In this article, I dive into the history of Lilith both inside and outside of Judaism to cover where she comes from, why there is confusion around who she is, what she means within Jewish tradition, and why it all matters when it comes to cultural appropriation of Judaism. The featured image of this post is a painting from the Jewish Museum by Melissa Meyer called “Lilith,” which you can read more about here.
If you’d like to continue this discussion about Lilith’s origins and cultural appropriation, please feel free to comment, reblog, etc. or tag me on Tumblr (@spiritroots) in your reply post. I only ask that you please read the article in its entirety before responding and that you please use sources and citations to dispute any historical evidence and interpretations. Comments, replies, anons in my inbox, etc. that aren’t constructive or are just straight up rude and baseless will be ignored. Thank you!
The Origins of Lilith
Midrashim are retellings of stories in the Torah to help fill holes in the text and explain biblical mysteries. Historically, midrashim were written by rabbis filling in these missing pieces of stories or repairing inconsistencies between multiple passages. Rabbinic midrashim became an important way for the Jewish people to interact with the nuances of the Torah and its narrative, and often they would be taught as if the midrashim really were the way things had happened. Some stories people don’t even realize are midrash and aren’t actually in the Torah, such as the story of Abraham smashing the idols. The story of Lilith, Adam’s first wife before Eve, is also a midrash.
Lilith was first mentioned as an evil entity in the Tanakh and later emerged from a midrash written to explain an inconsistency in Genesis. In Genesis 1, it says God created man and woman together. Then in Genesis 2, Adam is given a wife. So what happened to the first woman? In Lilith’s midrash, she is that woman who was made at the same time as Adam – and so, as a result, she considered herself his equal. In the ancient rabbinic tradition, Lilith was vilified and imagined as a vampiric, baby-eating arch-demoness. The rabbinic stories turned her into a demoness who sought to kill human infants unless they were protected by amulets. Here is one version of the original Lilith story from the classic Alphabet of Ben Sira.
After God created Adam, who was alone, He said, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen.2:18). He then created a woman for Adam, from the earth, as He had created Adam himself, and called her Lilith. Adam and Lilith began to fight. She said, “I will not lie below,” and he said, “I will not lie beneath you, but only on top. For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while am to be in the superior one.” Lilith responded, “We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.”
The validity of Lilith’s argument is more apparent in Hebrew, where the words for man (Adam) and “earth” come from the same root, adm (nst) (adam [nst] = Adam; adamah [vnst] = earth). Since Lilith and Adam are formed of the same substance, they are alike in importance.
But they would not listen to one another. When Lilith saw this, she pronounced the Ineffable Name and flew away into the air. Adam stood in prayer before his Creator: “Sovereign of the universe!” he said, “The woman you gave me has run away.”
At once, the Holy One, blessed be He, sent these three angles to bring her back. Said the Holy One to Adam, “If she agrees to come back, fine. If not she must permit one hundred of her children to die every day.” The angels left God and pursued Lilith, whom they overtook in the midst of the sea, in the mighty waters wherein the Egyptians were destined to drown. They told her God’s word, but she did not wish to return. The angels said, “We shall drown you in the sea.”
“Leave me!” she said. “I was created only to cause sickness to infants. If the infant is male, I have dominion over him for eight days after his birth, and if female, for twenty days.” When the angels heard Lilith’s words, they insisted she go back. But she swore to them by the name of the living and eternal God: “Whenever I see you or your names or your forms in an amulet, I will have no power over that infant.” She also agreed to have one hundred of her children die every day.
Accordingly, every day one hundred demons perish, and for the same reason, we write the angels’ names on the amulets of young children. When Lilith sees their names, she remembers her oath, and the child recovers.
Lilith became so notorious that she even garnered an official place in the demonology of the Kabbalah: “From these ancient traditions, the image of Lilith was fixed in Kabbalistic demonology. Here, too, she has two primary roles: the strangler of children (sometimes replaced in the Zohar by Naamah), and the seducer of men, from whose nocturnal emissions she bears an infinite number of demonic sons” (x). Lilith also had a place in Jewish folklore. Many Jewish folktales like this one speak of her dangerous ways:
For every mirror is a gateway to the Other World and leads directly to Lilith’s cave. That is the cave Lilith went to when she abandoned Adam and the Garden of Eden for all time, the cave where she sported with her demon lovers. From these unions multitudes of demons were born, who flocked from that cave and infiltrated the world. And when they want to return, they simply enter the nearest mirror. That is why it is said that Lilith makes her home in every mirror…
Now the daughter of Lilith who made her home in that mirror watched every movement of the girl who posed before it. She bided her time and one day she slipped out of the mirror and took possession of the girl, entering through her eyes. In this way she took control of her, stirring her desire at will…. So it happened that this young girl, driven by the evil wishes of Lilith’s daughter, ran around with young men who lived in the same neighborhood.
