By Rabbi Alan Turetz
Over the centuries, Chanukah has been imbued with a variety of meanings, mirroring the realities of different periods in our history. The Rabbis of the early centuries, facing the loss of sovereignty and power, stressed the divine miracle of the oil rather than military might and power. Medieval Jews, similarly oppressed, also accentuated similar divine redemptive acts, longing themselves for messianic deliverance. Modern Zionists, witnessing the 1948 rebirth of Medinat Yisrael, understandably underscored the military might of the few defeating the many, an emphasis all too applicable in 2012. Today, for so many, Chanukah is the paradigm for religious freedom – documenting the uprising of a religious community against suppression, risking all to stem the tide of Jewish Hellenization and the potential disappearance of Judaism itself. The American commitment to freedom of religion for all is certainly intertwined with so much intimated by our eight days of festivities.
Notable and resonant is the association of women in central ways with the Chanukah story. Most renowned in that regard is the singular courage reflected in the story of Judith and Holfernes. During the Maccabean wars, Judith’s hometown of Betulia was assaulted by a Greek-Assyrian army led by Holofernes, who laid it under siege. Quiet unassuming widow though she was, Judith set out to seek the enemy general. Dressed invitingly and elegantly, she encountered him outside of the town and lured him with her beauty. Lustfully, he invited her into his tent, was plied with wine and food, fell asleep and was done in by Judith – head and all. She escaped, the Greeks fled and the town was spared.
The Talmudic sages, responsive to this redemptive act and to the poignant sacrifice of Hannah and her seven sons, ruled that women must be included in the obligation to light Chanukah candles, rather than be excused from this time-dependent commandment – as was the custom. Consequently, because of this obligation, women can both fulfill the mitzvah and light candles on behalf of others as well.
The connection of female heroism, the recognition of which was quite ahead of its time in a patriarchal age, created two other legally mandated traditions: first, that women not work during the period that the candles are burning; second, serving latkes. The latter emerged from the food Judith supposedly served the enemy general, including particularly a dairy meal as elegant as the inelegant potato transformed into a light and appetizing latke. Of course, the oil used to fry that dish evokes the oil burning for eight days at the Temple’s re-dedication.
In short, this festival’s multi-faceted significance, including a distinctly feminine side, enables us all to happily bask in the shimmering light of its dancing candles.
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