Lilith, Lady Flying in Darkness

The most notorious demon of Jewish tradition becomes a feminist hero.

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In folk Judaism, the primary myths about Lilith continue to identify her principally as a stealer of babies. Numerous amulets for pregnant women and babies from medieval through modern times use the three names of the angels mentioned in the Alphabet of Ben Sira (Sanvi, Sansanvi, and Samangelof) to ward away Lilith. Such amulets may also contain a circle with the names of Adam and Eve on the inside of the circle, and the name of Lilith on the outside: a clear warning to Lilith to stay outside the family realm. A red ribbon is also sometimes placed on a crib to ward off Lilith.

Lilith and Modern Jewish Feminist Midrash

In the modern period, the tale of the put-upon wife who flees to a place of liberation became a celebrated paradigm. Numerous modern Jewish poets and authors, female and male, wrote accounts of Lilith that use old stories to express new ideas.

Perhaps the most well-known of the new Lilith tales is"The Coming of Lilith," by Judith Plaskow. In this feminist midrash,Lilith flees the garden because she is an "uppity woman" who doesn't want to be pushed around by Adam or God. However, she misses female companionship.Lilith soon sneaks back into the garden and befriends Eve. Eve has been told Lilith is a demon, but once the two women share their stories, they become allies and companions in the search for knowledge.

Enid Dame, in her poem "Lilith," imagines Lilith as an eternal bohemian who leaves Eden, drops in and out of men's sexual fantasies in the Middle Ages, and now lives with a cab driver in New Jersey,where she still cries in the bathroom as she remembers Eden "and the man and the God I couldn't live with."  

In Lynn Gottlieb's story of Lilith, Lilith is made from the sky and Adam from the earth. In her love for Adam, Lilith chooses to forget she came from the sky, and she becomes Eve, settled and happy but ignorant of her own true nature. In her story, Gottlieb dramatizes the struggle of women to love men while still loving themselves.

On the other hand, Jacqueline Lapidus's brief poem"Eden" imagines a lesbian encounter between Lilith and Eve. Using the Lilith legend, Lapidus invents an origin story for love between women. Scholar and author Ohad Ezrachi frequently writes about Lilith as a split-off sexual component of women, an image created by men fearful of a full relationship. He encourages men and women to see Lilith and Eve as the same person.

Lilith has become such a popular figure that whole enterprises (like the women's music concert Lilith Fair and the Jewish feminist journal Lilith Magazine) are named after her. Once a source of fear, Lilith has been transformed into an icon of freedom. While some disapprove of this widespread embrace of a former demon,Lilith's rehabilitation makes sense. The frightening character of Lilith grew,in part, out of repression: repression of sexuality, repression of the free impulse in women, repression of the question "what if I left it all behind?" As modern Jews begin to ask questions about sex, freedom, and choice more directly, Lilith becomes a complex representation of our own desires.

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Rabbi Jill Hammer

Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is an author, educator, midrashist, myth-weaver, and ritualist. She is director of Tel Shemesh, a website celebrating Jewish earth-based traditions, and co-founder of Kohenet: The Hebrew Priestess Institute. She is the author of Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women (Jewish Publication Society, 2001) and The Jewish Book of Days (Jewish Publication Society, 2006).