Lilith and the Demonization of Women

And on the 6th day… “God created mankind in God’s own image, in the image of God (B’tzelem Elohim) God created them; male and female God created them.” (Gen 1:27)

Just a few columns later in the Torah we then read:

The Eternal God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” …So the Eternal God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, God took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Eternal God made a woman from the rib taken out of the man, and God brought her to the man. (Gen 2:18-22)

Anyone notice a problem with these two narratives? In the first account, written in Genesis, chapter 1, God created male and female at the same time. And then in the very next chapter, we read a totally different account in which man is created first, alone, and a women, Eve, is created out of his rib to be his helper. For thousands of years, Jews have tried to reconcile discrepancy.

Although there are many commentaries on these verses, I want to focus tonight on  a story told in Midrash Rabbah and later sources, of another woman, before Eve. According to this opinion, God did create a man and women at the same time in Genesis, chapter 1 but then something happened to that first women leaving man alone and thus prompting the creation of Eve in Genesis, chapter 2.

So who was that first women and what happened to her? This is where is gets really interesting… (and pretty messed up, tbh)

In Jewish folklore, Adam’s first wife, who was created at the same time (and from the same clay as Adam) was named Lilith. Although first written about in the early rabbinic period, the legend developed extensively during the Middle Ages. According to one source, The Alphabet of Ben Sira, after they were created, Adam and Lilith immediately began to quarrel.

Adam said: “You lie beneath me.” And Lilith said: “You lie beneath me! We are both equal, for both of us are from the earth.” But they would not listen to one another. Adam then approached God about this ‘uppity’ women who was to be his wife, requesting that maybe God could do something about her. As soon as Lilith heard this, she uttered the Divine name and flew up into the air and fled to the Red Sea. According to tradition, Lilith then became a demon, praying on men in their sleep and killing babies in their first week of life before they are brought into the covenant.

The story of Lilith is tragic but sadly not surprising. Adam, the first man, felt threatened. Lilith was an affront to his power, his entitlement, his masculinity. And so he sought to make her subservient.  

When that didn’t work, he just went and got a new wife, who wouldn’t yell so much, who wouldn’t be so angry, who would stay in her place. He acquired Eve, someone who he could blame all his problems on – remember that whole eating the forbidden fruit thing.

And what about Lilith? The rabbis of old were so uncomfortable with a woman who was equal to a man, a woman who had her own thoughts and opinions, a woman who showed her anger, that they demonized her. They literally demonized her; seeking to try to promote a worldview that a woman who gets angry at inequality is a monster that tempts men and kills babies.

A millennium later and after tireless efforts by countless advocates for gender equality, we haven’t gotten much better. Our society still demonizes women; using the same tired tropes from the Lilith story – these devil women as temptresses – loose and promiscuous; they are pro-choice, anti-life, baby killers. And perhaps most striking, from this past week, they are uppity and angry. How many times have we heard (especially over the past two years), “why is she so angry, just smile a bit honey, her voice is so shrill…”

In an opinion piece in the NYT, Rebecca Traister, points out the ridiculous double standard of who is allowed to be angry in our society. Using the Kavanaugh hearings as an example, Traister writes:

Fury was a tool to be marshaled by men like Judge Kavanaugh and Senator Graham, in defense of their own claims to political, legal, public power. Fury was a weapon that had not been made available to the woman who had reason to question those claims. What happened inside the room was an exceptionally clear distillation of who has historically been allowed to be angry on their own behalf, and who has not.

Adam can get as angry as he wants and he still has his place in the Garden of Eden. Lilith, the moment she exerts her equality with even the slightest bit of anger, gets banished.

Recognizing that I am a white, cisgendered, privileged man, I feel it is important that I speak out on issues of gender equality. At the same time, I also understand that there are many women like Rebecca Traister, whose voices need to be amplified so that all may hear their wisdom.

I want to share some words from my friend and colleague, Rabbi Leah Berkowitz. In a recent article from the Jewish Women’s Archive, Rabbi Berkowitz comments about how women, including herself, are taught from a young age to ‘play nice.’ And these are ideas are still perpetuated to women even as adults. She writes:

Sometimes, I’ll describe a difficult conversation or situation at work to my mother. Hearing the anger and agitation in my voice, feelings I might have been suppressing all day, she’ll say, “I hope you were nice about it.”

She continues, explaining why this behavior is so dangerous:

While socializing women to be nice plays a huge part in perpetuating rape culture, it also has an effect on the larger continuum of behavior that perpetuates gender inequality.

Rabbi Berkowitz imagines a world where girls are taught from a young age a new, unapologetic vocabulary, “You can’t talk to me like that. You can’t touch me like that. You can’t treat me like that. I’m leaving now. You need to leave now.”

Men in our country are saying it is a scary time to be a man. Anyone could be falsely accused by a vindictive women with an agenda; their reputation ruined.

This is not about the fear of being wrongfully accused – which by the way, studies have shown only occurs 2-6% of the time, commensurate with other crimes. This is not about the supreme court. This is about equality. For our entire history, from our mythical primordial beginnings on the 6th day of creation when human beings first came into being, male power and privilege have not been challenged enough in our society as a whole, and now, it is happening. And it is a good thing.

I know it is painful right now for so many of us, but I truly believe that our society is getting better. I believe there is a new generation that will not accept misogyny as the norm. A new generation that will boldly say, “You can’t treat me like that.”

I believe we will live to see a day when courageous, strong, independent, smart women will no longer be demonized. I believe in the better angels of our nature.

In Judith Plaskow’s short story, The Coming of Lilith, she imagines a new ending to the Lilith midrash in which Lilith seeks to return to Eden. She tries to breach the walls of the Garden and each time she is rebuffed by Adam. He builds the walls stronger, yet Lilith persists. Adam, fearful that Lilith will infect Eve with her ideas of equality, tries to keep Eve away from her. Yet, Lilith persists. Plaskow ends the story, “And Adam was afraid of the day Eve and Lilith returned to the garden, bursting with possibilities, ready to rebuild it together.”