by Aviva Cantor Zuckoff

The Lilith Question

After the Holy One created the first human being, Adam, He said: “It is not good for Adam to be alone.” He created a woman, also from the earth, and called her Lilith.

They quarreled immediately. She said: “I will not lie below you.” He said, “I will not lie below you, but above you. For you are fit to be below me and I above you.”

She responded: “We are both equal because we both come from the earth.”

Neither listened to the other. When Lilith realized what was happening, she pronounced the Ineffable Name of God and flew off into the air.

Adam rose in prayer before the Creator, saying, “The woman you gave me has fled from me.” Immediately the Holy One sent three angels after her.

The Holy One said to Adam: “If she wants to return, all the better. If not, she will have to accept that one hundred of her children will die every day.”

The angels went after her, finally locating her in the sea, in the powerful waters in which the Egyptians were destined to perish. They told her what God had said, and she did not want to return Alphabet of Ben Sira 23a-b

“And God created the human species in His own image . . . male and female created He them” (Genesis: 1-.27)

The most ancient Biblical account of the Creation relates that God created the first man and the first woman at the same time. Jewish legends tell us that this woman was Lilith.

Lilith, we learn, felt herself to be Adam’s equal (“We are both from the earth”) but Adam refused to accept her equality. Lilith, determined to retain her independence and dignity, and choosing loneliness over subservience, flew away from Adam and the Garden of Eden.

Jewish tradition characterized Lilith after her escape from Adam as a demon and embellished this reputation with legend upon legend of her vengeful activities to harm children and women who give birth in rooms without industrial-strength amulets to ward her off. The Alphabet of Ben Sira provides us with the most coherent account of the Lilith myth, embodying features of past legends and providing the basis for future additions. The Alphabet tells of Lilith’s struggle for equality and her escape, Adam’s complaint to God, and the dispatching of three angels to bring his recalcitrant mate back. She refused to return and accepted the punishment of 100 of her “demon children” dying daily, for which she takes revenge. The demonic Lilith overshadowed the original independent Lilith in all subsequent legends to the point where the name Lilith engendered only the association of demon/witch. It is this demonic image which has both reflected and shaped men’s thoughts and feelings about women for generations. But the time for reassessment of the Lilith myth has arrived.

Who is Lilith? Or, more to the point, which is the true, the real Lilith — the rebel against tyranny or the wild-haired vengeful witch? Is Lilith a myth without historical basis, and, if so, why was it necessary to invent her? Or does she embody a clue to our past and if so, what?

Is Lilith a model for Jewish women and if so, can only part of her history constitute the model? Should we forget her revolt because of her later (alleged!) crimes and thus reject her; or should we forget her later crimes and focus only on her revolt because only this is significant; or do both parts have value for us?

All these are aspects of the The Lilith Question.

Let’s begin by taking a close look at Lilith as she appears in the Alphabet of Ben Sira. We immediately see how significant it is that she perceived herself as an equal to Adam, to man; her consciousness of equality was not only high, but it was a given, a natural thought process. Anything less than equality was unthought of and unthinkable, unnatural.

Not only does Lilith immediately recognize tyranny for what it is, but she immediately resists it, too. Nowhere do we see her complain (as Adam does); she states her case and takes risks for her dignity. She is courageous and decisive, willing to accept the consequences of her action.

Her strength of character and commitment to self is inspiring. For independence and freedom from tyranny she is prepared to forsake the economic security of the Garden of Eden and to accept loneliness and exclusion from society. Her strength of character also comes through in her taking total responsibility for her life. Note that she does not appeal to God to straighten out her relationship with Adam. She draws on her own strength; she is self-nurturing, self-sustaining.

