Judith: The Heroic Widow

Posted Fri, 12/03/2021 - 10:56 by Robert

In this blog, Avigail Simmonds-Rosten (CCJ Programme Manager) reflects on the significance of Judith, who is related in Jewish tradition to the festival of Chanukah. The Book of Judith is included in Roman Catholic Bibles, but is not included in Protestant Bibles, nor is it included in the Jewish Bible, the Tanakh.

Judith 9:5

שמע נא גם עתה את אמתך האלמנה:

 Please also hear now Your widowed maidservant 


Both major rabbinic festivals Chanukah and Purim are remarkable for many reasons, among them - the gender of their protagonists. One aspect they share is a central Heroine, Judith and Esther respectively. Although Esther is the author of the Purim story and festive reading - the Megilla itself, Judith is a more allusive figure within traditional Chanukah practice and literature. However, their storylines are inverse.  Despite the arc of Esther’s growing audacity, her model is one of diplomatic measure, patience and femininity. Judith, unlike Esther, is not placed by fate or male action to inhabit her role as heroine, but acts of her own volition and according to her conscience. Her methods are calculatedly violent and daring. Judith places herself in harm’s way and at the centre of a political storm. Where Esther lies locked in an ivory tower against her will, Judith invades the private residence of power - something Esther cannot countenance until she fasts for three days and ultimately feels there is no alternative.

It is difficult to say which proceeds, the eclipse of Judith in the festival of Chanukah, or the exclusion of the book of Judith from the Jewish canon. However, the Talmud in Shabbat obligates women in the lighting of chanukah candles on the basis of their integral role in the Chanukah miracle, which some commentators have understood to refer to Judith. A similar reasoning is also applied in the case of the four glasses of wine drunk on Seder night, during Passover. These glasses, said to correspond to the four languages of redemption, are mandated for Jewish women because of the sages’ recognition of the integral role of the so-called ‘righteous women’ whose merits earned the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. 

The centrality of women’s participation in these potentially apocalyptic moments within biblical narrative is noteworthy. The daughters of Lot seduce their father, Tamar seduces her father-in- law, the righteous women seduce their reluctant husbands, Ruth seduces Boaz and so on. All of these actions are praised, to lesser and greater degrees, for offsetting the pessimism of men. While men may have given up on existence, women appear to find the strength to go on. Judith’s town is on the brink of extinction, Esther’s people are faced with genocide, and the two women establish hope where there is none. Within the book of Judith this motif is references explicitly through comparisons to Miriam, the prophetess who led the women of Israel in the song of praise:


Judith 15:15

 וכל נשי בני ישראל אשר באו לראותה יצאו לקראתה בשירים ובמחולות, להללה ולברכה

Then all the women of the children of Israel who had come to see her, went out to greet her with songs and timbrels, to praise her and bless her. 


Exodus 15:20

וַתִּקַּח֩ מִרְיָ֨ם הַנְּבִיאָ֜ה אֲח֧וֹת אַהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־הַתֹּ֖ף בְּיָדָ֑הּ וַתֵּצֶ֤אןָ כָֽל־הַנָּשִׁים֙ אַחֲרֶ֔יהָ בְּתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹלֹֽת׃

Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels.


Significantly, Judith’s status is not the virgin maiden and victim of male attention, but the wealthy widow, exploiter of male weakness and mistress of her own sexual agency. The widow and orphan are paired repeatedly as the vulnerable in society over which G-d watches with great care, but Judith is mistress of her fate, her money and her name. She chooses to never remarry:


Judith 16:23-27 

ורבים היו המבקשים אותה לאישה ותמאן ולא הייתה עוד לאיש אחרי מות מנשה בעלה:

And many desired her as a wife, but she refused, and she was never again a man's after the death of her husband Manasseh. 


Nevertheless, female sexuality and female intelligence are inextricably connected in these stories. Women use the channels of influence available to them to access power, and to curate their own.

It appears as though seduction is the common denominator of these heroines' triumphs, so how did such power come to be? This synthesis of sexuality and sense is pervasive throughout traditional interpretations of the Garden of Eden, where sin, sexuality and knowledge are inextricably linked. The verb to ‘know’ in Hebrew, is also used ‘in the biblical sense’. The intimacy of knowledge, and the wisdom of wiles, are clearly mingled. 


Judith 11:29

הנה יפת תואר ואשת שכל את וכי תעשי כאשר דברת והיה יי לי לאלוהים

: And now you are both beautiful in your countenance and clever in your words; surely if you do as you have spoken, your G-d will be my G-d

Samuel I. 25:3  

וְשֵׁ֤ם הָאִישׁ֙ נָבָ֔ל וְשֵׁ֥ם אִשְׁתּ֖וֹ אֲבִגָ֑יִל וְהָאִשָּׁ֤ה טֽוֹבַת־שֶׂ֙כֶל֙ וִ֣יפַת תֹּ֔אַר וְהָאִ֥ישׁ קָשֶׁ֛ה וְרַ֥ע מַעֲלָלִ֖ים וְה֥וּא כלבו [כָלִבִּֽי׃] 


