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Lilith Evolved: Writing Midrash

In this Go and Learn, guide, we explore the notion of midrash and highlight "The Coming of Lilith" by theologian Judith Plaskow as an example of how contemporary Jewish feminists have created their own midrashim—retellings of biblical stories—in order to incorporate women's viewpoints into the traditional texts of Judaism. In writing their own versions of these texts, Plaskow and her peers have made Judaism more inclusive of the voices and perspectives of all people who engage in its teachings.

Overview

Enduring Understandings

  • Midrashim are retellings of biblical stories that were written to help address problems or holes in the text.
  • The women's movement and Jewish feminists were central to the transformation of midrash into a form of interpretation and commentary used not only by rabbis but also by “ordinary” Jews.
  • Having women’s perspectives on traditional Jewish texts makes Judaism more inclusive for everyone.

Essential Questions

  • Why is it important that we have women’s perspectives on traditional Jewish texts?
  • How did Judith Plaskow’s midrash about Lilith differ from the original and why are these differences important?

Introductory Essay(s)

"The Coming of Lilith:" A Contemporary Midrash

Historically, rabbis wrote midrash to explain problems they found in biblical texts. If there seemed to be a missing piece to a story, an inconsistency between two different passages, or a redundant word or verse, the rabbis would explain the problem by writing a new midrash, filling in the missing dialogue, reconciling the seeming contradiction, or showing how there is no redundancy since each word is there to teach a specific lesson or practice.

Rabbinic midrash has often been taught as if it were "the way things really happened." For instance, many Jews believe that the story of Abraham smashing the idols comes from the Bible. In fact, this story is a midrash, told to answer the question implicit in the text itself—why did God choose Abraham and ask him to move to a new land and start a new people?

In the last forty years, midrash has become a form of interpretation and commentary used not only by rabbis but also by "ordinary" Jews. The women's movement and Jewish feminists were central to this transformation. In the 1970s, women started to notice that many traditional texts of Judaism and all rabbinic responsa were written by men (as far as we know). Women searched for glimpses of female viewpoints, but they were difficult to find. They realized that the experiences of half of the Jewish population are absent from the official record of the Jewish people. To remedy this imbalance, women began to create their own midrashim, retelling biblical stories from the perspectives of female characters.

In 1972, one such woman—the feminist theologian Judith Plaskow—wrote "The Coming of Lilith." It is a midrash about the Garden of Eden, told from a feminist point of view. "The Coming of Lilith" is actually a midrash on a midrash. In the original Lilith midrash, the rabbis wondered how to reconcile the two different accounts of the creation of man and woman in the book of Genesis. Genesis chapter 1 describes God's creation of man and woman at the very same moment. But Genesis chapter 2 recounts how God makes man and puts him in the Garden of Eden, and then realizes he needs a mate, and creates woman.

The rabbis tried to reconcile these two stories into one coherent narrative. What happened to the woman created in Genesis 1, such that Adam was alone and in need of a mate in Genesis 2? To answer this question, the Rabbis created the legend of Lilith as the first woman. In this legend, Lilith was Adam's equal, but when he insisted on dominating her, she left him. So God created Eve to be Adam's second mate; created from his body, she was more willing to be submissive to him. Thus, Lilith was the woman mentioned in Genesis 1, and Eve the new woman created in Genesis 2 after Lilith fled.

In the ancient rabbinic tradition, Lilith was vilified. The rabbinic stories turned her into a demoness who sought to kill human infants unless they were protected by amulets. However, in "The Coming of Lilith," Plaskow transforms the fearsome, baby-stealing Lilith into a wise and brave woman. Instead of being a rival to be feared, she becomes Eve's friend and empowerer.

In this midrash, Judith Plaskow explores some of the questions she and her contemporaries were grappling with during the 1970s. They took the women's movement into the religious sphere, rethinking basic assumptions about how God created humans and what might have caused inequality between men and women.

"The Coming of Lilith" also examines the potential power of sisterhood to transform the world and right its inequities. Eve and Lilith build "a bond between them" by telling each other stories, laughing and crying together, and teaching each other many things. This bond between women has the potential to be a catalyst for change, as shown by the concluding line of the story: "And God and Adam were expectant and afraid the day Eve and Lilith returned to the garden, bursting with possibilities, ready to rebuild it together."

