Where Are the Women in Chanukah?

December 03, 2010

Tonight is the third night of the Jewish holiday of Chanukah. Though it often coincides with the Christmas season (and is sometimes treated as a sort of Jewish version thereof), Chanukah is actually a minor holiday that commemorates two events: a historical military rebellion and an eight-night miracle. In neither the battles nor the miracle do women really play a part. So what gives?

First, the history: During the second century BCE, the Assyrian Empire ruled over the last remnants of the ancient kingdom of Israel. Around the 170s BCE, the Assyrian King Antiochus IV began a massive cultural campaign called Hellenization, meant to standardize language, culture, and religion across his sprawling empire. Although the Jews, with our distinctive religion, were initially exempt from the religious laws, eventually the Assyrians instituted a death penalty for any subject who failed to worship Antiochus.

After many Jews refused to do so and were put to death, they rebelled. A clan called the Maccabees, under their patriarch Matthias, began an insurgence marked by several unlikely victories over superior Assyrian forces. The Assyrians despoiled the holy temple in Jerusalem and sent more troops, but the rebels eventually won enough battles that the Assyrians gave up.

The religious story picks up here: After the Jews reclaimed the temple, nearly all the oil for the ner tamid, the lamp that is supposed to remain lit without fail, had been destroyed or desecrated by the Assyrians. But one single day’s supply of oil miraculously lasted eight full days, which gave leaders enough time to secure more holy oil. The eight nights and eight candles associated with the modern holiday of Chanukah celebrate this extraordinary event.

So where were the women during the battle and the miracle? There are a couple minor, apocryphal stories — a woman, Judith, seduced and then assassinated an Assyrian general, and another woman named Hannah watched her seven sons martyred before committing suicide. However, women are largely absent in the Chanukah tale, as they are in so many ancient biblical narratives.

How then, as a progressive Jew and a women’s rights advocate, do I justify celebrating a minor holiday in which women’s roles have been almost completely ignored? How can the story resonate with me, or with millions of progressive Jews?

Chanukah, like many holidays, is what we and our families and communities make of it. How many Jewish women tonight will light the candles and recite the blessings; how many women rabbis will lead services and give sermons on Chanukah? Who can think of modern — particularly progressive — Judaism today without its female lay and religious leaders and social justice advocates?

So is it a problem that women are absent in the ancient narrative? Not to me, because every time we celebrate Chanukah today, we have the opportunity to write a modern narrative, one full of strong women leaders who aren’t relegated to the roles of martyr or femme fatale.

Avatar By:   |   December 03, 2010

1 Comment

  1. Avatar Kathe Mayer says:

    I like your thoughts and I will have a hanukiah filled with 5 candles for my branch’s holiday party Sunday Dec.5th.

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