The Naked Truth about Chanukah

On the early morning of July 18, a protestor in Portland dubbed “Naked Athena,” wearing only a hat and facemask, approached the police at SW 3rd and Taylor. Though some pepper balls were shot at her feet, 10 minutes after she approached, the police line departed.

Over the course of the past six months, there have been protesters in a variety of cities who stood naked and stationary in the face of police, counter-protestors, media, and others. When I first read of this I questioned the motivations and method. How could standing naked for the world to see be anything other than vain? How is that an act of protest? How is that not just a publicity stunt and an attention grab? What would that really accomplish?

The reality is such a method of protest and civil disobedience is rooted in our tradition.

Most Jewish children know the story of Judah Maccabee and his small band of soldiers conquering the mighty Seleucid army. And most of the Jewish world – and even other faith backgrounds – know about the miracle of the oil. Few, however, know about Hannah.

The story appears around 1,500 years ago in a commentary on the minor Tractate Ta’anit. According to this commentary, the Greeks exercised jus primae noctis—the Right of the First Night. That is, the local nobleman could exercise his right to have sex with a virgin bride before the groom. Jews would abstain from marriage or hold secret weddings for fear of the local nobleman invoking his right. However, Mattathias’ daughter (Judah Maccabee’s sister) was recently engaged to be married and such a wedding could not be held covertly.

Multiple versions of this story appear in parallel sources, but the one that strikes me with the most poignance this year is the one that tells of Hannah stripping naked at the wedding feast. Neither her father nor her brothers were prepared to prevent her rape. There, in front of everyone gathered, Hannah tore off her garments and called everyone out. As the story goes: “When her brothers saw this, they were ashamed and bent their heads to the ground and tore their clothing and stood up to kill her.”

But Hannah spoke out before them: “Listen my brothers and my uncles, now that I have stood before you righteous ones, naked with no sin upon me, you are seized with zeal against me, but you were not so zealous on my behalf, sending me to that uncircumcised one [so he could] abuse me. Should you not learn from Shimon and Levi the brothers of Dina (in Gen. 34), who were only two, yet were zealous for their sister and killed the city of Shechem and risked their lives for the integrity of God, and God came to their assistance and did not destroy them. Yet you are five brothers — Yehuda, Yochanan, Yonatan, Shimon, Elazar — and over two hundred young priests! Place your trust in God and God will assist you, as it is said: “…for nothing can hinder God from saving by many or by few’.”

Hannah then prayed: “Lord of the Universe, if you will not do this for our sake, do it for the holiness of your great name that is upon us, and we will rise up in our vengeance.”

The men were put in their place, and according to the tradition, this stirred their zealotry and began the Maccabean Revolt.

Nearly 1,000 years ago, in his commentary on the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat, Rashi comments that on account of a woman the miracle of Hanukkah occurred — perhaps this is the woman to which he is referring. Even her name is hidden within the name of the festival: Hanukkah.

And why don’t we learn this story? Because the questions are the same: How could standing naked for the world to see be anything other than vain? How is that an act of protest? How is that not just a publicity stunt and an attention grab? What would that really accomplish?

Guess what: It led to a revolution. It led to a rededication of the Temple and a restoration of leadership, justice, and communal authority. It led to equality and it led to a rededication of holiness.

It is not lost on me that we dubbed the protester in Portland “Naked Athena” — and here we are celebrating our conquest over Greek oppression. Still, Hanukkah is a holiday about standing up for what you believe — and it is about finding that galvanizing action, but doing so peaceably, even if it means starting a revolution.

We can celebrate our oil, we can celebrate light, we can celebrate our military victories, but we should never forget to celebrate our naked heroines.