Lilith is a powerful female. She radiates strength, assertiveness; she refuses to cooperate in her own victimization. By acknowledging Lilith’s revolt and even in telling of her vengeful activities, myth-makers also acknowledge Lilith’s power. Even if we accept Lilith’s vengeful activities (and whether or not to accept them is a subject we will deal with later), we can regard them as having originated in self-defense against male domination and as a consequence of having to fight on alone, century after century, for her independence. What men are saying, really is that Lilith “fights dirty.” But this is a meaningless concept designed to keep women from developing and utilizing their strength to fight, period. Lilith, it must be emphasized, is a fighter and a fighter in a good cause.

Finally, besides having physical power, she has spiritual power and knowledge. She utters God’s secret name and flies off to the Red Sea (significantly, the scene of the Jews’ transition from the security of bondage in Egypt to the insecurity of freedom in the desert). Adam did not know or utter the Ineffable Name. But Lilith is a knower of secret wisdom.

We must bear in mind here that the Lilith stories, like the rest of our tradition, were written by men. We know that most of whatever women have invented or created has been destroyed or discounted, and very little has come down to us, certainly nothing in its pure, original form. We must consider the possibility that the story of Lilith’s revolt may be one of women’s creations which was told by mother to daughter over many generations before surfacing in the Alphabet and then being contaminated with male bias.

The Lilith story may be a clue to our own history, reflecting some assertive, rebellious behavior of women in the past. Lilith may represent a whole group, a whole generation; or she may reflect the existence of a type of woman who appeared in generation after generation, a woman who would not be dominated, a woman who demanded equality with man. Or she may embody the thoughts and feelings of women about their equality, even if they could not act on them in their generation. With so few materials about women, particularly of this nature, it would be unthinkable for us to let Lilith be forgotten simply because of the male biases grafted onto the story of her revolt.

These legends of Lilith-as-demon, the vengeful female witch, are, of course, not unique to Jewish culture and tradition. Many scholars theorize that vengeful female deities or demons, like the Greek hecatae, represent the vestiges of the dying Matriarchy or are an attempt by men to discredit the Matriarchy.

What we have to explore are the uniquely Jewish aspects of the Lilith story, and how they relate to the Jewish experience, to Jewish history. After all, Jews lived among many different peoples and were subject to a bombardment of cultural and religious concepts and myths from all sides. What they accepted is important because it shows us what Jews perceived as necessary and appropriate to Jewish life and its continuity. How they transmuted what they accepted is also significant for this reason.

The account of Lilith’s revolt in the Alphabet is, to the best of my knowledge, intrinsically Jewish; no non-Jewish source tells of a female struggle for equality or gives it as a reason for the vengeful behavior of a female demon. This is especially important to us in exploring how the Lilith myth connects with our unique history.

What is particularly intriguing about the Lilith myth is that most of the legends about her developed in Exile, either after the Babylonian Exile (586 B.C.E.) and certainly after the Roman deportations of Jews into captivity (70 C.E.). Lilith appears in the Babylonian Talmud in rudimentary form; her character is developed in the Zohar and other medieval mystical works. No scholar has dated the Alphabet of Ben Sira but all agree it was written in the Gaonic period, before 1000 C.E. The Babylonian Talmud, Zohar, Alphabet are all texts written or compiled outside Eretz Israel presumably after 70 C.E., although they may draw on earlier legends, oral or written. [See article by Judy Weinberg.]

The destruction of the First Jewish Commonwealth in Eretz Israel and the deportation of most of the population to Babylonia was a shock; the destruction of the Second Jewish Commonwealth was atraumatic watershed in Jewish history. It marked the Jews’ break from life in their own homeland, to existence as an international minority with no control over their own destiny. For the next 2,000 years (until 1948), Jews would live at the fringes of societies, marginal to their socio-economic structures, their history, culture, religion, politics and passions; subject to the whim of the ruling class; to summary expulsion; to persecution by the law and the lawless; to humiliation; and to murder.

Exile was understood and perceived by Jews as a threat to Jewish survival that had to be endured and overcome.

When the Jews went into Exile, they decided that the only way to survive without a land was through study (create one, two, three Yavnehs). Halachah — Jewish law — became the constitution of a Jewish “government in exile” under which scholars made basic decisions. The model role for Jewish men was to be scholars (this model, begun earlier, reached its apotheosis during the Exile).

