They Too Were Part of the Miracle

Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Shabbat Rosh Chodesh Hannukah
Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD

Professor, Rabbinic Studies
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD, is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature and former Chair of the Department of Rabbinics for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She also enjoys serving as the Ziegler School’s faculty advisor for “InterSem,” a dialogue program for students training for religious leadership at Jewish and Christian seminaries around the Los Angeles area. Dr. Labovitz formerly taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) and the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. Prior to joining the faculty at AJU, Dr. Labovitz worked as the Senior Research Analyst in Judaism for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, and as the Coordinator for the Jewish Women’s Research Group, a project of the Women’s Studies Program at JTS. Rabbi Labovitz is also preparing a teshuva (rabbinic responsum) for consideration by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly on whether a person who is unable to fast for medical reasons may nonetheless serve as a leader of communal prayer on Yom Kippur.

posted on December 6, 2015

Question: What is the most dangerous object a person can bring to the Kotel, the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem?

If that person is female, then apparently the answer is ritual objects: a tallit, a Torah scroll, and most recently, a Hanukah menorah.

According to the report posted on-line by The Times of Israel, members of Women of the Wall were stopped by security guards at the entrance to the Kotel when they tried to bring in a large Hanukah menorah for a communal lighting in the women’s section on the first night of the holiday; they were eventually able to bring it through only when Ksenia Svetlova, a Kenesset member of the Zionist Union party, invoked her parliamentary immunity. Once in the women’s section, about 100 women including soldiers of the IDF, lit multiple Hanukah menorot and celebrated together.

(Women of the Wall have also posted photos and video on their Facebook page of the women while they were held up at the security check-point and once they were able to proceed with the candle lighting)

Conflict over women’s participation in candle lighting had in fact been simmering for some time in advance of the start of Hanukah. Again according to the Times of Israel report:

"Last week, the Attorney General’s Office ordered [Rabbi Shmuel] Rabinovitch [administrator of the Western Wall and Holy Places] to include women in the annual national candle-lighting ceremony for Hanukkah in response to a campaign by Women of the Wall claiming that the state-sponsored exclusion of women from the Western Wall ceremony is discrimination and violates government regulations."

But while it is the job of Israeli governmental officials such as the Attorney General to administer Israeli civil law, there grounds within Jewish tradition and law (halakhah) as well to contest the opposition to candle lighting by women.

Traditionally, rabbinic texts divided Jewish commandments and religious practices into several categories: those that are "positive" ("You shall do X") and "negative" commandments ("You shall not do Y"), and those that are conditional on time (i.e., they must be done at a certain time of day or on a certain day of the week/year) and those that are not conditional on time ("if and when X occurs, then commandment Y applies" – for example, if and when you eat an apple, you must say the appropriate blessing for fruit). Women have been traditionally exempted – which often in practice meant excluded – from commandments that were classified as both positive and conditional on time. This, then, would include many actions (i.e., positive commands) related to the celebration of Jewish holidays (which are by their nature conditional on time).

In the Conservative/Masorti Movement, of which I am a proud member and for which I am honored to serve as a rabbi, we have long since moved towards a more egalitarian understanding of obligation and participation in Jewish ritual, up to and including a vote by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards to adopt a responsum by Rabbi Pamela Barmash arguing that we should now consider women and men to both be fully and equally obligated to mitzvot ("Women and Mitzvot," ). But well before the modern period, even at the beginnings of rabbinic Judaism, there are also three times when the Talmud cites Rabbi Yehoshua, a rabbi of the mishnaic period, who says that women areobligated to perform acts specific to three Jewish holidays. One of these is lighting the Hanukah candles. Also significant is the single reason he finds applicable to all three occasions:

  • A woman certainly lights (a Hanukah lamp), since Rabbi Yehoshua said: Women are obligated to (the commandment of) the Hanukah light, for they too were part of the miracle. (Shabbat 23a).

