Current Conversations

From My Writings and Research:::

Offered as an interpretation, a midrash on the first woman in Genesis, Lilith

at Ner Shalom, Cotati on October 16, 2020:

Since our parasha tonight is Bereishit and Lilith, the first woman in Jewish mythology appears in Genesis 5:2, I will be talking about Her, a figure who made such an impression on me in 1985 that she has been an organizing principle in my life & work ever since.

I hope to offer a  brief vision of a world in which we can reimagine Lilith not as a demon, as she’s often portrayed, but as a role model for us now, an archetype  exemplifying the power of voice, taking agency and making our own choices, a figure who can inspire us to see the transformative potential of anger and of claiming our sexuality—and doing all of these things without shame, hesitation or apology.

I was first introduced to Lilith in a class called “Back to the Sources” taught by Rabbi Bernard Zlotowitz, of blessed memory. My soul soared to meet someone in whom I recognized myself …a woman outspoken (who often got in trouble for it), fiercely independent, a rebel who at times defied convention yet lived within its confines at work and at home. She was a figure who disobeyed both a godly Father and an earthly husband, things which I did all too rarely, mostly trying to be the “good girl”, the “good wife”, even as I resisted and resented male-imposed – or any! – boundaries.  

I couldn’t wait to learn more about this Lilith, a figure I’d never heard about growing up, and wrote my first research paper on Her after many exciting hours in the Jewish Theological Seminary Library in Manhattan, poring through our sacred texts with an insatiable hunger – and regret that I could only read them in English.

Here’s one translation of the verse I’m responding to tonight: (Source: Sefaria)

…male and female He created them. And when they were created, He blessed them and called them Man.

Another translation (NIV (New International Version bible):

So G’d created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of G’d he created them;
    male and female he created them.

I find this last line full of Mystery and vitally important, and its absence from the general consciousness disturbing. What has been left out of the origin story on which we were raised?

There is an ongoing discussion about the contradiction in Genesis, Chapter 2, where we read about woman being created from Adam’s rib. Was the writer undecided, torn between two scenarios? Was there more than one writer? Did the later writers just decide to ignore the first version, in which Adam & Lilith were fashioned from the same earth, the same bloody clay?

One similarity in both stories is that both are vehicles to show the consequences of women’s disobedience—even of healthy curiosity, as Eve displayed. These stories reinforce a notion of male dominance as divinely-ordained, the control and often punishment of women as necessary to maintain order.   

SO WHO WAS LILITH?  We only read one reference to her in Torah, one line in Isaiah 34:14, where she is alternately referred to as a demon, a screech owl, a night-monster—though some scholars believe women called on Lilith as a protective deity at times, as a guardian in childbirth who could help them deliver safely.

We next read about Her in Talmud, where her free spirit and sexuality are turned against her, shamed and denigrated as dangerous. We learn more about Her later in the 10th Century Alphabet of Ben Sira tale, in Kabbalistic writings—where she is described as comprising filth and sediment instead of earth, and in Judith Plaskow’s 20th C. midrash in which she and Eve become friends.

HER STORY…

A BRIEF HISTORY OF LILITH (Excerpted from http://www.lilithinstitute.com/lilithwp/ )

According to Jewish legend, Lilith was Adam’s first wife and Eve’s predecessor. In the most commonly told version of the tale, she is made from the earth, as is Adam. For this reason, she refuses to lie beneath Adam sexually, and when he insists, she mutters G’d’s secret name, leaves the Garden of Eden and Adam, and flies off to the Reed Sea [today called the Red Sea] to live her own life. After Adam complains to G’d about being alone and Eve comes into the picture, we learn—in traditional patriarchal recountings—that she is warned against the ‘evil’ Lilith and feels Lilith is a rival competing for Adam’s affections. In a contemporary feminist midrash or reinterpretation of this legend by Judith Plaskow, however, we see Lilith painted as Eve’s counterpart, confidante and friend (Womanspirit Rising, 1979).

