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Lilith: Demoness or Heroine?

This condensed version of the Girls in Trouble curriculum, a project by Alicia Jo Rabins, is based on Alicia’s art-pop song cycle of the same name, and follows individual women through their stories in the Torah. In each lesson, students are encouraged to engage with both the Torah text and Alicia’s songs, to consider the story’s relevance to their own lives, and to generate their own creative interpretations. This curriculum brings Biblical women to life, demonstrating the power of these often under-studied stories, and highlighting the ways in which they can help us navigate our own complicated lives.

Overview

Enduring Understandings

  • Our deepest fears often reveal what is most important to us.
  • Lilith has been seen as a terrifying character for centuries, but now is often seen as an inspiring role model.
  • Creating art about women in Torah continues the millennia-old tradition of interpretation, while bringing female characters to the center of the process.

Essential Questions

  • Why is Lilith’s story important?
  • Is Lilith a demoness, a heroine, or both?
  • How does Alicia’s song contribute to our understanding of Lilith’s story?

Notes to Teacher

We encourage you to make this curriculum your own. For instance, if there isn’t time during your class period to have students sketch out their own creative interpretations, you can either leave this part out or treat it as an extension activity.

We also encourage you to include as much hevruta (partner) study as possible. If you are new to hevruta study, you can think of it as discussion between two partners who can help each other learn by challenging each other’s first impressions. Breaking the group into pairs and having them read texts out loud, rather than silently, is an essential part of hevruta study.

Lastly, when studying the Torah text, we find it helpful to have students identify every problem, difficulty, or moment of confusion they can find in the text, as if they were on a scavenger hunt. This opens up the door to midrash, the Jewish tradition of creative Torah interpretation, which imagines answers to those questions.

Introductory Essay(s)

"We are Androgynous": Explanation of a Musical Midrash

by Alicia Jo Rabins

To the extent that I experienced Judaism growing up, it was classic 80’s suburban Reform Judaism. We had Maxwell House seders and menorahs at home, and my religious education took place at a huge congregation across town from the non-Jewish suburb where I lived. This education involved a rabbi in robes, a choir behind a screen on the bimah, and a bat mitzvah where I learned to chant a few lines of Torah without learning what they meant. I am grateful to the teachers and rabbis and cantors who passed down these traditions, kept them alive in the desert of suburban Maryland, taught us the Hebrew alphabet, and declared me bat mitzvah in front of the scroll. But I burned with questions, and ached for direct contact with spiritual wisdom and exploration. I was looking for direct engagement with the sacred mysteries, not old stories about God, and so it did not occur to me to look in Judaism. Though I tasted a bit of holiness in the synagogue’s small side chapel, and felt the letters awakening something inside me, I primarily experienced the massive worship room and hectic Hebrew school classrooms as a vehicle for cultural transmission, not spiritual seeking. So I went looking elsewhere for Divinity, magic, mystery.

Not until years later, when life led me back to my Jewish heritage and I made a sort of pilgrimage to Jerusalem at age 21, did I learn that Judaism does indeed engage with the Divine directly - with the God of the Torah, and also with the darkest, most mystical forces. Now I look back and think, “Of course!”, but at the time I would have been shocked to hear that the tradition contained demonesses, amulets, and incantations. Perhaps my suburban rabbis knew these mysterious traditions, but also knew that most of their congregation was not ready to engage with them. More likely, as a side effect of integrating scientific knowledge with Torah and integrating Jews with mainstream American culture, the mystical tradition had been tossed out along with superstitions, strict observance of the commandments, and outdated ideas about a woman’s place.

When I first learned of Lilith, in a book on Jewish mysticism, I felt a thrill - as an artist and as a person. And I am not alone in my fascination. This winged demoness has continued to fly through the imaginations of women and men over cultures, centuries and continents. She has been feared as a demoness and celebrated as a symbol of female liberation and sexuality.

