Lilith Evolved: Writing Midrash
In this edition of Go and Learn, 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.
Featured Document: "The Coming of Lilith"
We have created 3 lesson plans based on "The Coming of Lilith."
- For youth:
Lilith Stories: Exploring and Writing Midrashim (PDF)
- For family/congregational education:
Telling Stories, Discovering Midrash, and Learning about Lilith (PDF)
- For adults:
The Faces of Lilith: Finding Your Own Voice in Midrash (PDF)
"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 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.Excerpt from "The Coming of Lilith" by Judith Plaskow, 1972
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.