Lilith is consistently portrayed in many cultures first as a demon, who might have been good or bad, then as a child-killer and temptress; as a woman embodying or representing the devil and often personified by Eden’s serpent. In literary and iconographic representations, she is clearly depicted as symbolizing the “evil” inherent in all women. Yet many contemporary women see in her the embodiment of the Dark Goddess, Great Creatrix, Queen of Heaven and Earth, Goddess of Love and War, designations she shares with her counterparts Inanna, Ishtar, Asherah/Astarte, Anath and Isis. As a goddess of love, beauty and things erotic she is akin to the Greek Aphrodite and the Roman Venus; in her wildness and thirst for justice she and the Hindu Bhadrakali could be thought of as sisters. …There is also the question, which has gone largely unexplored, of the royal or divine status which may be signified by her serpentine crown and the rings she holds, usually recognized as symbolizing Sumerian royal authority. “She also holds the ring and rod of power. Thus, she joins the first rank of gods” (Johnson, 1988).

Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, in her landmark work Black Madonnas (1993), calls Adam’s treatment of Lilith “the first violence done to women”. If one reads this as rape, as some writers do (Philips, 1984; Ostriker, 1993), one begins to view the Garden of Eden as more prison than paradise. No wonder, then, that Lilith left Adam and Eden; in so doing, as Aviva Cantor wrote in the first issue of LILITH Magazine (1972), Lilith chose loneliness over subservience.

This first woman, for some a deity, a Goddess, is such a powerful figure that the very mention of Her name can still rouse fear and revulsion in the minds of men—and often women—4000 years later!! She poses a threat to many, as an independent, at times autonomous, disobedient, openly sexual, proud woman who makes her own decisions, lives her life according to her own standards and desires; a woman who lives on the edges of society, creates her belief system, and constantly questions the status quo. In other words, someone we might call in modern terms a radical, an activist, a critical thinker! A woman seeking to make transformative change, in herself, and so in the larger world, because she is dissatisfied with the dictates of a patriarchal system. Instead of being praised as a pioneer, a courageous woman unafraid to take risks, She, like many women, has been ostracized, demonized.

This verse folds the female into the male; while it reads “male and female created He them”, it includes the name Adam, meaning Man, but does not name Lilith. To have never heard about Her in liturgy or story growing up was to have an important part of the female psyche, a critical piece of our identity kept hidden from us.  

Why has Lilith been kept a secret, or only referred to with disgust, or in whispers if at all? Then and now, She and Eve are held up as prime examples of why women shouldn’t trust each other, used to paint all women as carrying an undesirable yetzer ha-ra. We are given the responsibility for men’s fantasies, and so in some circles women are prevented from sitting with men in shul, kept from praying with their own Torah or wearing tallit at the Wailing Wall.

How would our lives have been different if we had been celebrated for our true nature, our curiosities, our individual uniqueness?  What if we had not had to conform to someone’s idea of what a “proper lady” was, with all that that implied?

Lilith’s anger at the injustice of domination propelled Her to leave Eden. Such anger is one we need to access, whether it’s the righteous rage we feel at the sight of unethical or abusive behavior, or at moments when we ourselves are being silenced or disrespected. Why would we want to suppress our instincts to speak out on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves? Don’t we have a responsibility to do that? I know many of you in this community take that on as an ongoing practice.

Lilith’s anger drives her to find a new life outside of her socially-prescribed woman’s role—a role which some men and women like to call divinely-ordained, an interpretation of Torah too often used to justify domestic violence.   

Anger can look quite different if we convert it into useful energy, to transform something in our lives, as a portal to thinking creatively.

We need to stop being afraid of it…to stop fearing what we think of as a dark scary place from which we might never return. We need to remember, when we swallow a comment for fear of hurting others’ feelings or incurring disapproval that, as Audre Lorde said, “Your silence will not protect you.”

What could we accomplish if we gave expression to our anger, to our sexual and sensual natures instead of suppressing them?  