Even before the Exile, Jewish society was patriarchal. The role of woman under patriarchy is that of enabler. The woman is programmed to submit to and please men, doing whatever it is that men of a particular time or place demand in order to enable them to do their thing and to ensure their “manhood” and power. Part of being an enabler involves withdrawing from the areas of activity that men have marked off as their domain and which, thus, in the absence of women, come to define “manhood.” Enabling also means altruism: doing what is in the man’s interest, the family’s interests or society’s interests, not one’s own.

The Bible portrays women in various positive model enabler roles. In the Exile, it became even more important that Jewish women continue to function as enablers because of the threat to Jewish survival. The enabler role expanded to include doing everything to make possible men’s study of the Torah. Lilith is the embodiment of the woman who refuses to be an enabler.

Elizabeth Janeway, in her pioneering study Man’s World, Woman’s Place, points out that every positive role has a negative flip side, a “shadow role.” The shrew, she writes, is the shadow role of the public pleasing woman; the bitch, of the private loving woman; the witch, of the all-giving mother. Negative roles support the patriarchal order just as positive ones do; the positive ones arc promises, the negative ones, threats.

Lilith is a negative, shadow role, the flip side of Eve. Eve is the enabler (“helpmeet”), Lilith, the disabler; Eve, the “mother of all life,” Lilith, a destroyer of life. In creating the Lilith shadow role, men are telling a woman that if she is independent, assertive, free, as Lilith was, she’ll end up a frigid nymphomaniac childless witch.

It is especially significant that Lilith, the only important negative female role model invented by Jews, was primarily an Exile invention. Why was her creation as a negative role model so important at this particular juncture in history?

Let’s look at the unifying theme behind the three “crimes” of the post-rebellion Lilith. She allegedly: kills child-bearing (pregnant and birthing) women; injures newborn babes (boys until the bris, girls until 20 days of age); excites men in their sleep and takes their sperm to manufacture demon children to replace her own. Of all the indeterminate number of qualities a negative role could embody it was precisely these three that were incorporated in Lilith. All three of these embody several crucial male fears: loss of potency and “manhood,” loss of a woman’s companionship and emotional support, and threat to survival. While all these male fears have been embodied separately in various non-Jewish myths, their coalescence into one Jewish mythical character at this point in history is not hard to understand. The Exile was a stress situation in which Jewish men feared the loss of manhood, the destruction of their morale, and the extinction of the Jewish people.

In patriarchal societies where a man’s manhood is defined in whole or part by his ability to father children, the fear that Lilith (woman) can prevent men from having children in one way or another means that she robs them of their manhood. In their powerless condition in Exile, Jewish men needed to prove their maleness to differentiate themselves from women, the group whose condition of ultimate powerlessness they feared being reduced to.

Fathering children also guaranteed survival of the Jewish people, something that was threatened in the Exile and that Jews were anxious about. Another fear was woman’s power to withhold herself from man, either by refusing comfort or even her very presence (Lilith actually left Adam). In the stress situation of the Exile, Jewish men may have been especially anxious that women would not fulfill their role of providers of emotional support. All these fears’ of Jewish men were projected onto woman as if she held the power to make them into reality by refusing to stay in the subservient enabler role.

When the Exile reduced Jews to subservience, it was a discontinuity for Jewish men, a condition they were unfamiliar with, a situation in which they felt they had lost all their bearings — in which the whole order of the universe was turned upside-down.

For Jewish women, like all women, it was not different in kind, only in degree — more stress, more problems, but not a discontinuity: the real ruler was still at home. Perhaps they were therefore better able to cope with the practical realities than were the men.

As the men needed them more and perceived their strength, they may have feared that the women would use their strength in their own self-interest and stop being enablers. It had to be made forcefully clear to the women that their strength was tolerable — even desirable — as long as it did not connect with power.

