Naomi Graetz

The continued relevance of the Book of Judith

During the last two weeks we have seen an interesting contrast between women as victims and women as heroines. On the one hand, we have been subjected to brutal depictions of rapes. The terrible and gruesome crimes perpetrated by Hamas have been revealed to the world. Demonstrations took place all over the world, especially at the United Nations. On the other hand, newspapers and YouTubes of an IDF artillery unit of female soldiers who were the first line defenders of our country also circulated.  They are war heroes, who on October 7th singlehandedly killed more than 50 Hamas terrorists and fought bravely as they had been trained to do (here). It was clear to all that these soldiers made history, not only in Israel but also in the world. YET, guess which story is getting more coverage in the media! Women as victims who were raped or women warriors who killed, in the line of duty?


Today is the first day of Hanukkah and everyone knows about the Maccabean revolt against Hellenism, a story which is told in the apocryphal first two Books of Maccabees which were written in the second century BCE. In 2 Maccabees, there is a story of a Jewish mother and her sevens sons, who committed suicide rather than eat pork. They, and especially the mother, who is sometimes referred to as Hannah (but not in the original book), are portrayed as courageous martyrs. The mother rather than allow her sons to live, encourages them to commit suicide and tells them that they will be rewarded in the future by God. Growing up in an Orthodox milieu this story repelled me. Dying al kiddush hashem, for the sake of God recalls to me the image of the Shahid, the martyr, or literally witness, who dies while fulfilling a religious commandment, including jihad, and perpetrates atrocities on innocent civilians while engaging in suicidal acts. Yet our story of Hannah and her seven sons’ martyrdom is still taught in Jewish schools the world over. One can argue, of course, that Hannah ONLY encourages her sons to kill themselves and then kills herself, and does not take down others with her.


As an adult I discovered a lesser-known apocryphal book, associated with Hanukkah, the Book of Judith. And over the years I have taught about her and collected art referring to her story. This book abounds with references to biblical texts (e.g. Gen. 34, Exod. 15, Josh. 2:13, Judg. 3:16, 19; 4-5; 1 Sam. 17: 51, 19:5, 2 Sam. 13:11; 20:13-20, Esth. 2:17, 5:2-3) and biblical characters (e.g. Rahav, Deborah, Yael, Delilah, David, the Wise woman of Abel, Esther). Judith is described in hyperbolic terms: she is beautiful, pious, seductive, well-bred; a natural leader, beloved and respected by all. She is the paradigm of a faithful godly woman, who in the name of God, for nationalistic reasons, brutally assassinates Israel’s enemy General Holofernes in cold blood. She decapitates him and brings his head back to her town. As a novella, Judith’s literary merit is debatable. The scholarly world is undecided as to whether the book was originally written in Hebrew and it was virtually unknown in rabbinic literature until medieval times. Once re-discovered by Jews, the book became associated with Hanukkah, both in art and legends.

Judith, however, was very well known in the Christian world, where she was depicted graphically by artists from 8th century frescoes through the Renaissance period and onwards until the present. In recent years there has been renewed interest in Judith. Judith’s new found popularity and her becoming a major “player” in feminist discussions is connected to both feminist discourse and the obvious referencing of familiar biblical characters and passages. However, one wonders about the moral and ethical aspects of Judith’s violent, premeditated act of killing Holofernes, and it is questionable whether Judith, who is described as a model of piety and faith, is a proper role model for modern women, despite the allusions to biblical heroes and heroines. This might be why the book is less known. Yet her act reminds us of Yael’s killing of Sisera (Judges 4-5) and her celebration of victory reminds us of Miriam’s timbrels and song after crossing the Reed Sea. Some scholars see the Judith story as an allegory with Judith representing Judah Maccabee. The fact that she is both brash and seductive may have made her unpopular in rabbinic times. Although the text does not mention Hanukkah, there is a Hebrew version of the story of Judith in the midrash which is sometimes read on Shabbat during Hanukkah.

The association of Judith with Hanukkah may be traced to the Talmud:

“Women are legally obligated to light Hanukkah candles when they are often exempt in Jewish law from other time-bound commandments: “They [women] were also in the miracle” (BT Shabbat 23a). Rashi (1041-1105), when discussing why women, as well as men, are required to light Chanukah candles, simply notes in his commentary (b. Shabbat 23a): They were part of the same miracle – when the Greeks decreed that Jewish virgin brides were to be bedded first by the ruler, a woman brought about the miraculous rescue. It was Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, 1085-1174), who mentions Judith, and he is quoted as saying “women were also in the miracle” means that they were saved by them (women) and it is written in the megillah by Esther and on Hannukah by Judith (Tosafot on BT Pesachim 108b).

This might be why there are many Hanukkah Menorahs with Judith, holding the head of Holofernes in one hand and a sword in the other. The depiction of Judith beheading Holofernes has been treated by many painters. One of the most famous is that by Artemisia Gentileschi, who was a rape victim. The glee with which she portrays Judith in the act of killing speaks for itself.

I think that one can generally say that the fact that Judith is relatively unknown has to do with her un-lady-like behavior. The world is uncomfortable with women who kill, even when the cause is justified. And if they are valorized there is often a political purpose to it. I came across an interesting article in the Calcalist magazine (here) . The headline was that “The IDF relates to women as objects. It is humiliating that in 2023 they are wowed by the fact that a woman drives a tank”.

The IDF puts the tank women who fought on October 7th in the forefront of the media as evidence of the successful integration of women into combat positions, [This so we will] forget the disdainful treatment given to the female observers [in the army] and other fighters who warned of an attack. In practice, the army still tries to prevent women from being integrated into all combat roles, including the most prestigious units, and also uses rabbinical requirements regarding integrated service to keep them out.

If you read Hebrew, the article is a real eye-opener. It would seem that it is in the “national” interest to focus on women as victims rather than as heroines, unless it serves some higher interest. So on Hanukkah, at least, let us focus on the Judiths among us, rather than on the Hannahs with her seven sons. There are alternative models of redemption. At the same time that we are protesting the atrocities of Hamas who have turned women into victims, we at the same time should be valorizing the women soldiers/warriors who have defended our country. We must remember both: and forget neither.


About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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