Being raised in a time when women’s anger or open expression of our sexuality was not permitted, many of us grew up learning to be ashamed of those qualities, of our own passions, of outbursts of authenticity… we learned, early and often, to put a cap on who we are, and HOW we are.

I want to encourage us to not run from our anger, but to see it as an ally, a portal, instead of trying to squash it.  For it is that pattern of avoidance at which we have become so adept in the name of keeping the peace, which can propagate shame.

Where else does shame come from?

It is fostered every time someone gives us a withering look because they disapprove of some part of us. It is instilled when we are left out of conversations or groups, mocked or berated by a parent or partner telling us we’re too much of this or not enough that, too sexual or not sexual enough.

These societal behaviors create shame in us, often so deep-seated we may not even discover its roots or be able to step beyond it until we’re 50, 60, 80 or older.

Instead of appreciating our own gifts, we’re told what is culturally appropriate, what behaviors would make others happy—what we need to do in order to be loved.

We are enough.

We are each of us, enough.

We should never have to resort to artifice, to standards that don’t conform to our OWN sense of who we ARE,

To OUR spirit,

OUR neshama.

Let us take time during the Amidah to reflect on what makes each of us a unique contributor to co-Creation. Where do we find our greatest points of freedom, when does our soul breathe free?

Here, with the loving support of this precious spiritual community, we have an opportunity to safely find, claim and use our wings. Lilith’s wings, which allow us to fly out of pre-imposed gardens of a supposed Eden, to heed that inner sense which can steer us away from situations that are unhealthy, that could stifle our minds and spirits and so limit our potential.  

Let us use those visions to fuel our ruach, our lifeforce, our immanent divinity, the wind beneath Shekhinah’s wings of power and wisdom that can propel us into the shamayim of our minds, bodies and hearts, giving us the strength we need to stop being ashamed of our anger, our voices, our desires, finding spaces where we can truly be ourselves, without apology.

Ken y’hi ratzon. Omein.

SELAH. 

 

ADDITIONAL NOTES:

  1. I find Lilith, as both symbol and mythological figure, endlessly fascinating. I first learned of her when I was in corporate life; when I returned to school, she became the focus of my MA thesis: “Lilith as Everywoman in Ancient Text & Modern Midrash: Transforming a Demonized Eros.”
  2. I made this point when I told Lilith’s story so want to include it here too: “They” say Lilith went from Eden to cavort with demons at the shores or in caves at the     Red / Reed Sea. Did the male writers just perceive them as demons because to imagine a woman fleeing an impossible situation to seek freedom—of thought, of sexual expression—was so anathema, so unthinkable? 
  3. In addition to the myths I mentioned in my ‘drash which say Lilith’s job as a demon was to make children sick or to punish bad children, I also imagine Her as a spirit who connected women in sisterhood, who guards and helps mothers as they birth their children, as Elinor Gadon, z”l, wrote in The Once and Future Goddess (1989). Or, as Vicki Noble states in Shakti Woman (1991) “…years later I learned that Lilith was originally the protector of women in childbirth and…newborn infants. She was demonized only after the patriarchal transition and turned into a wicked child-stealer” (Noble, 1991). Instead of instilling more anxiety in women already in the midst of a vulnerable life passage, would it not make more sense for women to have had a symbol of female Divinity to whom they could pray for strength during pregnancy and childbirth?  Was Lilith also named baby-killer by male writers to keep women from praying to or even conceiving of a female deity?
  4. In her forthcoming book The Mystical Exodus: Transforming Trauma and the Wellsprings of Renewal, Jungian analyst Shoshana Fershtman expands our understanding of Lilith as an archetypal figure that guides us to turn towards the redemptive power of our collective grief. I look forward to its publication with great anticipation.

Whichever legends about her one chooses to believe, Lilith can symbolize the best and the worst in us, qualities we need to accept in ourselves in order to be whole human beings. She shows us the desirable, mysterious, pro/creative, regenerative and healing powers of the “dark” as well as its socially unacceptable or amoral attributes, and the transformative potential that awaits us in the unknown.

