Judith—by Peter Eisenstadt

An Israelite town, Bethulia, is besieged. (The narrative seems a little confused about whether it is the Babylonians or Assyrians doing the besieging, but never mind.) The Bethulians are desperate, running out of food and water. The leaders decide they will give God five days to get them out of their pickle; if God doesn’t come through, they will surrender, and their fate will be in the hands of their conquerors. Then a wise and wealthy widow, Judith, summons the elders. She criticized their plans, and criticized their theology. Don’t give God any ultimatums. “Do not try to bind the purposes of the Lord our God; for God is not like a human being, to be threatened, or like a mere mortal, to be won over by pleading. Therefore, while we wait for his deliverance, let us call upon him to help us, and he will hear our voice, if it pleases him.” Judith knows in hard times, it is not God, but the faithful that are being tested.

She has a plan, but she won’t tell the elders of her details.   That night, she and her slave, left the besieged city. But not before she put on her best clothes: “sandals on her feet, anklets, bracelets, rings, earrings.” For not only was Judith wealthy, wise, and pious, she was also “beautiful in appearance, and was very lovely to behold,” and when she left the city in her finery, she “enticed the eyes of all the men who might see her.”

As intended, she was captured by the besieging army, and told them she wanted to defect, change sides, and have an audience with their general Holofernes. This happens, and Judith tells him that her people are doomed. “Our nation cannot be punished, nor can the sword prevail against them, unless they sin against their God.” But this is what they have done, and Judith will lead Holofernes to victory over them. But she had to leave the camp every night, and pray to God, and find out when it will be the right time for Holofernes to attack.

But what Holofernes wanted, even more than victory over the Israelites, was to sleep with Judith. Indeed, he is convinced that any attractive woman who dresses stylishly is just asking for it. “For it would be a disgrace if we let such a woman go without having intercourse with her. If we do not seduce her, she will laugh at us.”

And so, after getting Holofernes to drink much more wine “than he had ever had ever drunk in any one day” the two retire to his tent. But Holofernes was in no condition to do anything other than sleep it off. So then, with Holofernes lying dead drunk on his bed, Judith takes his sword from the bedpost, and “she struck his neck twice with all her might, and cut off his head.” She put his head into a bag, gave it to her slave, and the two left the camp for their nightly prayers.

She returned to Bethulia. Everyone asked her, “Judith, what’s in the bag?” She showed them, adding that she had not “defiled or shamed herself” to obtain her prize. Everyone was amazed, and inspired to take the fight to Holofernes’ army. And of course the Israelites were victorious. There was a huge victory dance, with the women in front, the men following behind. And the Israelites sang a song of praise: “Begin a song to my God with tambourines, sing to my Lord with cymbals, For the Lord Almighty has foiled them by the hand of a woman, Judith daughter of Merari, with the beauty of her countenance, undid them.”

Judith returns to Bethulia and her estate, and she lives happily ever after. By herself. Although “many desired to marry her, but she gave herself to no man.” She was honored throughout the land, and lived to the age of 105. She even freed the maidservant who had accompanied her on the encounter with Holofernes.

Such, in a nutshell, is the story of the book of Judith. A few weeks ago, with a few friends, we read it, all of us I think, for the first time, supplementing our usual readings from Torah and Tanach. It is an astonishing story, but it is one that has little resonance in Jewish learning or tradition. This is because it is only in the Christian Bible, not the Tanach. But it is not a Christian story. It was written by Jews, almost certainly originally written in Hebrew, about the time of the Maccabees, around 130 BCE, though set, like historical fiction, at least 500 years earlier. But no Hebrew text survives. But in its Greek version, many Christian denominations place it in the Apocrypha, a collection of orphaned Jewish books that did not find their way into the Jewish canon, but found favor with early Church Fathers. (The Book of Maccabees is the best known of the Aprocypha texts.)

Why Judith found favor with the Christians rather than the Jews is an interesting question that we don’t have space to go into here, and there’s no definitive answer anyway. But a consequence of this is that Judith has been denied her rightful place along the list of Jewish heroines; the matriarchs, Miriam, Deborah, Esther, Ruth, and Yael, who like Judith, dispatched a foreign general, Sisera, in the book of Judges, by driving a tent post through his head. (But the account of Yael in Judges is much briefer, and there is little of the explicit sexual context one finds in Judith.) Judith survives in the popular imagination, to the extent she does, as a bloody Renaissance image of a proud woman, usually depicted with a sword in one hand, a decapitated head in the author. Her combination of chastity and sexual allure fascinated early Christian authors. For those interested in this, Margarita Stocker has written a book Judith, Sexual Warrior: Women and Power in Western Culture, tracing the image and theme of Judith down to our times, with her most recent incarnation being, I suppose, our Israeli Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot. I will leave the question of Judith as “sexual warrior” to others.   But, as Stocker shows, it would seem that men rather than women have been most interested in women as “sexual warriors,” something that both titillates and scares them. (The theme of castration, and the fierce castrating woman, runs through this literature, and certainly the Book of Judith could be interpreted in this way as well. Much of the literature on Judith and her representations is an odd mixture of feminism and misogyny.)

But let me speak about something else. What is most remarkable about the story of Judith to me is not what she does with Holofernes, but the fact that the male elders of Bethulia seek her counsel, listen to her advice, and she acts on her plan with no male help. She never remarries, and is never shown as being in any way, inferior or subordinate to a man. If it is a fantasy, it is less a fantasy about female sexual power than female political power. I don’t know if it reflects anything about the political realities of 2nd century BCE Palestine, but the very existence of the Book of Judith speaks to a society in which women played a bigger public and political role than one can find in either Tanach or Talmud. The Book of Judith does not indicate that her role was particularly unusual; she was wealthy, pious, a solid member of her community, and intelligent. When he had something to say, none of the male elders say, “wait a moment, who are you, a woman, to criticize us, or offer advice?”

But Judith has largely been excluded from Jewish tradition. And beyond Judith, I think the 2nd Temple period of Judaism is at once the most important and least known period of Jewish history, the period in which Israelites became Jews, and Judaism became a religion, not just a national cult. But unlike the period of rabbinic Judaism, in which there was a conscious drawing back and retreat, an exclusion of much of what had passed for Judaism before the destruction of the Temple, 2nd Temple Judaism was far more diverse, a time when Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, and many other currents produced a complex Judaism that included Philo, the Greek philosopher, Hillel, the proto-rabbi, and the apocalyptic authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, to say nothing of Jesus of Nazareth. For the diverse, pluralistic Judaism of our times, we should not skip over this period simply because its major texts are not canonical. Much was lost when the rabbis retreated from this world, including Judith. If any classic Jewish text was written by a woman, informed by a female perspective on what it meant to be a woman and a Jew, it is the Book of Judith.