Judith, the Forgotten Chanukah Hero and the Power of Faith

‘Judith,’ by Giorgione, c. 1504. (Wikipedia)

For most of us, when we reflect on the history of the Chanukah holiday, we remember 1) the Maccabees, who overthrew the Syrians and reclaimed Jerusalem and 2) the miracle of the oil which they used to light the Menorah in the Second Temple lasting for eight nights instead of one. The leader in this narrative is Judah, who, through his guerilla warfare tactics, ended up succeeding in a task that his father could not. The story is not complicated: Judah had a role as military commander, a clear task, to defeat the enemy, and he had the support of an army of individuals.

As someone who studied in a Jewish day school, that is where my Chanukah knowledge ended. Recently, I had the opportunity to learn about a much more complex leader, Judith. While she is no longer widely recognized, for several centuries during the Middle Ages she was an integral part of the Chanukah celebration. As documented in The Book of Judith, the story goes that in the 2nd century BCE the town of Bethulia Israel was besieged by the Assyrian army and their water supply cut off. The elders agreed to surrender and Judith, acting alone, approached the general of the Assyrian army, Holofernes. She used her beauty to seduce him, got him drunk and decapitated him when he fell asleep. She encouraged the Israelites to attack, and not only did she save her small town, but she also saved the entire country from Assyrian control.

Now that is female power!

Here is a widow, who used her feminine guile to appeal to an influential man, gain an upper hand and saved the Jewish people from destruction, performing, what can be referred to as a necessary evil. Professor Margolis from Harvard Business School and Professor Molinsky from Brandeis University’s International Business School have conducted research in this area, investigating the experiences of people (e.g., managers, police, doctors) that are required to do tasks that involve doing harm in order to advance the greater good. They found that these individuals often feel a broad range of emotions, including guilt, shame, anger, anxiety.

Like great leaders with high Emotional Intelligence, Judith didn’t act out of callousness or ignore the pain that she would impose. Faced with a scary, dangerous situation, a natural reaction is the fight-flight-freeze response. The elders froze — they prayed to G-d to save them and when G-d didn’t, they prayed again. Judith also prayed to G-d, but rather to give her the strength to act in such a way that compromised her natural tendencies — to commit lies and murder. She “fell prostrate, pushed ashes upon her head and uncovered the sackcloth she was wearing”. A righteous woman, she is ambivalent by what she knows she must do to save her people and the deceit involved in doing so. Unlike many of the individuals in the Margolis/Molinsky research, Judith did not express compassion or sympathy for her victim. Rather, when she returns to her village she is clear that she was able to save face, “Yet I swear by the Lord, who has protected me in the way I have walked, that it was my face that seduced Holofernes to his ruin, and that he did not defile me with sin or shame”.

Today’s leadership buzzword is resiliency, the ability to bounce back and recover from adversity. What I appreciate most from Judith’s story is her approach — she faced the threat in a strategic way, understanding her strengths and how to use them. She acted courageously, putting aside her fear in support of the common good, and most importantly she was guided by her faith in G-d. Although she acted alone, she did not feel alone. Right before she killed her enemy, she called out to G-d, “O Lord, G-d of all might, in this hour look graciously on the work of my hands for the exaltation of Jerusalem. Now is the time for aiding your heritage and for carrying out my design to shatter the enemies who have risen against us…. Strengthen me this day, Lord, God of Israel!”

While I am definitely no Judith, as a mother, there are many cases where I feel like I am doing a necessary evil and carrying the burden alone. This is especially true today, trying to keep my children healthy and Covid-free when all they want is to socialize with their friends or trying to limit their social media and computer-use when everyone else seems to be on it day and night. Fortunately, I have a spouse who provides a balanced perspective, but his approach is much more hands-off, trusting that the kids will do well regardless of our involvement. I, on the other hand, feel the need to act, often more than I should. I have a difficult time asking for help, perhaps because I want to maintain control, and sometimes end up feeling overwhelmed. My takeaway from the Judith story is not how I can be more courageous, but instead how can I turn to G-d and call on my inner strength, so that I am able to make difficult decisions and face my fears. And although we may not have an army of Maccabees supporting us, we are not alone.

About the Author
Rachel Goldstein is an executive coach, working with clients in Harvard Business School's Executive Education programs and independently. Rachel has an MBA from Harvard, a BA from Yale University and coach training through CTI. Rachel has a deep understanding of global leadership, and has led teams across the globe during her 18 years at Boston Consulting Group. She serves on the boards of various non-profits and is a life-long learner, including engaging in the study of Daf Yomi. Learn more abour Rachel at https://www.rgcoach.com
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