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A Feminist Metaformic Thea/theology

A key piece of my doctoral work was the metaformic thea/theology I constructed, which grew out of Judy Grahn’s metaformic theory/philosophy, which posits that women’s rituals created and maintain culture, indeed that they teach us what it means to be human. While Grahn talks about women as sacred, and our relationship with Nature in a way that could certainly be described as a relationship with divinity, my spirit, mind and senses could not fully grasp the deep and far-reaching aspects of her theory until I had framed it for myself as a thea/theology. This has been published as an article in the academic journal “Metaformia: A Journal of Menstruation and Culture,” www.metaformia.com

From “For She Is A Tree of Life”:

Theological Framework

The theological part of this research was for me the strongest, working in concert with but often overshadowing my theoretical framework and questions.

How did these theoretical and theological frameworks affect my choice of methods and procedures? My feminist epistemology has been made up of feminist theory, postmodern and critical theory. As this combined in practice, with my religious beliefs and daily spiritual practice, I developed the metaformic theology—grounded in Judy Grahn’s metaformic theory—described in the next section. This theology became a strong part of my methodology, a guiding light through the most difficult stages of the work. My feminist standpoint influenced my choice of methodologies and methods from the beginning; my values and belief systems also led me to shape the procedures, craft the research design and formulate the questions as I did.

Methodology and Procedures

This section will describe my research methodologies and explain why I chose organic and participatory methods. It also discusses how the metaformic theology developed, what sets it apart from other forms of inquiry and how I applied it as a methodology.

I operated out of a transpersonal paradigm in doing this work, as stated earlier, and from that framework did the research through the combination of methods described below.

Research Methods

I chose to use qualitative instead of quantitative methods because I remain more interested in women’s experience of ritual and prayer than in how many women practice a specific ritual, how many feel closer to God when they do a ritual and so on. The things I want to know are not, for me, meaningfully expressed by measuring quantities. I also like the flexibility of qualitative methods; while they hold the researcher to a higher ethical standard, as noted, they also allow for adaptation to human factors as one moves through the research. As opposed to quantitative methods, which seek a more positivist outcome, they make one evaluate more closely one’s intentions throughout the project—in terms of how the inquiry can help improve people’s lives, what questions to ask and how to involve the researched group more as participants and less as “subjects”. Organic inquiry became one of my methods because it is based on these principles, and because it views research as a sacred process, holding our own experience as both valuable and validating.

“Where most qualitative research insists that the researcher identify and bracket her or his assumptions and presuppositions to achieve a state that is free of personal judgment, organic inquiry depends on the researcher’s ability to hold her or his personal experience, both of the topic and of the progress of the research itself, in the foreground as the data are gathered and analyzed and to consciously use it as the vehicle for analysis of the data” (Clements et al. 1998). In addition to wanting to do a respectful study that would be as accurate as humanly possible, I also included a form of participatory research, by asking Dr. Rudo Mathivha to be my co-researcher in South Africa.

My own questions, described in the Introduction and at the beginning of this chapter formed the basis of this inquiry not only in an academic but in a very personal sense. They drove me, nagged at me and frustrated me most when they refused to be answered easily and instead only gave birth to new questions. I gradually learned to accept many of those moments as rewarding, since it was at those points that the inquiry often deepened.

My own questions about life, God, religion in general and Judaism in particular, the need for any god and definitions of spirituality, the shape of different women’s ritual and prayer practices—all of these inspired the inquiry, came to the fore at unexpected times and places, and shaped my own practice and the way I asked questions of others. My expectations shifted as I understood the impossibility of getting complete answers to any of my questions, and I began to see how intensely personal and sensitive my topics were.

In talking to people from both Africa and the United States during the project, I discovered that both God and religion are topics many do not want to discuss. To do so calls into question one’s role in the world. Perhaps these questions also cause people discomfort because the questions require that people examine areas they may normally avoid. Both subjects touch on people’s deepest feelings about who they are, and where they are in their own lives.