The man’s name was Nabal, and his wife’s name was Abigail. The woman was intelligent and 

beautiful, but the man, a Calebite, was a hard man and an evildoer


Genesis 3:6


וַתֵּ֣רֶא הָֽאִשָּׁ֡ה כִּ֣י טוֹב֩ הָעֵ֨ץ לְמַאֲכָ֜ל וְכִ֧י תַֽאֲוָה־ה֣וּא לָעֵינַ֗יִם וְנֶחְמָ֤ד הָעֵץ֙ לְהַשְׂכִּ֔יל וַתִּקַּ֥ח מִפִּרְי֖וֹ וַתֹּאכַ֑ל וַתִּתֵּ֧ן גַּם־לְאִישָׁ֛הּ עִמָּ֖הּ וַיֹּאכַֽל׃

 When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate


The following verse in Genesis expounds the discovery of human nakedness, perhaps sexuality, perhaps vulnerability, or perhaps both:


Genesis 3:7

וַתִּפָּקַ֙חְנָה֙ עֵינֵ֣י שְׁנֵיהֶ֔ם וַיֵּ֣דְע֔וּ כִּ֥י עֵֽירֻמִּ֖ם הֵ֑ם וַֽיִּתְפְּרוּ֙ עֲלֵ֣ה תְאֵנָ֔ה וַיַּעֲשׂ֥וּ לָהֶ֖ם חֲגֹרֹֽת׃

 Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they perceived that they were naked; and they sewed together fig leaves and made themselves loincloths


It is this same sexuality which many have traced within the trees of Eden, and is embedded within the historical narrative of the temptation of Eden itself. As such the cause of the transgression, and the effect of transgression, are identical. The sin which generates this shame/awareness, is precipitated by the very cunning it is presumed to have created. Thus the paradox of biblical women is their veneration and vilification on the same grounds - their sexuality and their intelligence - is paradigmatic. Indeed the root of both of these words, naked and cunning, ערום, is one and the same. 

The story of Eden is one in which woman is tricked, man is tricked, and both are ultimately punished - man more so than woman, and snake more so than man. Yet it is the curse of Eve which continues to permeate cultural consciousness and popular misogyny. Despite the Talmud Sanhedrin considering Eve to be a victim of Adam’s exaggeration of G-d’s word, indeed his miseducation of her, cunning is also invoked as a reason not to educate women. Ironically, it is perhaps the lack of direct communication between G-d and woman in the first instance, and Adam's misguided assumption that Eve is merely extension of himself, that leaves room for her transgression, an attempt to generate agency and forgoe boundaries imposed by another who underestimates her and her ability to rationalise. 

In one manner of speaking, to be revealed, to be naked in Eden, is to be exposed, and to be incapable of deception. 

However, the paradox of the naked woman in the heterosexual male gaze speaks otherwise: it is very the exposure, the nakedness, what is revealed, which blinds the beholder to ‘Truth’. Female nakedness, therefore, is not the uncovering of the concealed, but is the very disguise in which danger dresses - an archetype of trickery in and of itself. 

It is possible to perceive Judith outside of this dynamic. To see her as the women of her town see her. In a beautiful image of female solidarity, one which harks back to Miriam’s leadership of praise upon the exodus from Egypt:

Judith 15:15-17 

וכל נשי בני ישראל אשר באו לראותה יצאו לקראתה בשירים ובמחולות להללה ולברכה:

 Then all the women of Israel ran together to see her, and they blessed her and made a dance among them for her

ותיקח יהודית ענפי זיתים ותחלקם לנשים אשר אתה ותעשינו מהם עטרות לראשה ולראש רעותה:

 And she took branches in her hand and gave some also to the women who were with her. And they made out of them crowns for her head and the head of her maid

ותלך במחול לפני הנשים וכל אנשי ישראל חגורי חרב ועטורי ענפים הלכו אחריהן הולכים וחוגגים בשירים ובזמירות:

 And she went before all the people in the dance, leading all the women; and all the men of Israel followed after them in their amour with garlands, and with songs and melodies


The women here celebrate and rejoice in her deeds. Judith leads a song of call and response in praise of G-d. She is followed by the men and women of the town. 


Judith 16:1-3

ותשר יהודית את השירה הזאת לעד בבני ישראל וכל העם ענו אחריה:

 And Judith sang this song on behalf of all the children of Israel, and all the people sang responded after her 


Again the symmetry between Judith and Miriam is made clear:


Judith 16:13

אשירה ליי כי גאה גאה נאדר בכוח ונאדר בגבורה:

 I will sing to the Lord a new song. O Lord, you are great and glorious, wonderful in strength, and wondrous in might

Exodus: 15:21

וַתַּ֥עַן לָהֶ֖ם מִרְיָ֑ם שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽיהוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃

 And Miriam chanted for them

Sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea


Judith’s mark is her resourcefulness and her courage. Like many biblical women her description is both full of promise and admonition. Her intelligence and beauty overwhelm the sum of her deeds, and the power of her leadership, conviction and respect. Chanukah remembers among other things, that it was the actions of righteous women which prevented Jewish lights going out. 

Avigail Simmonds-Rosten
CCJ Programme Manager