We can ask here, could it be that there was also some rebellion in the women’s ranks at this time that also contributed to the men’s need to threaten them with a negative role myth? Janeway writes that negative roles often appear in times when there is social change and when power is no longer bound by customary limits. New roles are called for but at the same time, people feel nervous because they do not know what the new role player expects of them. They want to “separate themselves from the troublemaker and hold him at a distance. The means they find at hand is to call up the negative shadow role.”

Perhaps women did become more assertive at this time because their situation demanded it. Men must have realized that this assertiveness could be harnessed to altruism, thus creating an even better enabler than before. Thus began the role model of the altruistic-assertive woman, personified in Esther, also an Exile creation. Actually it is Esther, not Eve, who is the flip side of Lilith, the nonaltruistic-assertive woman.

Megillat (Scroll of) Esther, which tells the story of Purim, is an excellent source for the substantiation of some of the assumptions we have been dealing with here: the threat to Jewish survival in the Exile, and the role of the Jewish woman as an altruistic-assertive enabler.

The megillah tells how Jews in Persia were apparently leading a good life but actually lived at the edge of a volcano. When the king, persuaded by his premier that the Jews were bad for his Empire, put his approval on a pogrom, there was nothing the Jews could really do. What saved the Jews? Mostly Esther’s action, first in becoming Queen, which necessitated her living apart from her own people and being a closet Jew, all because her cousin, Mordechai, thought it best (altruism, self-sacrifice); and then, taking her life in her hands by asking the king to save her people (assertiveness). Esther’s altruistic assertiveness, which is obviously “good for the Jews,” is sharply contrasted in the megillah with the nonaltruistic assertiveness of her predecessor, Vashti, who lost her crown (some even say her head, too) for refusing to obey the king. The punishment of both Vashti and Lilith states, in effect: Jewish women, be enablers… or else.

One final word about Lilith as an Exile creation. The real threat to the Jews, as we know, was not that women would rebel, but the Exile itself. For it is the Exile that made Jews powerless and put them at the mercy of the rulers, on the fringes of society and into roles that turned the masses against them. Exile is a threat, but the Exile cultures — or more accurately, the adoption of Exile cultures (assimilation) — is a seductive solution that in most periods was held out by non-Jews as an inducement to fame, fortune and sometimes even life itself. Many Jews were seduced by assimilation, only to find it sterile and unsatisfying.

Lilith is seductive but unsatisfying. She saps a man’s “life fluid,” a metaphor for strength; she destroys his possibility for achieving immortality. She attacks Jews when they’re most vulnerable or unaware. She robs them of their power and of their future. Lilith is thus in some ways a metaphor for the Exile itself.

We have seen how the creation of Lilith as a negative role model served to coalesce the fears of the men and project them onto the woman, thus reflecting a fear of woman’s power to refuse to be the enabler; and to warn all women of the fate awaiting a woman who refuses to be an enabler.

Is there anything we can learn from all the negative portrayals of Lilith? Are they of any use to us? Should we reject them outright?

Ahad Ha’am, founder of “spiritual Zionism,” once wrote an essay called “Half-Consolation.” He asked: how can Jews know if what the non-Jews say about Jewish inferiority isn’t really true? Ahad Ha’am cited the blood libel. Look at it, he said. If non-Jews can believe this dangerous nonsense, they’re wrong about Jews’ “inferiority,” too.

Similarly, as we struggle for our liberation, we hear men insult and vilify feminists as man-haters and child-haters, destroyers of the family in particular and Jewish life in general. Is this, we might ask tremblingly, could this be true? So it’s not at all bad to have in front of us the Lilith story with all its ugly smears. How candid it is about why Lilith is punished! If men could have invented these hateful smears — like non-Jews invented the blood libel — if there is so much hostility toward women inside their addled brains, then there is no need to think there is any truth in the latest pseudo-sociological smears of feminists. Women need not fear that if they become assertive and independent, they will no longer be “women” but monstrosities, as men say Lilith became. Such smears and lies are, of course, something we should expect. Lilith is a role-breaker and, as Janeway points out, role-breakers should be prepared to find themselves “attacked, regarded as unattractive and frightening [and running] into all kinds of hostility.”