Politically, I love the contemporary trend of embracing and celebrating Lilith as a powerful woman, as many contemporary artists do; spiritually, I am equally drawn to the amulets that pregnant and birthing women used to protect themselves against her. In these older, superstitious cultures, Lilith gives a name and a form to the deep human fears - losing a baby, or losing a husband’s love. These fears are so deep precisely because of the strength of our love; they are the inverse measure of how precious life is, and how tenuous. Even at her most demonic, Lilith reflects back to us the sweetness of what we hold dear. The sexual, the familial, and the intensity of our responsibility to create and safeguard the next generation - all these twine together in her character.

When I wrote “We Are Androgynous,” I drew on the midrashic idea that Adam and Lilith (in her role as the First Eve) were created as halves of a whole, double-gendered body, described as “androgynos” in the original text’s Talmudic-Aramaic-via-Ancient-Greek.

In this telling, Lilith asserts herself to Adam as his equal. Adam, dismayed, complains to God that he cannot live with such a presumptuous woman, who thinks she is equal because she was created as part of the same being. God, sympathetic to Adam, banishes Lilith from the garden and starts over with the Eve. This time, God takes the woman from Adam’s rib (literally “side”), so that she will always know she is secondary.

“We Are Androgynous” draws on the story of Lilith and her banishment to consider love, the limitations and transcendence inherent in the human body, and the impossible-to-hold category of gender itself. Using a centuries-old instrument of the violin through the modern technology of the loop pedal echoes the mysterious swirling winds that seem to accompany Lilith through time. (If you don’t know what the loop pedal is, check out this live video.)

Like most modern progressive people, I conceive of romantic love not as a hierarchical relationship, but as the meeting of two equals. In this song, I imagine Lilith holding the same beliefs. After all, thinking she was equal to Adam was, in many interpretations, her original offense.

My Lilith is a proto-modern thinker about love, in whatever genders it manifests. My Lilith remembers being formed by the hands of God, just as Adam was. She may be banished from Eden, but she knows that one day, humans will once again believe in that first Edenic state of love, where she and Adam were two parts of a whole, distinct but equal, both shaped by the Divine. My Lilith looks forward to that day, but she has her boundaries; she will not return to the Garden before it comes.

Lesson Plan

Intro

  • Invite participants to introduce themselves and share what comes to mind when they hear the phrase, “powerful woman.”
  • Introduce useful things to know about Lilith (see “Helpful Things for Teachers to Know about Lilith” in the Documents section).

Core Text

  • Introduce hevruta, divide class, pass out “core text” sheets
  • Hevrutas read core text to each other and explore discussion questions
  • Come back together to discuss what arose in hevruta. Begin by inviting students to share their most interesting questions and listing them on the board. Explain that finding unanswered questions in the text is the starting point of midrash; ask students to refrain from answering questions unless the questions address the basic plot of the story.

Song

  • Listen to “We Are Androgynous” with lyrics
  • Discuss questions as a group

Create Your Own Midrash

  • Time for individual brainstorming/freewriting/drawing with “Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations”
  • If time, opportunity to share creative responses. Students should resist the temptation to critique others’ responses.
  • Share students’ midrashim by adding them to the Gallery of Biblical Women on the Girls in Trouble website

Document Studies

Song recording

Song recording

We Are Androgynous

Full image
Audio recording of Alicia Jo Rabins' song, "We Are Androgynous."

