You’ve probably heard the PBS version of the Hanuka story, but what if HBO or Netflix got its hands on it? It might sound a little like this (Otzar Hamidrashim, Eisenstein, p. 192):
The rabbis taught: In the days of the wicked Hellenic empire, they decreed that any woman who marries must first be deflowered by the hegemon, and only then return to her husband. So they did for 3 years and 8 months until the daughter of High Priest Johanan was to be married. [Her family] sought to bring her to the hegemon, so she undid her hair, tore her garments and stood naked before all the people. Judah and his brothers were enraged and said: “Take her out and burn her, lest the king hear of this and endanger our lives, for she has been so brazen to stand naked before this entire people.”
Said she to him: “Shall I be humiliated before my brothers and comrades and not be humiliated before an uncircumcised heathen, to whom you wish to betray me, to bring me to him that he may sleep with me?”
When Judah and his comrades heard this, they resolved to kill the hegemon. They immediately dressed her in royal finery and made her a bridal canopy of myrtle, from the house of the Hasmoneans to the house of the hegemon. All the harpists and lyrists and musicians accompanied her, singing and dancing all their way to the hegemon’s house.
The hegemon heard this and said to his lords and servants: “Look, these are the great ones of Israel, offspring of Aaron the Priest–how they rejoice to do my bidding!” He ordered them all to go out.
Judah and his comrades then entered, with his sister, and they chopped off [the hegemon’s] head and looted all that was his. Then they killed the lords and servants and trampled the Hellenes until they were at an end.
So before there was a Red Wedding, there was a Myrtle Wedding. But that’s only half the story. The Midrash goes on to state that the news made it back to “the king of the Hellenes,” who was outraged and immediately marched his legions to the gates of Jerusalem. The Jews had no idea what to do, until “a widow woman, by the name of Judith” stepped forward.
She took her maidservant and went to the gates of Jerusalem, saying: “Let me out! God may work a miracle through my hands.” They acceded and she went to the king, who asked her what she wanted. Said she: “My lord! I am the daughter of great ones in Israel, and my brothers are prophets. They prophesy that tomorrow Jerusalem will fall to you!”
Once he heard this, the king was very happy… He believed this Judith and fell in love with her, asking: “Do you wish to marry me?”
Said she: “My lord the king, I am not fit for even one of your servants! However, since this is your heart’s desire, let it be known in the camp that whoever sees two women going to the spring shall not detain them, as I must go there to wash and immerse myself.”
They immediately did so. The king then made a great feast and they all became intoxicated, and then each went to his tent. The king fell asleep in her bosom, and this Judith took a sword, chopped his head off and wrapped it in a sheet.
She carried it all the way to the gates of Jerusalem and said: “Open the gates, for the Holy One has already wrought a miracle by my hands!”
They replied: “Haven’t you done enough to whore and corrupt yourself, that now you come against us in a conspiracy?”
She immediately showed them the king’s head.
Upon seeing this, they opened the gates, pouring out and shouting: “Hear, Israel, Lord our God, Lord is one!”
These two women use their sexuality in a powerful way, exposing not only the evil of the enemy, but the hypocrisy of their own brethren. These Jewish men make their peace with rape and sexual assault — of their own sisters! (not that that should make a difference) — as long as they don’t have to witness it. Only by challenging the men’s concepts of modesty — specifically in the context of dress and ritual immersion, two of the most explicit ways in which males exercise power over females in the traditional context — do these women manage to save the entire nation. And the salvation is twofold: from the armies of the enemy and from the mindset of their own brothers, fathers and husbands.
I know this past week the men of Israel have not lived up to the example of these two heroic women. But hey, Hanukkah is still a week away…