For centuries scholars have questioned the roles of women as miracle makers in the story of Hanukka.
But a group of Hadassah women who gathered in Princeton Junction Nov. 18 became convinced that women were undoubtedly a central force in bringing about the “miraculous” victory of the Jewish people in the Maccabean revolt against the Syrian-Greeks in the second century BCE.
The more than 20 women present were persuaded by speaker Sara Tillinger Wolkenfeld, co-educational director of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative at Princeton University’s Center for Jewish Life/Hillel.
During her presentation at the program, sponsored by the Princeton Tikvat Ha’atid Hadassah chapter, Wolkenfeld delved deeply into talmudic texts to find the answer to the question, “What is the miracle of Hanukka? And how were women a part of it?”
The holiday, which fell this year between Dec. 1 and 9, celebrates the victory of the Maccabees and the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Wolkenfeld, who has a BA in Judaica and comparative literature from the University of Pennsylvania and has studied Talmud in America and in Israel, explained that women must have played a central role in the Maccabees’ victory. In support of her claim, Wolkenfeld cited the talmudic injunction commanding women to light the Hanukka candles — although women are traditionally exempt in Jewish law from timebound positive mitzvot — “for they, too,” she said the Talmud states, “were included in that miracle.”
This commandment with this exact wording, Wolkenfeld said, can be found in only two other places in the Talmud — in relation to the Purim mitzvot, where women are obligated to take part in the megilla reading, and in an entry related to Passover that commands women to drink four cups of wine at the seder. Wolkenfeld pointed out that women’s roles in effecting miracles are much clearer in the stories of Purim, where Queen Esther is the force behind the Jewish victory in Persia, and of Passover, where Miriam and the daughter of Pharaoh play a central role in saving Moses and the Jewish people.
Women’s roles are less clear in the case of Hanukka since a central female role is nowhere to be found in the Jewish texts describing the events surrounding the holiday’s historic origins. Nonetheless, Wolkenfeld said, the Talmud treats the lighting of the Hanukka candles in the same way as it does the obligations of women in the other two instances.
In discussion with Wolkenfeld following her presentation, members of the Hadassah group hypothesized that women were a support system for the men, that though they worked behind the scenes, they were instrumental in making the miracles of Hanukka happen. Wolkenfeld also introduced theories put forth by talmudic scholars regarding the heroism of Judith, a story included in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions but not in Jewish scripture. Judith, a beautiful, wealthy widow, seduced the Greek general Holofernes, who had laid siege to the Jewish town of Bethulia, and then beheaded him, leading to a Jewish victory.
Various accounts of the story of Judith in relation to Hanukka remain enigmatic. But what is clear, said Wolkenfeld, is that along with Purim and Passover, Hanukka celebrates women and their heroic roles in making miracles happen.
Relating the issue to the roles of women today, Wolkenfeld encouraged the women to focus on their strengths as they balance work and home — and then go one step further. She asked: “What are you contributing to the Jewish people, using your strengths as a Jewish woman?”
The answer, said Amy Solomon, co-vice president of education for the Hadassah chapter, was found in the room, as she emphasized the inspiration for the event: “Hadassah’s mission of empowering women through Jewish education and spiritual discovery and connection.”
Hadassah member Emily Josephson, who hosted the event in her home, said the program “was confirmation of how important women are — in the Bible and their role in the family — and that in and of itself is empowering and inspiring.”