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Lessons From The Book Of Judith

How can feminists learn from the book of Judith? This book helps us see that there are ways to deal with unfair situations, and it teaches us to speak up for ourselves even when others are trying to silence us.

Judith is one of the most complex and interesting of all biblical characters. Often portrayed as a villain, she could very well be seen as an avenging angel whose bold actions led to the eventual defeat of her enemy, Holofernes. Her story is full of intrigue, power struggles and selfless acts. She’ll even inspire you to be more than who you are today!

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what happens in the book of judith what lessons could be gained from this story

The little-known heroine of Chanukah is an independent woman who is unafraid to take action to do what is right on behalf of her people. The Book of Judith did not make the cut to become canonized in the Jewish sacred textual tradition, and so Judith is relatively unknown in many circles of diaspora Jewry.

I have been thinking quite a bit about Judith this Chanukah season. In my time this year as an Elissa Froman Fellow, I’ve come to see how the values she represents are those shared by the New Israel Fund.

Judith is a remarkable character for several reasons. She is known for her wisdom and for having her heart in the right place. When she learns that the elders of her town have decided to respond to an Assyrian military threat by waiting for God to act — and handing over the city to the Assyrians if God does not — she responds by imploring the elders to take action. “[L]et us set an example for our kindred. Their lives depend on us” (The Book of Judith 8:24). When the elders respond by telling Judith that they must stay their course, she decides to take matters into her own hands.

“Listen to me!” she tells them. “I will perform a deed that will go down from generation to generation among our descendants… before you will surrender the city to our enemies, the Lord will deliver Israel by my hand” (8:32-33).

Judith and her maidservant then head off to the camp of Holofernes, the head of the local Assyrian army. Judith uses her cunning and beauty to gain access to the inner circles of the camp. She and her maidservant bring with them a bag of their own food and ask permission to go out of the camp each night to pray. During their time in the camp, the women eat their way through their bag of food. On the last night, Holofernes gets Judith alone in his tent hoping to seduce her. But she plies him with so much of her salty cheese that he needs to drink an exorbitant amount of wine to counteract it.

Holofernes passes out drunk before he can prey on Judith, and the heroine seizes the opportunity to take his sword and decapitate him. She puts his head in her now-empty food bag, then she and her maidservant leave the camp “to pray,” only this time they head back to their town, where the revelation of Holofernes’ demise gives the Jews the strength they need to take up arms and defend their town. Without their leader, the Assyrian army is easily defeated by the Israelites, and Judith is hailed a hero. Her act of innovation and courage is celebrated with a parade, and a declaration is made that, from that day forth, Judith is to be commemorated with a yearly festival.

Despite having unfolded before the Maccabean revolt, Judith’s story has been adopted as part of the Chanukah narrative. In popular tradition, Judith is said to be the aunt or daughter of Judah Maccabee. And by the 14th century, it was common practice to eat cheese on Chanukah in her honor. The preferred method of preparing cheese during this festival of oil was to fry it as a pancake. That is to say, the original latke may very well have been cheese, not potato.

This Chanukah, I invite you to share Judith’s story with your family and friends, and shine light on what we can learn from those who take action to repair the world.

Here are 8 lessons I learned from Judith this Chanukah:

Turn first to the powers that be and implore them to partner with you in making positive change.
If those in charge fail you and your people, don’t be afraid to do what is right without them.
The world is full of naysayers and those too afraid to act. But those who rise above and take action are the ones who make change.
Partner with those who support your cause.
Rely on your wisdom, on the tools at your disposal, and on the skills of those you partner with to make positive change.
A great plan is ninety percent of the battle.
Be bold and fearless when you know you are fighting for the greater good.
Measure twice, cut once.

what is the message of the book of judith

The Book of Judith is relatively often discussed nowadays, mainly because of its interest for feminist studies. However, the subject of its ethical attitudes in this book is rarely mentioned, although this book raises important moral questions, even if indirectly. They concern the problem what is good or evil in war and public life. The moral teaching of Judith is communicated mainly by the narrative and personal examples, but also by some direct comments.

The book condemns aggression and praises patriotism and piety of freedom fighters. It shows responsibility of kings and generals for the aggression and the difficult choices standing before the leaders of the defense. It seems moreover that for the author lies, illicit sex (which is clearly alluded to) and terrorist killing – things Judith is guilty of – are allowed if they serve good cause. In the context of the whole Bible it cannot be sustained, as in the case of extermination practices described in Joshua and 1-2 Maccabees. However, such acts committed in desperate situation deserve some understanding.

