Behind the heroic revolt against the Greeks, our sources are clear, it is Jewish women who provided the inspiration for this sensational victory.
In the final years of Greek rule in Israel, a series of new decrees aimed at the fabric of Jewish life, radically intensified the hellenisation of Judaea. One edict, aimed at undermining the family unit and progeny gave the Greek Governor ‘first rites’ to every Jewish bride on the day she was due to be married.
Jewish weddings were public events that were hard to miss. This was especially so following a rabbinic proclamation protecting the ‘daughters of Israel’ that a wedding feast needed to be suitably fancy that it should take three days to prepare. Since it was not possible to prepare food for the wedding on Shabbat, and fridges were not so easy to find, most weddings would take place mid week, making them easy picking for the Greeks.
The decree created a number of dilemmas for the rabbis since there were women who were highly modest and would likely resist the governors attempts, even to the point of death.
Understanding the danger, the rabbis relaxed the rule regarding wedding preparations, therefore increasing the days on which weddings would take place and lessening the chance of being caught by the Greek governor – who did not live among the Jews but would send soldiers into the town on certain days of the week.
In addition, they called on the people to continue Jewish life, but to conduct weddings in a clandestine way. If the worst happened, the women should neither resist, nor should they show willing, instead survive the ordeal and be like a stone.
What complicated the situation further was another group of women – those who were destined to marry kohanim, members of the Jewish priesthood for whom there was another very serious implication. Having relations with another man, would disallow the marriage to their intended husband, making these women the most likely of all to risk death. Acknowledging the desperate situation they were in, they had no other answers and hoped only that the decree would be a passing phase. It lasted three long years.
Why did the rabbis not advocate mounting resistance against the Greek rule? Why not fight back? Now we are hitting on the deeper meaning the of the ‘light of Judaism being dimmed’ which we speak about in the ‘Al Ha Nissim’ (about the miracles) prayer. The Greek empire had spent a hundred years slowly chipping away at Jewish values, in response the rabbis always chose life over death, but at what point would the threat of spiritual death warrant risking physical life? This was the conundrum of the rabbis at the time. The lines were blurred even further since many Jews had assimilated embracing parts of Greek culture, even within the highest ranks of the priesthood.
As the candle of Jewish independence faded to a flicker, it was women who were in the eye of the storm, at the heart of a ‘me-too movement’ 2200 years ago that brought the greatest mysogenest empire to its knees.
Open up the laws of Chanukah and you will find a curious custom for women to rest when the candles are lit. The reason given is to recall their role in the chanukah miracle with special praise reserved for Yehudit, the daughter of Yochanan the High Priest, who is credited with cutting off the Greek governor’s head kick-starting the war. There are lots of questions to ask, and thankfully we have a set of midrashim (Jewish sources) to help put the pieces together.
Yehudit, daughter of the High Priest was engaged to be married to the son of the nasi -(president) the highest lay office in the nation. It was possible to keep some weddings quiet but this was not one of them. Imagine telling Hello magazine not to report on a royal wedding and you start to understand the predicament. The Greek edict regarding Jewish brides was in full effect, but life didn’t stand still. Yehudit was on her way to the Greek governor, accompanied by her wedding party, before her marriage could take place, when she stopped the ‘procession’ stepped down from her carriage and tore open her dress.
As her shocked brothers called for her to be punished for such an act of immodesty, Yehudit stepped forward calling out her brothers hypocrisy. “You want to punish me for showing some flesh, yet as you speak you are escorting me to be raped! When will you see that it is time to fight back?”
These stinging words shattered the glass, exposed the desperation of the Jewish predicament and filled the hearts of those present with an abounding courage to fight back. With any doubt removed that there was still any other option to a full-on revolt, together with his family, Yehudah a grandson of the high priest hatched a plan.
Yehudit continued on her way, with her family singing and dancing around her, holding a canopy over her head as the Greek governor looked on boastfully. “Look how happy the leaders of Israel and the descendents of Aharon the kohen are to do my will.” Taking the bait, he ordered his guards away leaving Yehudit to wine and dine him until he fell asleep sleep, whereupon she killed him, cut off his head and fled to the hills, cue the dreidels, donuts and latkes.
The role of women in this festival is closely tied to the role of the lights. Just as we don’t make use of the light of the candles except to publicise the miracle that took place through them, so too, as we stand in wonder at the miracle of our national survival, our attention is also turned to the courage of the Jewish women who are also are reminded to rest, since the miracle, was inspired by their daring courage to hold up a mirror to society, stand up for Jewish values and for their own dignity.