A Midrash on Bereishit/Genesis ~ PART 1

by | Feb 22, 2024 | D'vorah Grenn's Writings and Research, Featured | 1 comment

From my midrash on Bereishit and Lilith for Ner Shalom, 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.



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