The Darker Side of Hanukkah

Some different--and surprising--stories about how the Maccabean revolt began.

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Women as a Symbol of the Nation

So, what really happened, and what can these different versions of the Hanukkah story teach us? The Book of Maccabees was written in close proximity to the events it describes, and scholars presume it to be largely historically accurate. Its triumphant themes emerge from an era when the Jews had relative autonomy and were free to praise zealous action. In contrast, the rabbinic texts that relate Hanukkah to stories of sexual violence were written at least eight centuries after the Maccabean revolt, and doubtless were primarily a product of the rabbis' imagination.

The rabbis' obsession with stories of rape gives us a sense of the anxiety they experienced in the Diaspora. Centuries after the Hanukkah story actually took place, Jewish communities told these stories about rape as an allegory for the emasculated position of the Jewish people in exile, often forced to abandon faith or weakened by competing religions. The helpless position of the virgin bride represents not only the susceptibility of the Jews to physical violence, but also the danger that enemy culture could penetrate and perhaps impregnate the minority.

These stories also reflect a patriarchal perspective, suggesting that women are dangerous--they draw the attention of non-Jews, they are more vulnerable then men, and if impregnated they are an avenue for the oppressor to infiltrate the nation. Further, these stories dramatize a class of people who are even more vulnerable then the men suffering under oppression, and the stories create the opportunity for the masculine heroes to eventually rise to their protection.

However, in the last version of the tale we examined, it is the woman herself who protests, while the elders remain stooped in an attempt to simply survive the oppression. Her choice to bare her body and protest the Jewish leadership is a threat to their defensive survival mode. Yet her willingness to martyr herself turns her into a heroine. She reminds her brothers that when tyranny seems impenetrable, even the weakest member of society can inspire a rebellion.

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Alieza Salzberg

Alieza Salzberg is a graduate student at the Hebrew University where she studies Rabbinic Literature. She is a fellow at the Hartman Institute's Seder Nashim, Beit Midrash for Judaism and Gender. She lives, writes and studies in Jerusalem.