Another component of organic inquiry that made it fit well with this project is the natural process of storytelling, which the organic method shares with the storytelling that is so core to both the Lemba and European-American Jewish cultures.

Metaformic Theology Becomes Methodology

Acknowledging the importance of personal experience as a source of wisdom and truth, the feminist theologian leads others to discover, sharing [Rabbi] Laura Geller’s sentiments…that there is a “Torah of our lives as well as the Torah that was written down. Both need to be listened to and wrestled with: both unfold through interactive commentary”.

Ellen M. Umansky, Jewish theologian (in Dorff & Newman, 1999, 143)79

Metaformic theology shares the belief that theology/thealogy begins in experience, as discussed by Linda Hurcombe (Hurcombe, 1987), Carol Christ (Christ, 1997), Luisah Teish (personal communications, 2000-2002) and other feminist clergy, writers, scholars and theologians. And so this part of my research—the embodied theological piece—began by taking a ritual bath, and continued in and out of newly constructed women’s spirituality temples, in churches and synagogues, at academic conferences and classes, at oceans and rivers.

I realized that metaformic theology, an expansion of Judy Grahn’s metaformic theory (1993, 1999) was also becoming a methodology as I moved through this work. One night as I was deeply involved in watching a videotaped conversation I had had with twenty women at Hamangilasi it occurred to me that not only was the theology a means of finding deep connection with God; it was also a research method. I was doing something beyond looking at women’s rituals as the metaforms Judy Grahn first identified—themselves a source of endless fascination, inspiration, and cross-cultural connection.

Metaformic theology itself was serving as one of my methodologies, a thread running throughout the research that helped me explain and evaluate what I was finding. At the same time, it gave me the passion I needed to remain committed to the work. The connection to deity that became more embodied through an awareness of metaforms provided me with a way to understand the importance of my methods that moved beyond self. I believe ultimately the theology as methodology gave me a larger sense of my relationship with my spiritual and other communities.

I began to understand the connection I had with other women through a shared history of our bodies’ cycles, and this has impacted much of my process throughout the work. Even if I had not been involved in religious rites such as the mikvah, I certainly had been through the ritual of dealing with monthly cycles. I learned that women share a power and a knowledge no one else can interpret for us; despite the imposition of many mikvah ‘rules’ by men, the essence of the ritual cannot be taken away from women. The more I study the mikvah, the more I think women invented the whole ritual—for seclusion, rest, and spiritual renewal—many thousands of years ago, long before the concept of Judaism even existed. This brings us right back to the idea of the mikvah as metaform.

Before studying metaformic theory, I had not seen or acknowledged this connection with other women, this shared wisdom because I had not shared other aspects of biology and sexuality which women usually share. I had never been pregnant, nor did I feel I could share my sense of sexuality with other women, either because I was too embarrassed or too socially bound—it was something “nice girls” didn’t talk about much.

To learn that it was women who created the calendar, through their unique connection to a cosmic source of timekeeping, the moon, and that it was women who invented agriculture, weaving and so many other aspects of culture was exhilarating. That very knowledge held the potential for connection to spirit; indeed, it gave menstruation a spiritual dimension no one had ever told me about, but about which other women are now also writing. Suddenly I was proud of my body and its functions, beyond its appearance and sexuality. It was a short leap to understanding how much of our innate power and sense of self gets stolen, co-opted by the age of eleven or earlier through the language of shame, through the secrecy and embarrassment which accompany menstruation in this culture, through the lack of celebration and community acknowledgment—all factors solidified by organized religion.

As a feminist epistemology, metaformic theology—like metaformic theory—asks that I connect with my own body as a source of valid and valuable, indeed undeniable information. This has allowed me to see myself as sacred, making my own divinity clear to me.

