Midrash on Bereishit/Genesis ~ PART 2: HER STORY

by | Feb 20, 2024 | D'vorah Grenn's Writings and Research | 1 comment


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.




  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.

Read PART 1 ~ Ner Shalom, Cotati HERE


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