There are multiple Chanukah stories. There is the Hebrew School Chanukah, where the Macabees are guerrilla fighters who lead an uprising in the name of liberty (kind of like George Washington), and there is the other Chanukah, the civil war Chanukah, where Jews killed other Jews for religious and political reasons. There is also the Rabbi’s Chanukah, where the oil lasted for eight days.
Against the background of Chanukah-as-civil-war, there are stories of two women – Judith and Hannah. Both women are extreme models of virtuous womanhood under the patriarchy. Judith manages to get an important general to trust her; she gets him drunk, cuts of his head, and puts it on a stake at the city gates. She is a harlot who uses her sexuality to save her people. Hannah is far sadder. She encourages her seven children, even the little ones, to die rather than violate Jewish law. I continue to be terrified by her story – Hannah is the silent, suffering Martyr, she allows her sons to die for the ideas of powerful men. She is the ancient narrative equivalent of a mother who encourages her sons to become a suicide bomber.
Talmudic Rabbis transformed Chanukah from a story of civil war into a miraculous re-dedication of the temple, where the oil for one day lasted for eight. The very first Chanukah occurred on Sukkot that is why the holiday is eight days, not the “oil miracle.”
Tradition has allowed for the movement of this story from one of in-fighting to a temple miracle for people who wanted to experience a miraculous God, and now to the Hebrew school version of Chanukah as a story about the fight for religious freedom, a foundational belief we wish to teach our children.
Chanukah can also be read as a holiday about the religious capacity for transformation – an ongoing re-dedication, where just as the Rabbi’s oil stretched the boundaries of physical law, our stories can stretch the boundaries of religious law and tradition.
When they tell the Chanukah story at some point in the future, there will likely be other women in it, women besides Judith and Hannah, women who are neither martyrs nor harlots.
Author’s Note: Check out this Chanukah Dvar torah at Slate, which inspired my own.
Editor’s Note: Anna Batler blogs about faith and feminism at http://sotah.net/. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Anna Batler.