelemik’s version, she strips naked at a pre-wedding feast.  “Where are all the good men?” she cries. “Are you ashamed by my nakedness, but you are not embarrassed to abandon me to the uncircumcised?”  Her theatrics lead to the Maccabees coming to her rescue.  

 All of these stories demonstrate that Jewish women were any thing but passive spectators in the Chanukkah story.  As Professor Zohar Baram, who specializes in the Hasmonean period stated, “This Midrash, as well as other references I found to women during the Hasmonean period, convinced me that women were as determined as the men to fight for Jewish survival and sovereignty, and when that proved impossible, they did not hesitate to choose death.”   

 In sum, only a heavily assimilated Diaspora Jew and/or a Jew affiliated with the New Israel Fund would be so unfamiliar with Jewish history to imply that the whole story of Chanukkah is male-dominated.  Furthermore, only such a Jew would diminish the merits of these great Jewish heroines to promote any political cause associated with the New Israel Fund.    After all, if such a person had lived in Ancient Israel, their sympathies would have most likely lied with Hellenized Jews such as Jason, Menelaus, and the Tobias family rather than the Maccabees, Rabbi Eleazar, Eleazar Avaran, Hannah and her seven sons, Yehudit, and the daughter of the Jewish High Priest.   For this reason, their arguments related to Chanukkah hold no merit.