Hanukkah: Fiery Feminist Holiday or Women’s Consolation Prize?
Since I was raised as a child in an Orthodox community, Hanukkah was the closest thing I had to a feminist holiday.
I grew up in Australia, where I celebrated Hanukkah at summer camp with a menorah lighting that rivalled Shabbat for its beauty and community. We sang “Hanerot Hallalu” with the traditional Hasidic melody and danced around the dining room with our arms around each other. We played variations of dreidel throughout the festival and doughnuts were currency in the camp black market.
One of the ways we learned of the story of Hanukkah was through children’s story tapes. Along with catchy tunes about spinning dreidels and lighting the candles from left to right, it featured the type of song that was rare in my diet of traditionally Orthodox Jewish children’s media—a homage to women, and their contribution to the Hanukkah story.
Print, “Judith with the Head of Holofernes,” 19th century, unknown artist.
“Yehudis and Chanah…” the song went, using the Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciation for the two women, Judith and Hannah. “They lived their lives with emunah (faith)”… and so we sang to them. Judith, the Hasmonean power-woman who slyly murdered a prominent Greek-Syrian general by feigning romantic interest, feeding him salty cheeses to stimulate thirst and plying him with strong wines before decapitating him. Hannah, the mother of seven sons who all defied the Greek-Syrian king Antiochus by refusing to worship his deities because she encouraged their faith. Each of her son’s was killed, and Hannah jumped from her roof in despondence.
According to halakha (Jewish Law), it’s important that everyone in the household be present – not just physically, but in mindset too—when it’s time to light the candles. While halakha usually exempts women from time-bound mitzvot such as daily prayers to be recited at specific times, Hanukkah candle-lighting was an exception because, after all, there were some very prominent ladies involved in this fight for religious freedom. So, during Hanukkah, women were reminded that they needed to stop doing their Things at Home (it was always assumed their work would be household-related) 20 minutes prior to candle-lighting. It was one of the only times I felt that female observance was relevant to the matter.
While I appreciate that Hanukkah is a holiday that finally – finally! – allows some women into the story and ritual, something still gave me pause. It took me years to realize why.
As a Jewish educator, writer, and currently, an after-school Hebrew teacher, I have many occasions to think about the holiday. When I told to my students the story of Judith and Hannah, most of them didn’t bat an eyelash. Women heroines are becoming more commonplace in the texts they study, from Greek mythology to modern politics, and for many of them feminine power is so obvious it’s more bizarre when it’s not included than the other way around.
Yet at the same time, it’s said that Judith devised her plan and was only capable of convincing the town elders because of the standing of her late husband, and her personal status as a royal Judaean. Hannah, with seven sons, was never asked to prove her faith. She was female, and likely didn’t count as a target of Hellenization.
And the other night, as I was getting ready to light my candles, I found myself in a bind. I had a ton of work to do. I’m a freelancer, someone who relies on every project to get the rent paid, and the work I had couldn’t wait. But I also really wanted to soak up this moment of not working for 20 minutes that in childhood I had associated with feminine empowerment. Then I realized that, just as there are complications in the stories of Judith and Hannah, the empowerment of women for once having a time-bound mitzvah never really felt all that empowering. It was about my Mom getting her last load of laundry in before enforced idleness.
I felt like this move, once apparently feminist to the Rabbis of the past, was actually the opposite. It didn’t give me a choice in the matter and indicated that my “work” was less likely to be the marketing strategy I had in front of me and more likely to be of the floor-mopping variety.
So where does that leave me with Hanukkah, the once-feminist holiday of my youth that now feels like a consolation prize the Rabbis decided to give to women?
Judith and Hannah were women who didn’t wait to be told what to do, who didn’t ask for permission. They bucked the trend and pioneered new ways of looking at things. Though I don’t necessarily agree with their tactics in today’s day and age, I can admire the fortitude and the strength that had them decide to be different, to dare to try, to hold the flag aloft in ways that the battle-warrior Maccabees did not. As powerful, strong, bearers of faith and truth when nobody else would stand up.
I wonder whether that should be our Hanukkah lesson for today. As women of faith – as all beings of faith, really – to stand up and show we matter.
To remind those who battle with blood and spears and ineffectual politics, that all it takes is one woman standing up. Without so much killing, please Goddess, this time around.
To remind those who granted us consolation prizes of ritual practices that it’s up to us to redefine how we are honored by our traditions, by reminding the gatekeepers why we deserve that honor.
To dig deep and find the faith, and—like these women of inspiration and, yes, complication—blaze forward toting the lights of freedom and a belief that it can be done. It is possible. We can shine this light, and make the world brighter.
Tonight is “Chag Habanot”—the Festival of the Daughters— which celebrates Judith and her role in the Hanukkah story. It is customary to eat dairy and celebrate women on this night.This article is Part I of a two-part series by Rishe Groner investigating Hanukkah through a feminist lens. Part II will look more broadly at the implications of seduction and violence as told through the story of Judith and the poetry of Hanukkah.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.