Source: “Lilith’s Cave,” Lilith’s Cave: Jewish tales of the supernatural, edited by Howard Schwartz (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988)
Whether you look at Lilith from her origins in midrashim, her demonic status in the Kabbalah, or her lusty spirit possessions and infanticide in Jewish folklore, it is clear that Lilith’s role in Judaism was traditionally very, very negative. She was not historically celebrated, worshipped, or venerated in Jewish tradition, but instead feared and quite literally demonized. And originally, Lilith was simply an explanation for Genesis in the Torah. Even if she was seen in a positive light, it is important to remember that monotheism is a core and essential aspect of Judaism. The archangels themselves are not worshipped, and according to mitzvot (the commandments of God in the Torah) it would be a horrible sin to do so. In Judaism, none of the messengers and servants of God are the same as God. So, when people refer to Lilith as a “Jewish goddess” (or refer to any “Jewish goddesses”) this is a deep misunderstanding of Judaism on many levels.
Lilith in Modern Judaism
In the seventies, the second wave of feminism began to transform Jewish women’s views on Lilith and her place in modern Jewish theology. The woman’s movement and Jewish feminists were central to evolving the concept of midrash into a new form of interpretation and commentary of the Torah that was not limited only to rabbis but gave this interactional power to “ordinary” Jews as well – making Judaism and the Torah’s sacred message a little more inclusive for everyone.
Thank Hashem for modern contemporary Jewish feminists who decided that if rabbis could give birth to Lilith and her original story through the writing of midrash, then a new midrash could bring about the rebirth of our first woman. In 1972, Judith Plaskow, a Jewish theologian, wrote a new midrash about Lilith entitled, “The Coming of Lilith.”
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. (read the whole midrash here)
Source: Jewish Women’s Archive. “The Coming of Lilith.” (Viewed on January 30, 2019) <https://jwa.org/node/22338>.
In the rest of this re-telling of the story, Eve and Lilith find companionship and sisterhood together, realizing that they can lift each other up in empowerment rather than be trapped into fulfilling Adam’s wishes. This new midrash contains many of the same elements and plot points as the original rather than completely doing away with traditional version, but also brings modern Jewish values of women’s roles, relationships, and self-respect to the way both Lilith and Eve are depicted. The author, Edith Plaskow explains,
We took Lilith for our heroine, and yet, most important, not Lilith alone. We try to express through our myth the process of our coming to do theology together. Lilith by herself is in exile and can do nothing. The real heroine of our story is sisterhood, and sisterhood is powerful.”
- Joy Ladin, the first openly transgender professor at an Orthodox Jewish institution, gracing the cover of Lilith.
In the same year that “The Coming of Lilith” was written, another Jewish feminist, Lilly Rivlin, published an article about Lilith to try to recover the feminist power of her story for a modern audience. Not long after, Lilith magazine was created in 1976, making the once demonized first woman their namesake because of her fight for gender equality with Adam. An article in their introductory issue finitely rejected her as a demoness and explained her feminist implications.
Today, Lilith is a well-respected and award-winning feminist, Jewish-American publication that has featured investigative reports, contemporary and historical first-person accounts, entertainment reviews, fiction and poetry, art and photography. It is a result of modern Judaism’s shift in view of Lilith from an evil figure to be feared to a feminist hero and role model for Jewish women today.
Just as there are many branches of Judaism or different levels of observance, there are also different types of Jewish cultures within the Jewish community around the world. Some remain more traditional and still regard Lilith as a demonic baby-killer and seductress, as our folklore and stories are still told and still a part of our culture. Not every Jewish person accepts or even knows of the modern Jewish feminist interpretation. However, I want to emphasize that this does not take away from the importance, significance, or power of Lilith as a feminist figure in Judaism today. While not everyone shares this perspective, it is an important and very meaningful one to those who do choose to see her that way.