When the concept of a metaformic theology first hit me, returning from a women’s spirituality conference at the University of Ottawa, I felt more clearly than I ever had this sense of divine immanence. My belief had been taken out of the realm of academic study, wishful thinking or conjecture about prehistoric societies80; it was suddenly set apart from the intellectual and theological debates over whether there was any such thing as a Goddess-worshiping culture in ancient times. A deeper connection had been made, and my own body and spirit were the proof.

I could no longer disbelieve these sources, for to do so would have been to ignore my own intelligence, to continue the very scenario a patriarchal culture had spoon-fed me since birth, the very paradigm I was critiquing and trying to deconstruct. This was a paradigm to which I owed no allegiance; it had lost value and meaning for me once I realized it caused me to assign little value or meaning to women’s words, deeds, opinions—including my own.

At that moment, as I traveled home from Canada, I was no longer male-identified. I had learned to define myself, and after that “decided to accept as true my own thinking.”81 In seeking—and finding—cross-cultural menstrual connections among women, between ritual practices82, I came to a stronger sense of women’s power, and so God’s presence. These connections, perhaps more than anything, allowed me to feel the very real in-dwelling presence of Shekhinah, not just the abstract religious construct of an external, transcendent, unforgiving male god.83

A metaformic theology provided an internal, embodied way of viewing the world and my role in it, a way of talking to and living in each day. Metaformic theory led me to the theology, giving me new eyes, and new language to express women’s relationships with God and the cosmos.

One tenet of the theory which I do not elaborate on at length here, cultural obversity (Grahn 1999)84, also gave me more tolerance with which to view other cultures, especially the more traditional, religious branches of Judaism. Grahn defines this concept by noting that cultural differences, or “othering”, gain their intensity from the fact that seclusion’s principles are obverse, resulting in a paradox; what one people revere or worship may be viewed as filthy, shameful or deadly by another (Grahn 1999).

I had some skepticism when I first learned of metaforms— enacted or embodied ideas which derive from menstrual or related rites—in a class taught by Judy Grahn in 1998; metaforms gradually became an endless source of fascination and inspiration, however, and a part of how I view the world. As I went about my field research, both at home and abroad, they gave me a way to see and feel connections with other cultures more deeply than I might have otherwise. Best of all, they led me to a theology and to a new way of conversing, both with God and other women.

79 Also see Umansky’s earlier work, Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality (Umansky and Ashton, eds., 1992.)

80 As my friend and colleague Cosi Fabian once wrote, “I accept the impossibility of even imagining the state of mind of our foremothers. For example, “worship” – how relevant [would that have been] to a group immersed in the Divine?” (Fabian, personal communication, 2002).

81 Thanks to Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) for making this eloquent statement.

82 I include the use of amulets in the United States and red ochre in South Africa—both often used in a prophylactic context, to avert evil—in this phrasing.

83 Not having undertaken extensive Talmudic or Kabbalistic studies prior to this work, I did not know how deeply ingrained Shekhinah is in sacred Jewish texts. I had sometimes heard Her name offered by men defending a male-centered liturgy, as a quick explanation for how the concept of a female deity “really is a part of Judaism”; since She is never mentioned in traditional temple services, I found this to be mere lip service. If She were really present, why were we not occasionally saying “Our Mother, Our Queen” in synagogue? A number of people have been extremely active in bringing Her back to our midst, however. For additional material, see the work of Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb (1995), Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi (1997), Rabbi Arthur Waskow (1996), Rabbi Elyse Goldstein (1998), Rabbi Geela Rayzel-Raphael, Chochmat Halev, a Jewish renewal congregation in Berkeley, Phyllis Berman of Elat Chayyim Center, New York, poet Alicia Ostriker (1993) and other Jewish renewal and reconstructionist sources.

84 See Judy Grahn’s dissertation, “Are Goddesses Metaformic Constructs?” Grahn 1999).

The Politics of Acceptance and Cultural Identities – “Who Is A Jew?”

I invite comment from readers on the following excerpt from my doctoral dissertation:

Who Is A Jew? Shared and Contested Identities

Click on this link for the text: PDF/Diss for Site.pdf