Lilith, Lady Flying in Darkness

The most notorious demon of Jewish tradition becomes a feminist hero.

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When the first man,Adam, saw that he was alone, God made for him a woman like himself, from the earth.God called her name Lilith, and brought her to Adam. They 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." And they would not listen to one another.

As soon as Lilith saw this, she uttered the Divine name and flew up into the air and fled. Adam began to pray before his Creator, saying: "Master of the universe, the woman that you gave me has fled." God sent three angels and said to them: "Go bring back Lilith. If she wants to come, she shall come, and if she does not want to come, do not bring her against her will.

The three angels went and found her in the sea at the place where the Egyptians were destined to drown. There they grabbed her and said to her: "If you will go with us,well and good, but if not, we will drown you in the sea."

Lilith said to them:"My friends, I know God only created me to weaken infants when they are eight days old. From the day a child is born until the eighth day, I have dominion over the child, and from the eighth day onward I have no dominion over him if he is a boy, but if a girl, I rule over her twelve days."

They said: "We won't let you go until you accept upon yourself that each day one hundred of your children will die." And she accepted it. That is why one hundred demons die every day. They would not leave her alone until she swore to them:"In any place that I see you or your names in an amulet, I will have no dominion over that child." They left her. And she is Lilith, who weakens the children of men….

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Alphabet of Ben Sira 23a-b

Some believe that this story is a serious attempt to explain the death of infants, while others are convinced it is a humorous tale of sexual quarrels and unsuccessful angels. The Lilith of this story confronts both Adam and God: she defies patriarchy, refuses a submissive sexual posture,and in the end refuses marriage altogether, preferring to become a demon rather than live under Adam's authority. Notice that Lilith flees to the Sea of Reeds:the place where the Hebrews will one day go free from slavery. In this version of the Lilith story, Lilith becomes what all tyrants fear: a person who is aware she is enslaved.

This version of the Lilith tale in the Alphabet of Ben Sira quickly spread throughout Jewish life, and others expanded on it. The Zohar, a mystical work from 12th century Spain, imagines Lilith not only as the first wife of Adam but also as the wife of Satan. In the kabbalah, Lilith takes on cosmic power. She is a chaotic counterpart to the Shekhinah (the feminine Divine Presence, the bride of the Infinite). In fact, the Zohar imagines that while the Jews suffer in exile, the Holy One (the masculine aspect of the Divine) separates from the Shekhinah, and consorts with Lilith.Lilith's sexual-spiritual link with the Divine will only end when the Messiah comes and the brokenness in the world is mended.

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Rabbi Jill Hammer

Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is an author, educator, midrashist, myth-weaver, and ritualist. She is director of Tel Shemesh, a website celebrating Jewish earth-based traditions, and co-founder of Kohenet: The Hebrew Priestess Institute. She is the author of Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women (Jewish Publication Society, 2001) and The Jewish Book of Days (Jewish Publication Society, 2006).