Workshop 2: Constructing Judith as a Heroine

When we initially set out to learn about this radical Jewish heroine, we found it rather surprising that Judith’s narrative had been missing from the Jewish canon for well over a millennium. We discovered that the very first mentioning of the Judith story only appeared in early Christian apocryphal texts, obscure biblical writing, written at the end of the second century. And yet, despite the story’s clear Jewish content and various biblical allusions, Judith was nowhere to be found in the Jewish canon. This was news to us! Since for those of us who attended Hebrew day school, Judith, who’s name  literally translates as “the Jewess”, seemed like the leading Jewish feminist heroine of the Hanukkah story and so it amazed us to learn that her story and character had disappeared entirely from Jewish literature until well into the Medieval period.

Once we came to terms with the fact that Judith was missing from both the Jewish bible and original midrashic and talmudic literature, we found that the earliest talmudic mentionings of Judith appeared to surface 1000 years after the apocrypha, in the form of talmudic commentary, poetry and art.  For some reason the rabbi’s suddenly were motivated to resurrect her story, and readapt it in order to make her a symbol of radical Jewish determination and unyielding faith. Interestingly enough, the stories that began to surface during these later rabbinic periods described a slightly different version of the Judith we had come to know from her earlier appearances.

As with any great piece of literature, legend or myth, we do ourselves well to ask who is narrating our stories. Our personal libraries are filled with books that furnish our personal canons; works that shape our moral imaginations and sensibilities of how we evaluate human character and virtue. And so, by retracing the authorship of our inherited stories we identify who has been responsible for shaping the values we’ve likely inherited.  And in the case of Judith, the same applies! When looking more closely at the variety of authors writing about Judith, we can begin to see the implications for the kind of Judith we imagine given the different descriptions of Judith’s we encounter.

Workshop Highlights:
During our workshop we revisited the work of Joseph Campbell, whose scholarship explored understanding the role that mythology plays across ethnic cultures and religions. Campbell became known for his work, The Hero’s Journey which served as a synthesis, distilling the similarities of our passed down stories when comparing hundreds of myths and legends. The Hero’s Journey serves as human map, an all-embracing metaphor for the deep inner journey of transformation that many  hero's across history and regions share. Campbell’s map includes a charted path that leads the hero’s through four essential movements of: separation, descent, ordeal, and return. 

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According to Campbell, “the ego can’t reflect upon itself unless it has a mirror against which to read itself. And this mirror is myth”. And so, The Hero’s Journey serves as a mythological schedule, that helps us understand where we are in our personal development. The journey becomes a scoreboard that helps us track our stories up against patterns of hero’s that have long existed centuries before us.

While Campbell’s work was crucial in helping us visualize and track heroic development in the stories we tell, we found it challenging to map our Judith heroine according to the stages he set out in The Hero’s Journey. This challenge brought us to the work of Maureen Murdock, a student of Campbell’s who shared our frustration in that she craved a more relatable model for female psychological and emotional development.. Looking at Murdock’s  version of The Heroine’s Journey we began to reimagine the  kinds of challenges a heroine/or hero might face; challenges that may exist internally within the hero/ine as emotional shadows that need courageous confrontation and don’t necessarily entail a call to adventure outside of one’s self. Murdock's work was refreshing to us because it offered us the freedom to construct and author our own stages of transformation and allowed us to reevaluate the variations of what a successful heroic return can represent.  The Heroine’s Journey allowed us to play with our understanding of societal associations of feminine and masculine values, and how those associations impact how we interpret as success.

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What We’re Reading This Week:

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The Sword of Judith, Kevin R. Brine, Elena Ciletti and Henrike Lahnemann

Judith, Deborah Levine Gera

The Heroine’s Journey, Maureen Murdock