While not part of the Tanakh (Jewish version of the Old Testament), the tale of Judith and Holofernes is associated with Chanukah. The short version of the tale is that Judith, a Jewish widow, meets the (unwanted) sexual advances of Holofernes, a Greek general (and in the context of the Chanukah story, one of the enemy leaders) by inviting him to dinner and feeding him very salty foods -- such as cheese -- causing him to drink so much wine that he passes out, drunk, before he can do much of anything. Once he is unconscious, Judith decapitates him with his own sword. This act rallies the Jews and disorganizes the Greeks to such a degree that the Jews win the battle.

As much as it is considered a Jewish tale, Judith is celebrated as much -- or more -- in Christian art. In fact, there are so many Renaissance and early Baroque paintings of "Judith and Holofernes" that one sometimes has to wonder if it were a required study. In these works, Judith is generally portrayed as young and pretty, and -- to differentiate her from Salome -- portrayed with a maidservant who is usually considerably older. In the earlier works, Judith generally looks away from Holofernes' head as she holds his sword -- as if she has done something horrible and distasteful. Indeed, slaying of any sort is a last resort, and art critics have remarked that it would have taken remarkable physical strength for Judith to have been able to perform that deed -- regardless of the Renaissance understanding that beheading by sword was one of the quicker, more humane methods of capital punishment (and thereby reserved for those of royal birth). Caravaggio's Judith is considered a landmark in that Judith is captured in the act, looking towards the head she is slicing. From there onward in time, Judith has always looked towards Holofernes -- sometimes troubled, sometimes proud, but always accepting that she is performing, or has performed, a
deed that needed to be done.

While the Venetian Caravaggio's Judith was painted some time after the deaths of Mary, Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth of England -- and much longer still after the death of Lucretia Borgia (who acted as Pope in her father's absence), some would argue that this change heralds the beginning of the acceptance of strong women in Western society.

In some ways, the evolution of the study of Judith with the head of Holofernes parallels the stages we go through in our relationship with diabetes. Our lives depend on learning to manage glucose checks, shots of insulin, Symlin, and/or Byetta, pump and CGM insertions, and dietary changes. Though it is distasteful and painful to us, we know these tasks need to be done. We do it, but we look away, we flinch, we get scared of the anticipated pain and have to screw up our courage just to press that button on the lancing device, or to insert the needle into our skin. As we accept the need for blood samples, injections, and insertions, we realize we need to look at what we are doing to cause ourselves the least amount of physical pain. We need to have deliberate, strong, and quick movements to be as merciful to our roughened hands and scarred bodies as possible -- like the quick, strong slice of a sharpened sword. We may be troubled by our readings, by our bodies' behavior, or by the physical pain of our condition and its treatment, but we can be proud that we are able to manage its effects and that we do not let the distasteful (and to some folk, disgusting) tasks of that management prevent us from performing them.

May you always have the strength of Judith in the struggle to control the effects of diabetes.

Views: 21

Tags: Judith and Holofernes, analogies, art, chanukah, diabetes management, iconography, self management

Comment by Scott on December 17, 2009 at 10:35am
Wow, great post!
Comment by Stephen Gobin on December 17, 2009 at 10:40am
If you haven't already read it, you'll probably be interested in Michel Leiris' L'âge d'homme in which Judith figures heavily. The title of the English translation is Manhood. The book was first published around 1939.
Comment by Larry D on December 17, 2009 at 12:25pm
Very Interesting post. TY
Comment by Gerri on December 17, 2009 at 9:38pm
I remember Judith's legacy from way back when in Sunday Hebrew school. Haven't thought about this in many years. Thanks! I loved stories of powerful women. There weren't too many contemporary ones available to kids when I was one, so I was fan of biblical women & Greek mythology.

Wonderful post.

Happy Chanukah.
Comment by Deb on August 25, 2010 at 6:36am
Thank you for the encouragement! I pray to be strong like Judith. I also am apalled and love the story of Yael who did away with Sisera in Judges.

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