Women As Role Models

Two stories related to Hanukkah focus on the heroic efforts of women.

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Artist and critic Beth Haber notes that the story of Judith has inspired a long list of artistic representations, ranging from the rather violent depictions of the beheading of Holofernes by Andrea Mantegna to the stone sculptures of Judith on the north portal wall of the Chartres Cathedral. Michelangelo himself painted figures of Judith and her maid on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Elisabetta Sirani and Fede Galizia used Judith as subject, while Caravaggio's famous painting is far more sympathetic to Holofernes than to Judith. A series of six paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi runs the gamut from the violence of the act itself to the resolve and determination in its aftermath. In addition, the Judith story also inspired a number of religious epics in many European countries, as well as musical oratorios by famous and not-so-famous composers.

Hannah and Her Sons

Another story of heroism involving a woman is associated with Hanukkah. The story of Hannah and her seven sons is recorded in the Second Book of Maccabees 7:1-41. [Hannah is a name from Rabbinic midrash; the Second Book of Maccabees refers to her as "the mother."] Unlike the militant story of Judith, Hannah's story is a tale of martyrdom.

It seems that Antiochus meets Hannah and her sons, who refuse to eat pig in public. As each son refuses, he is tortured and put to death in front of Hannah. Finally, before the last child is to be killed, Antiochus appeals to Hannah to direct him to eat the meat and be saved. Hannah asks her son what he wishes to do. He replies that he is only sorry that he had to wait so long to show his love of Torah. Hannah praises him and he is then martyred. Hannah dies, too. In different versions, Hannah is killed by Antiochus, throws herself from the city walls, or dies of grief over her beloved sons.

These stories of heroism shed light on the role of Jewish women in times of crisis. From the time of the Israelite midwives' refusal to accede to Pharaoh's decree to kill the firstborn Jewish males (Exodus 1:15-22) to the leadership of Deborah (Judges 4 and 5), the Jewish woman understands the severity of the situation and rallies the Jewish people to victory. In the Judith story, the Israelite men are depicted as weak and indecisive while she is willing to risk her own life to turn the tide.

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