Today, more than 30 years after it was written, "The Coming of Lilith" may sound a bit dated. But its message about the responsibility of humans to partner with one another and with the Divine to improve our world remains relevant, as does its encouragement of all people to add their own voices to the chorus of a modern and more inclusive Judaism.

Document Studies

The Coming of Lilith

The Coming of Lilith

"The Coming of Lilith" by Judith Plaskow

In the beginning, the Lord God formed Adam and Lilith from the dust of the ground and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life. Created from the same source, both having been formed from the ground, they were equal in all ways. Adam, being a man, didn’t like this situation, and he looked for ways to change it. He said, “I'll have my figs now, Lilith,” ordering her to wait on him, and he tried to leave to her the daily tasks of life in the garden. But Lilith wasn't one to take any nonsense; she picked herself up, uttered God's holy name, and flew away. “Well now, Lord,” complained Adam, “that uppity woman you sent me has gone and deserted me.” The Lord, inclined to be sympathetic, sent his messengers after Lilith, telling her to shape up and return to Adam or face dire punishment. She, however, preferring anything to living with Adam, decided to stay where she was. And so God, after more careful consideration this time, caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam and out of one of his ribs created for him a second companion, Eve.

For a time, Eve and Adam had a good thing going. Adam was happy now, and Eve, though she occasionally sensed capacities within herself that remained undeveloped, was basically satisfied with the role of Adam's wife and helper. The only thing that really disturbed her was the excluding closeness of the relationship between Adam and God. Adam and God just seemed to have more in common, both being men, and Adam came to identify with God more and more. After a while, that made God a bit uncomfortable too, and he started going over in his mind whether he may not have made a mistake letting Adam talk him into banishing Lilith and creating Eve, seeing the power that gave Adam.

Meanwhile Lilith, all alone, attempted from time to time to rejoin the human community in the garden. After her first fruitless attempt to breach its walls, Adam worked hard to build them stronger, even getting Eve to help him. He told her fearsome stories of the demon Lilith who threatens women in childbirth and steals children from their cradles in the middle of the night. The second time Lilith came, she stormed the garden's main gate, and a great battle ensued between her and Adam in which she was finally defeated. This time, however, before Lilith got away, Eve got a glimpse of her and saw she was a woman like herself.

After this encounter, seeds of curiosity and doubt began to grow in Eve's mind. Was Lilith indeed just another woman? Adam had said she was a demon. Another woman! The very idea attracted Eve. She had never seen another creature like herself before. And how beautiful and strong Lilith looked! How bravely she had fought! Slowly, slowly, Eve began to think about the limits of her own life within the garden.

One day, after many months of strange and disturbing thoughts, Eve, wandering around the edge of the garden, noticed a young apple tree she and Adam had planted, and saw that one of its branches stretched over the garden wall. Spontaneously, she tried to climb it, and struggling to the top, swung herself over the wall.

She did not wander long on the other side before she met the one she had come to find, for Lilith was waiting. At first sight of her, Eve remembered the tales of Adam and was frightened, but Lilith understood and greeted her kindly. “Who are you?” they asked each other, “What is your story?” And they sat and spoke together of the past and then of the future. They talked for many hours, not once, but many times. They taught each other many things, and told each other stories, and laughed together, and cried, over and over, till the bond of sisterhood grew between them.

Meanwhile, back in the garden, Adam was puzzled by Eve's comings and goings, and disturbed by what he sensed to be her new attitude toward him. He talked to God about it, and God, having his own problems with Adam and a somewhat broader perspective, was able to help out a little—but he was confused, too. Something had failed to go according to plan. As in the days of Abraham, he needed counsel from his children. “I am who I am,” thought God, “but I must become who I will become.”

And God and Adam were expectant and afraid the day Eve and Lilith returned to the garden, bursting with possibilities, ready to rebuild it together.

Details

Excerpt from: Plaskow, Judith. “The Coming of Lilith.” In Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality: A Sourcebook. Ed. Ellen M. Umansky and Dianne Ashton. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992. Reprinted with permission of the author.

"Burney Relief" or "Queen of the Night"
Full image
Rectangular, baked clay relief panel, known as the "Burney Relief" or the "Queen of the Night," dated between 1800 and 1750 BCE.
Courtesy of the British Museum.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Lilith Evolved: Writing Midrash." (Viewed on August 31, 2016) <http://jwa.org/teach/golearn/sep07>.

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