Helpful Things to Know about Lilith

Helpful Things to Know about Lilith

Helpful Things to Know about Lilith

  • This unit focuses on Jewish traditions about Lilith. Lilith (“Lilit” in Hebrew) is a fringe entity who barely appears in Jewish texts. We include her not because she is central to Jewish canon - she isn’t - but because of her longevity and tenacity of her character, despite her absence from written texts. She played a powerful enough part in the imagination of diverse Jewish communities, as well as Christian and secular thinkers, that exploring her story is a fascinating lens on how differently one character can be viewed by different ages and societies.
  • Lilith began as an ancient Near Eastern myth, and from there seems to have entered ancient Israelite culture. From the magazine Biblical Archaeology: “The ancient name ‘Lilith’ derives from a Sumerian word for female demons or wind spirits—the lilītu...The earliest surviving mention of Lilith’s name appears in Gilgamesh and the Huluppu-Tree, a Sumerian epic poem found on a tablet at Ur and dating from approximately 2000 B.C.E.”
  • In the Jewish tradition, a Lilith demon may appear in the book of Prophets (the translation is unclear). She comes up a few times in rabbinical literature; the Talmud references the danger the lilith poses for men sleeping in a house alone (BT Shabbat 151b) and the lilith’s wings (BT Niddah 24b).
  • Next, mystical Judaism takes up her story; she becomes the first wife of Adam in the Alphabet of Ben Sira, is denounced as an evil killer of newborn children in medieval Kabbalah, and warned against in the Zohar, which recommends a special ritual before sexual intercourse to fend off Lilith’s sexual advances. For centuries, Jewish communities from widely varying times and continents feared Lilith, as did many of the neighboring non-Jewish communitie; this unit contains images of demon bowls in Babylonia and amulets from Iran, Persia, and India which were meant to protect households from Lilith’s destructive forces. She was seen as dangerous to marriages and lethal to pregnant and birthing women as well as newborn babies.
  • Nineteenth-century (mostly non-Jewish) romantic painters and writers were fascinated by Lilith. Rather than a threatening demoness, these painters interpreted her as a beautiful romantic seductress (see the Rosetti image in the visual art section).
  • In Jewish and Christian artwork, imagery traditionally associated with Lilith include the snake from Eden; long hair; wings; sexuality; demon babies; and killing human babies.
  • In the 1970’s, Lilith was reclaimed by Jewish feminists, who see her fierce independence as cause for celebration, rather than fear. The first American-Jewish feminist magazine, Lilith, was founded in 1976 by Susan Weidman Schneider in order “to foster discussion of Jewish women’s issues and put them on the agenda of the Jewish community, with a view to giving women—who are more than fifty percent of the world’s Jews—greater choice in Jewish life." (See visual art section for the earliest cover!) Two decades later, in 1996, Canadian musician Sarah McLachlan and others founded a traveling music festival of women-led bands in reaction to concert promoters and radio stations that refused to feature two female musicians in a row. The Lilith Fair, which took place during the summers of 1997 to 1999 and was revived in the summer of 2010, took its name from the mythological first wife of Adam.
  • Today, Lilith appears in pop culture, from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series to DC and Marvel comics, as well as television shows, movies, anime and manga, and video games.

Biblical text with discussion questions

Biblical text with discussion questions

Alphabet of Ben Sira 78: Lilith

The excerpt below is from the Alphabet of Ben Sira, a provocative and often misogynistic text. It is the first known reference to Lilith as an individual character; like many mystical texts, it is visionary and mysterious. As you will see, this imagination of Lilith refers back to the accounts of creation in Genesis, finding an origin story for Lilith there.

In a nutshell: Genesis contains two different accounts of the creation of humans. In the first (Genesis 1:27) God seems to create male and female as one being, and then split them into two. In the second (Genesis 2:21-22), God creates Eve out of takes Adam's rib (literally, "side"). There are various explanations for why these two versions exist. Ben Sira suggests that the first woman was not actually Eve, but was Lilith. Since she was created as part of a whole with Adam, she thought she was equal to him as well. Adam complained, and God exiled Lilith from the garden and created Eve from Adam's body, so that she would always know she was secondary.

Alphabet of Ben Sira 78: Lilith

When God created the first man Adam alone, God said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” [So] God created a woman for him, from the earth like him, and called her Lilith. They [Adam and Lilith] promptly began to argue with each other: She said, “I will not lie below,” and he said, “I will not lie below, but above, since you are fit for being below and I for being above.” She said to him, “The two of us are equal, since we are both from the earth.” And they would not listen to each other. Since Lilith saw [how it was], she uttered God's ineffable name and flew away into the air. Adam stood in prayer before his Maker and said, “Master of the Universe, the woman you gave me fled from me!”

