Yom Shabbat, 19 Tammuz 5780
Saturday, 11 July 2020
Parashat Vayeshev & Channukah 5776

Rabbi Alexandra Wright
5th December 2015

A Great Number of Men & 2 Women

Chanukkah, which begins this coming Sunday evening, always strikes me as a particularly male dominated festival. ·The history that gave rise to the festival focuses on six men: Mattathias and his five sons: Jochanan, Simon, Judah, Eleazar and Jonathan. ·It is a story of war and rebellion, strategy, zeal and luck. ·And it appears that there is not one woman to be seen among them, apart from a fleeting reference in the Book of Maccabees to the wives, children and animals who flee into the mountains together with the fighters. ·The long and bitter battle is fought between the men, led by the heroic figure of Judah the Maccabee who ‘donned a breastplate like a giant, and girded on his weapons of war, who was like a lion in his deeds, seeking out and pursuing those who broke the law and exterminating those who troubled his people’ (I Maccabees 3:3). ·By the way this is a reference not to his battle again the Syrians, Antiochus’s soldiers, but against his own people whose assimilation of Greek culture drew nothing but contempt from Judah and his brothers.

But what is apparent at first is belied by two additional stories associated with Chanukkah. ·The first is found in the Second Book of Maccabees amidst a litany of brutality, murder and martyrdom. ‘A man could neither keep the sabbath, nor observe the feasts of the fathers, nor so much as confess himself to be a Jew’ (2 Maccabees 6.6). ·In this context, a nameless woman and her seven sons are captured at the king’s command, tortured with whips and cords to force them to break Jewish law. ·When one of them speaks up to say that he and his brothers are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of their ancestors, his tongue is cut out and he suffers unspeakable mutilation while his brothers and mother look on. ·Eventually, he dies. The second son comes forward and he too is tortured until he dies, and so with each of the woman’s seven sons who refuse to transgress the laws of the Torah.

This mother in Israel looks on as each one of her sons submits himself to martyrdom. ·‘Their mother was truly wonderful,’ says the Book of Maccabees, ‘and is worthy of blessed memory. Though she saw her seven sons die in the space of a single day, she bore it bravely because of her faith in the Eternal One. ·She encouraged each one of them in their mother tongue, filled as she was with a noble spirit’ (2 Maccabees 7:20-21).

The second woman associated with Chanukkah, is Judith, whose story also appears in the non-canonical collection of books known as the Apocrypha. The tale is set in the period of a terrible siege of Jerusalem during the period Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of the Temple and the city. Judith is a pious and wealthy widow, very beautiful, who witnessing the suffering of her people, marches to the camp of Nebuchadnezzar’s general Holofernes. ·When she arrives, he is resting. ·For three days she seduces him, tells him half-truths and lies, entices him with wine and then assassinates him by cutting off his head and so saving her people.

Two woman, approaching conflict and persecution in very different ways: one pleading for her sons to martyr themselves rather than sacrifice their devotion to Jewish law and practice; the other confronting the aggression of the enemy with her feminine wiles and fearless action.

These are dangerous paradigms in many ways. ·There is an uneasy familiarity in the story of the mother who applauds the so-called ‘martyrdom’ of her son or daughter; and while the story of Judith (Yehudit – representing the Jewish people) is about the rescue of her people, defeat of the enemy is brought about through violence rather than diplomacy or negotiation.

These are the darker and more sombre aspects of the festival of Chanukkah, but they remind us that the zeal of fundamentalists – whatever faith they belong to – is driven by violent and often incomprehensible religious, political and identity issues.

It is perhaps why the Rabbis of old chose to focus on the myth of the vial of oil discovered in the ruined Temple, just enough for one day, but which, as the Talmud narrates, burned for eight days. It was this story that gave light and hope to a people who clung on to a belief that evil would ultimately be eclipsed by goodness, truth and peace.