The Book of Judith is read altogether too rarely. Protestants don’t have it in their Bibles, and many Catholics do, but wouldn’t know it. But it illustrates, quite vividly, the importance of holding fast to God.

This depiction comes from the seventh and eighth chapter of Judith, during the course of Holofernes’ campaign against the Israelites. The Israelites are holed up in a series of mountainous cities that are hard to access, so Holofernes and his men besiege Bethulia by cutting off the water supply. After 34 days, the Israelites in the city are ready to surrender, and complain to their leaders that it was only stubbornness that has prevented the Israelites from making peace with the Assyrians. To the elders, they say (Judith 7:24-28):

“God be judge between you and us! For you have done us a great injury in not making peace with the Assyrians. For now we have no one to help us; God has sold us into their hands, to strew us on the ground before them with thirst and utter destruction. Now call them in and surrender the whole city to the army of Holofer′nes and to all his forces, to be plundered. For it would be better for us to be captured by them; for we will be slaves, but our lives will be spared, and we shall not witness the death of our babes before our eyes, or see our wives and children draw their last breath. We call to witness against you heaven and earth and our God, the Lord of our fathers, who punishes us according to our sins and the sins of our fathers. Let him not do this day the things which we have described!”

The assembly then erupted into a “great and general lamentation,” as they cried out to God (Judith 7:29).

What we’re hearing from the Israelites in Bethulia is nothing new: it’s a perennial human temptation. In fact, we heard these cries during the readings from last Sunday. During the Exodus through the desert, the Israelites grew weary of eating only the manna, and cried out (Numbers 11:5-6):

“O that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”

Peter Paul Rubens,
The Israelites Gathering Manna in the Desert (1627)
They were ready to trade their freedom (with all its accompanying suffering) for comfort and physical security, even if it means submitting to slavery to the Egyptians. There’s a lot we can learn from this, because we’re prone to do the same thing. I’m sure there are plenty of political analogies that can be drawn, about preferring a secure state (even a security state) to a free one.

But I’m not particularly interested in that, nor do I think that Scripture includes these repeated illustrations for that purpose. Rather, I think the message is about faith, and in the case of Numbers 11, about the Eucharist. In the Bread of Life discourse, Christ draws out the connection between the manna and the Eucharist (John 6:49-51, 53-58):

“Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. […]
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.”
As Numbers 11 explains, the Israelites in the desert died, because they turned away from the manna and longed after the fleshpots of Egypt. It’s an important warning to those Catholics who leave the Church because they feel like they’re “not being fed.” I understand: the day-to-day life of many Catholic parishes is mediocre, at best. The Scriptural exegesis in the homilies may be weak, or non-existent, or even wrong / heretical. The people around you may seem (may, in fact, be) bored out of their minds. The other congregants (and, God forbid, the clergy) may be unwelcoming when you try to join.

I’m not blind to how bad some Catholic parishes are, nor do I intend to whitewash or defend their lukewarmness. But, barring the extraordinary, these Masses do have Jesus Christ in the form of the Eucharist: He is there, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. The Eucharist is the Bread of Life, our Daily Bread, and the Flesh Sacrificed for the life of the world. So even if you’re getting zero spiritual support besides the Eucharist, even if you’re suffering like the Israelites in the desert, hold on. Hold fast to Our Lord in the Eucharist is Jesus Christ, and you’ll live forever. Leave Him, even out of legitimate frustration, and you’re killing yourself, spiritually.

But Numbers 11 and Judith 7 are making a broader point. So often in the spiritual life, it’s much easier to simply give in and be a slave to sin, then to continually fight our sinful desires. It can seem joyless and arid to do the right then, and the sins we’re resisting can seem as tempting as a platter of meat before a hungry pilgrim.

This is why spiritual disciplines like fasting exist: with the help of God, we cultivate the disposition to repeatedly say “no” to our immediate impulses. This process of self-mastery, even over relatively insignificant things (like voluntarily depriving yourself of meat on Fridays), builds the spiritual muscles that come in handy when we’re tempted with something worse than a steak. This theme is developed further in Judith 7-8, in the elder Uzziah’s answer to the crying Israelites, and then Judith’s rebuke of the city elders.

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