The Holy Blessed one immediately dispatched the three angels Sanoy, Sansenoy, and Samangelof after her, to bring her back. God said, “If she wants to return, well and good. And if not, she must accept that a hundred of her children will die every day.” The angels pursued her and overtook her in the sea, in raging waters, (the same waters in which the Egyptians would one day drown), and told her God's orders. And yet she did not want to return. They told her they would drown her in the sea, and she replied. “Leave me alone! I was only created in order to sicken babies: if they are boys, from birth to day eight I will have power over them; if they are girls, from birth to day twenty.” When they heard her reply, they pleaded with her to come back. She swore to them in the name of the living God that whenever she would see them or their names or their images on an amulet, she would not overpower that baby, and she accepted that a hundred of her children would die every day. Therefore, a hundred of the demons die every day, and therefore, we write the names [of the three angels] on amulets of young children. When Lilith sees them, she remembers her oath and the child is [protected and] healed.

כשברא הקב״ה אדם הראשון יחיד, אמר לא טוב היות האדם לבדו, ברא לו אשה מן האדמה כמהו וקראה לילית. מיד התחילו מתגרין זה בזה, אמרה היא איני שוכבת למטה, והוא אומר איני שוכב למטה אלא למעלה שאת ראויה למטה ואני למעלה, אמרה לו שנינו שוין לפי ששנינו מאדמה, ולא היו שומעין זה לזה, כיון שראתה לילית אמרה שם המפורש ופרחה באויר העולם. עמד אדם הראשון בתפילה לפני קונו ואמר: רבונו של עולם, הרי האשה שנתת לי ברחה כבר. מיד שגר הקב״ה שלשה מלאכים הללו אחריה להחזירה. אמר הקב״ה אם תרצה לחזור מוטב. ואם לאו תקבל על עצמה שימותו מבניה בכל יום מאה בנים. והלכו אחריה והשימה בתוך הים במים עזים שעתידין המצריים למות שם. וספרו לה דבר ה׳ ולא רצתה לחזור. אמרו לה אנו נטביעך בים. אמרה להם הנחוני שלא נבראתי אלא להחליש התינוקות כשהן משמונה ימים, מיום שיולד אשלוט בו אם היה זכר, ואם נקבה מיום ילדותה עד עשרים יום, וכששמעו דבריה הפצירו לקחת אותה, נשבעה להם בשם אל חי וקים שכל זמן שאני רואה אתכם או שמכם או תכניתכם בקמיע לא אשלוט באותו התינוק, וקבלה על עצמה שימותו מבניה מאה בכל יום, לפיכך בכל יום מתים מאה מן השדים, ולכך אנו כותבים שמותם בקמיע של נערים קטנים ורואה אותם וזוכרת השבועה ומתרפא הילד.

Questions for discussion

  1. What is your response to this text? What do you find disturbing, surprising, or fascinating?
  2. How do you feel about Lilith after reading this text?

Song lyrics with discussion questions

Song lyrics with discussion questions

We Are Androgynous

A love song from Lilith to Adam by Alicia Jo Rabins/Girls in Trouble

We are androgynous double-faced beings,
one looking forward and one looking back.
Formed in the light of the throne in the sky,
we are never alone and we never die.

Two forms of dust, of the one and the many;
a vapor to moisten them both into clay.
Two hands to guide us, to form us and shape us,
until we are ready to walk away.

We are, we are, we are,
we are, we are, we are.

We are androgynous double-faced beings,
torn from each other and rendered in two.
Two flaming swords guard the garden of Eden,
but I won't go back there without you.

Questions for discussion

  1. What is your response to this song after hearing it for the second time?
  2. How does hearing this song after reading the texts differ from listening the first time, before reading them?
  3. How does this depiction of Lilith relate to others in this unit? Which similarities and differences can you find?