Knowing all this now we have the choice of how to look at Lilith, or rather, at what aspect of her character to focus on when we look at her. In doing so, we can bear in mind that mythological characters have never remained constant or immutable; they are always changing in response to human need. The character of Lilith changed — but so did that of Elijah — from the fire-eating prophet of First Commonwealth times to the latter-day jolly beggar who wandered from shtetl to shtetl, pack on back. There is nothing in tradition which dictates the acceptance of either the later Elijah or of the earlier Elijah as the “real” Elijah.

Furthermore, Jewish tradition has been very flexible in what it seeks to emphasize in role models. King David is a much-beloved character in Jewish lore. But tradition could easily have emphasized his immoral personal behavior and cavalier political maneuverings instead of his love of God and the Jewish people. Had this been done, David could have become a negative role model of adulterer and Machiavellian politician. Jewish tradition, however, chose to forget and forgive those reprehensible aspects of his character because it did not regard them as intrinsic to his soul.

It is both necessary and within our tradition to use the same approach with Lilith, bearing in mind the aspect of human need as a factor in focusing on specific aspects of a historical or mythological character. What is intrinsic to Lilith, what is the most central aspect of her character is her struggle for independence, her courage in taking risks, her commitment to the equality of woman and man based on their creation as equals by God. It is this Lilith who is faithful to her innermost self, her nature and her principles.

The other aspects of the Lilith character can in no way be considered central to her very essence, because they do not flow out of a commitment to self but are a reaction to an outside event: Adam’s refusal to accept her as an equal. Had Adam accepted her equality, these negative traits would be absent; in fact, there would be no war between the sexes at all, a war based on men’s unwillingness to accept women’s equality.

The traits attributed to Lilith after she lost her struggle for equality are tainted with male bias and fear. Moreover, Lilith’s post-revolt “character” cannot be accepted because it is not a character at all but a hodge-podge of negative traits that contradict each other (seductive/frigid; mother of demons/sterile) and thus cancel each other out. We can relegate all these contradictory traits to the realm of differing speculations as opposed to a definite image that all agreed upon. We can thus do what Jewish tradition does with King David: accept the essence, glorify the essence, and reject the later additions as contradictory, contaminated by fear and distrust, and not central to the intrinsic nature of the character of Lilith.

Finally, we must ask ourselves: which Lilith is closer to the spirit of the first account in Genesis, the account that tells us how God first created human beings — the female who accepts the idea of equality and fights for it, or the female who has lost sight of the original struggle and persists in seeking revenge? There is no doubt that the Lilith who claimed her equal birthright with Adam is closer in spirit to both the original Biblical account and to Jewish women of today.

Jews have periodically created movements to “return to the source” of Judaism, and Jewish history is replete with such efforts. When we struggle for equality of woman and man and see Lilith as the personification of that struggle, we are part of this tradition of returning to the source and building from its pure, uncontaminated foundation. This pure beauty is contained in the words “And God created the human species. . . man and woman created He them.” The equality of man and woman is embodied in that sentence. This equality must be embodied in our lives if humankind and all the values we hold dear are to survive.

Aviva Cantor-Zuckoff is a founding member of the LILITH Editorial Board, the Jewish Feminist Organization, and the Socialist Zionist Union.

 Copyright © Aviva Cantor 2012. All rights reserved.

Aviva Cantor, a journalist, originated Lilith and served as the magazine’s Founding Co-Editor during its first decade. She is the author of Jewish Women, Jewish Men: The Legacy of Patriarchy in Jewish Life, a feminist exploration of Jewish history, culture and psychology (Harper, 1995), and of the self-published The Egalitarian Hagada.


  • Linda Vista

    “…. Lilith, determined to retain her independence and dignity, and choosing loneliness over subservience, flew away…”

    Lilith did not choose loneliness over subservience.

    Lilith chose her independence and dignity over subservience.