Judith & Yael - Righteous Radicals
Part 1 of 2
With Chanukah upon us, Women in Judaism takes a brief look at Judith and
the other heroic women associated with these days, who saved the Jewish
people from enemy hands. Their clarity and remarkable commitment to Torah
remain inspiring to this day. In addition, we begin a two-part exploration
of Yael, whose heroism at an earlier time in history also ensured Jewish
Judith & Yael:
Chanukah dates back to the era (165 BCE) when the Syrian Greeks controlled
Jewish life in Israel. In an effort to extinguish the spiritual vitality
of the Jews, the Greeks prohibited many important rituals - under threat of
death - including the circumcision of Jewish babies. Our sages tell us
that, nonetheless, the Jewish women had their babies circumcised. They
also insisted that their men come out from hiding and wage war against the
Greeks. In order to pressure their husbands and brothers into action, many
women threw themselves and their babies from the walls of Jerusalem as if
to say, "You will have neither children nor wives if you do not earn us the
right to publicly observe what is holy to us." Inspired to action by the
Jewish women, Matityahu and his five sons eventually rose up and saved the
Jewish people, paving the way to the Chanukah miracles.
Another decree issued by the Greek kings was that upon marriage, a Jewish
maiden was first to be brought to the local ruler. Judith was one of those
summoned. Judith, "...the daughter of Yochanan Cohen Gadol was especially
beautiful and the tyrant king desired her. She seemingly acquiesced, came
before him and fed him cheese foods till he became thirsty. She gave him
wine to drink till he became intoxicated and fell asleep, where upon she
severed his head and brought it to Yerushalyim. When the Syrian soldiers
saw that the king had perished, they fled."
Today's Jewish woman has an opportunity to commemorate the deeds of her
foremothers who lived at the time of the Greek exile. On Chanukah, many
women have the custom not to work during the thirty minutes that the
Chanukiah's candles are obligated to burn. Resting in this way reminds us
of how the Jews rested from their enemies, thanks in great part to Judith
and her sisters in exile.
Turning now to the heroine, Yael, we see a similar commitment to Jewish
values and an ability to harness her unique feminine strength, even in the
face of danger. While Yael lived hundreds of years before Judith, both
stories resound with the same timeless resources of the Jewish woman. Yael
appears in The Book of Judges. One of its passages recounts how she single
handedly kills Sisera, general of the Canaanite army attacking her people:
"...Yael went out toward Sisera and... he turned aside to her to the
tent...she opened a skin of milk, gave him to drink, and covered him....
Yael, wife of Heber, took a tent peg, placed a hammer in her hand, came to
him stealthily, and drove the peg into his temple and it went through into
the ground...and he died" (Judges: 4:17-21).
This event is again described in the "Song of Deborah," later in
Judges. Deborah, a prophetess and leader of Israel at the time, praises
God and all who had a share in assisting her victorious people. Of Yael,
"Blessed by women is Yael, wife of Heber the Kenite; by women in the tent
will she be blessed. He asked for water, she gave him milk; in a stately
saucer she presented cream. She stretched her hand to the peg and her right
hand to the laborers' hammer. She hammered Sisera, severed his head,
smashed and pierced his temple" (Judges 5: 24-36).
The first sentence lets us know that Yael is blessed by "women in the tent"
for her actions. "Tent" alludes to the modesty that is one of a Jewish
woman's greatest assets. This image seems to contradict the violence that
Yael exhibits in killing Sisera. Her action can certainly be called heroic,
but it is hard to see it as modest. Why then do "women in the tent" -
modest women - praise Yael as one of their own? Who are these women and why
are they set forth as arbiters of Yael's modesty and righteousness?
The midrash tells us that the "women in the tent" are the Matriarchs Sarah,
Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. The Torah text closely allies each woman with the
image of a tent, which symbolizes her feminine modesty. In Genesis,
Chapter 18:9, the angels ask Abraham, "Where is Sarah your wife?" He
replies, "Behold! - in the tent!" Our commentators explain that, although
she had guests, Sarah maintained a certain separation by remaining in her
tent. With Rebecca, Genesis, Chapter 24:67 tells us that Isaac brings her
into the tent of his mother. The Torah makes a point of mentioning this,
because it reveals a certain inner quality about Rebecca. Similarly,
Genesis 31:33 mentions the tents of Rachel and Leah, to imply that they are
women of modesty. If Yael deserves to be praised for her modesty, Sarah,
Rebecca, Rachel and Leah are suitable women for this job.
Beyond being blessed by these female luminaries, one midrashic commentator
states that Yael will be blessed even more than they. This interpretation
is derived from the two separate ways one might translate the Hebrew
preposition, "mem." One way is, "by," as translated above, "by women in
the tents." The second way is, "more than," which makes the translation,
"more than women in the tent." While commentaries bring down both
translations, the second one is more problematic. The Book of Judges tells
us that Yael "went out from her tent" to lure in Sisera. She did not
remain modestly concealed inside. How can Yael be considered more modest
or - blessed "more than" - her paradigmatic foremothers who literally
stayed inside their tents?
Our next class will resolve this seeming contradiction.
Women in Judaism, Copyright (c) 2001 by Mrs. Leah Kohn and Project Genesis, Inc.