Footnoted song lyrics

Footnoted song lyrics

We Are Androgynous, annotated

by Alicia Jo Rabins/Girls in Trouble

We are androgynous double-faced beings,
one looking forward and one looking back.
Formed in the light of the throne in the sky,
we are never alone and we never die.

Two forms of dust1, of the one and the many;
a vapor to moisten them both into clay.
Two hands to guide us, to form us and shape us,
until we are ready to walk away.

We are, we are, we are,
we are, we are, we are.

We are androgynous double-faced beings,
torn from each other and rendered in two.
Two flaming swords guard the garden of Eden2,
but I won't go back there without you.3

1 This line is inspired by, and quotes from, my teacher Avivah Zornberg’s book Genesis: The Beginning of Desire. I have bolded the words I borrowed here, in gratitude for Dr. Zornberg’s teachings: “Man, in the midrashic view, is the meeting point of the two kinds of dust, of the one and the many...Rashi comments: For the purpose of creating man, the depths released a vapor that seeded the clouds and moistened the dust, so that man was created...so here, first there was a moistening and then, ‘God formed man.’..What does it mean, to be created by the hands of God, rather than by His word…?” (p. 18)

2 This line is inspired by the Biblical image of a flaming sword that guards Eden so that Adam and Eve (and Lilith) will never be able to return. Genesis 3:24: “God drove the man out, and stationed east of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life.” It also draws on the Zohar, which directly connects the flaming sword to Lilith:  “She approached the gates of Paradise on earth, and saw the Cherubim guarding the gates of Paradise, and sat down facing the Flaming Sword, for she originated from that flame. When that flame revolved, she fled. And she roams in the world, and finds children liable to punishment, and caresses them, and kills them.” (Zohar 1:19b, translation by Patai.)

You may notice there is only one sword in the original text and two in my song, to which I say, oops. For some reason I pictured it as two, and wrote the song accordingly. When I went back to re-read the story again, I couldn’t figure out how to change the lyrics without messing up the entire song. This is the one moment in the GIrls in Trouble song cycle when I allowed myself to contradict the text.

3 I wanted Lilith’s song to end on a note which is simultaneously defiant,  hopeful and (ultimately) loving. Defiant, because why would Lilith want to return to the place where she had been deprecated and scorned? But hopeful too, because I imagine that Lilith was simply before her time, about three thousands years early in her belief in gender equality. After all, her vision of love seems to be similar to ours, when couples wish and expect to be equal, rather than having one person rule over the other. So I imagine that perhaps our modern loving unions are, in a sense, the real-life manifestations of Lilith returning to Eden with Adam: with mutual respect, equal power, and fully in love.

Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations

Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations

Some Ideas to Jump-start Your Own Creative Interpretations

Music

  • Write a song from Lilith to Eve
  • Make a playlist of songs that relate in some way to Lilith and the ideas surrounding her

Movement

  • Create a dance about a moment in  Lilith’s story: her creation, her expulsion from Eden, or her relationship with people of later generations
  • In a small group, create a dance between Adam, Lilith and Eve (and, if you wish, God) depicting a key moment in the story

Writing

  • Write a diary entry in Lilith’s voice after her expulsion from the garden. Or, choose a moment in history (ancient, medieval, modern) and write in Lilith’s voice from that moment
  • Freewrite: what does Lilith mean to you? How do you relate to her character? Does she remind you of any aspects of yourself? Does she inspire you, or frighten you?
  • Summarize Lilith’s story in six words
1 Comment

Instead of Two flaming swords you can sing "Too flaming swords" as if to say, also there were swords- just a thought

 

 

Cover Art for "Lilith: Demoness or Heroine?"
Full image
Cover art by Uri Berkowitz for "Lilith: Demoness or Heroine?", a lesson plan from the "Girls in Trouble" curriculum by Alicia Jo Rabins.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Lilith: Demoness or Heroine?." (Viewed on December 12, 2017) <https://jwa.org/teach/girlsintrouble/lilith-demoness-or-heroine>.

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