  • And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Women are obligated to (the commandment of) these four cups (of wine at seder), for they too were part of the miracle. (Pesahim 108a-b)

  • And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Women are obligated to (the commandment of) reading the megillah (on Purim), for they too were part of the miracle. (Megillah 4a)

The law on this point is thus clear – women can and indeed even should light Hanukah candles for themselves, and excluding women from this practice has no good grounding even in a traditionalist interpretation of halakhah. The exclusionary practices at the Kotel should be opposed as a violation both of civil laws of equality and of valid Jewish practice.

But Rabbi Yehoshua’s rulings raise another question worth pondering. What does it mean that women "too were part of the miracle"?

There are two primary interpretations that have been offered by the classical Talmudic commentators. The first is fairly obvious. Each of these holidays marks an occasion in which the entire Jewish people was threatened – by the Egyptians, by the forces of Antiochus and the Assyrians, by Haman’s evil counsel to Ahashverosh – and all, male and female, were saved by God’s miraculous intervention. This is, in fact, the explanation found in the Jerusalem Talmud (Megillah 2:5, 73b), which rules in the name of another early rabbi that women must hear the megillah read on Purim:

Bar Kappara said: It is required to read it in the presence of women and in the presence of children, for they too were at risk.

Another possibility, however, is offered by Rashi in his comments to Pesahim and Shabbat (though oddly, not to Megillah) and other commentators. According to this understanding, in each of the events celebrated by these holidays, a woman or women had a significant hand in bringing about the events and miracles celebrated by the holiday. In the case of Purim, this is relatively straight-forward. After all, the megillah that women are required to read (or hear read) is named for a woman, Queen Esther. Without her intervention, Haman’s genocidal plot would not have been halted. Similarly, there are multiple women who could be named as actors in the redemption of the Israelites from slavery, such as the midwives Shifra and Puah, or Miriam; in addition, various rabbinic midrashim tell us that the women of that generation were especially righteous and that it was due to their actions that the people were able to persevere in slavery and because of their merit that the people were ultimately taken out to freedom.

And what about Hanukah? One well-known story about a woman is found in the apocryphal Second Book of Maccabees, chapter 7, and elsewhere in Jewish tradition. This is the mother of seven sons (she is unnamed in Maccabees but in some versions she is called Hannah) who are martyred one by one when they, with her urging and support, refuse to abandon Jewish practice by eating pork or worshipping idols; she too ultimate dies of grief or as a martyr. Another legend (I found a version in Otzar HaMidrashim, Hanukah p. 192, though other versions may exist) tells the story of the unnamed daughter of Yohanan the High Priest. The local ruler had decreed that all newly married Jewish women would be brought to him first on their wedding nights. This young woman stood up at her wedding feast and tore open her clothing before all. Her horrified brothers rushed to punish her, but she rebuked them: "How is it that I can be shamed before my brothers and my friends but not be shamed in the eyes of the impure, uncircumcised man whom you would let abuse me and would take me to lie with him?" Immediately, the brothers resolved to kill the local ruler, and in doing so, they initiated the rebellion that we now commemorate at Hanukah. A third female-centered episode that comes to be associated with Hanukah (and is sometimes conflated with the previous story) is that of the apocryphal Book of Judith (even though the original version states that it takes place under the reign of the Assyrian king Nebuchadnezzar, well before the time of the Maccabees). Judith, a wise and beautiful widow, infiltrates the enemy camp and attracts the amorous attention of the general Holofernes. Under the guise of reciprocating his desires, she joins him in a banquet and when he becomes drunk and passes out, she beheads him and sneaks his severed head back to the Jews, who are then able to rout their enemies.

These heroic women of our history (along with their male counterparts) remind us that we never know where redemption may come from, or through whom God may choose to act in the world. As we light our candles this Hanukah – all of us – may we consider that we are called upon – all of us – to be agents of redemption in the world, and to act accordingly. Perhaps even an act as seemingly small as smuggling a Hanukah menorah into the women’s section of the Kotel and demanding one’s right to be an active participant in Jewish ritual might be the spark to a miracle…

Shabbat shalom, hodesh tov, and hag urim sameah!