The traditions of our past and present are both a part of the Jewish religion and culture – and neither version of Lilith’s midrash is illegitimate. One of the most beautiful things about Judaism is that it may be monotheistic, but it’s not monolithic. The theological art of debating and arguing is at the heart of Jewish tradition, which is why we have jokes like “ask three Jews, get ten answers.” There doesn’t have to be just one right way to understand Lilith in Judaism, and that’s more than okay. No matter how you look at it, Lilith has remained an important and significant Jewish figure.
Now that you have some background and context about where Lilith comes from in both historical and modern Judaism, let’s take a step back in time. It’s common to hear goyim (non-Jewish folks) refer to Lilith as if she existed as a figure prior to the Tanakh and original midrash where she is first mentioned in Judaism. This is a simple confusion about the name “Lilith” and the archetype of a dangerous, fierce, chaotic neutral feminine entity that has become heavily associated with Lilith.
Some historians have suggested that the archetype which inspired Lilith within rabbinical literature comes from pre-Judaic cultures. This is debatable, but certainly not completely unfounded since there were other entities or spirits in other nearby cultures that had some similar characteristics to Lilith. Just as there are spirits or creatures in many cultures around the world that seem to resemble vampires, mermaids, and fairies, it’s not difficult to find other figures in different cultures who have a spirit archetype to Lilith in Judaism. In Mesopotemia, there were descriptions on cuneiform inscriptions of Līlīt and Līlītu spirits who brought disease. In Ancient Greece, there was a belief in the Lamia (pl. lamiai) who killed children and had serpentine bodies from the waist down. Scholars have made connections between the Mesopotamian līlītu and Greek lamiai with Lilith.
However, the name “Lilith” is Hebrew and was never used until it was written in the Tanakh and the midrash that tells Lilith’s original story within Judaism. Even though the name “Lilith” didn’t exist as a name for the pre-Judaic entities that may have inspired rabbis to write Lilith’s midrash, “Lilith” is now such a well-known name that it gets misapplied to those pre-Judaic figures. This is the classic problem of anachronisms, which occur when a later developed term with a contextual meaning is incorrectly used to refer to an older concept that preceded it historically. The Greek lamiai and Mesopotamian līlītu can be compared to Lilith, but they aren’t exactly the same entities from an academic historical perspective or a cultural one.
Historians and social scientists who have tried to make inaccurate, anachronistic arguments about līlītu being the same as Lilith have been debunked time and time again. For example, connections made between Lilith and an entity called ki-sikil-lil-la-ke in the Gilgamesh have been rejected by scholars Dietrich Opitz and Sergio Ribichni. Henri Frankfort and Emil Kraeling tried to identify a Mesopotamian figure (shown to the right) from the Burney Relief as related to Lilith. This claim was also rejected by multiple sources, including the British Museum where the relief is now kept.
In conclusion, the archetype commonly associated with Lilith is not exactly the same as the specific figure of Lilith, and where it applies to pre-Judaic cultures and other folklore, the specific names of those entities such as lilitu and lamiai should be used. The name “Lilith” is Hebrew (written as לִילִית) and inherently refers to the Jewish figured called Lilith who was first referred to in the Tanakh (Isaiah 34:14) and later expanded upon in midrashim.
The Spread of Lilith
With the historical evidence we have today, it’s clear that the archetypes associated with Lilith exist across many cultures, but Lilith herself as a figure with that Hebrew name comes from Judaism alone. Looking forward, we see that some of the Abrahamic religions that came from Judaism later adopted Lilith into their own folklore and cosmologies.
During the Renaissance, Michelangelo imagined Lilith like a Greek lamia: half-woman, half-serpent, coiled around the Tree of Knowledge (see painting to the left). These sorts of depictions of Lilith and a Christian interest in her came about as a result of Lilith’s popularity within Judaism through cultural diffusion. It happened similarly to how Christianity approached the Kabbalah, a genre of sacred mysticism literature within Judaism. The Kabbalah appeared to be an exotic and magical system to early Christians who wanted to apply it to their own understanding of Christianized texts from Judaism within the Bible (well known as the “Old Testament”). Likewise, Lilith was well-known demoness within Jewish folklore and the Kabbalah who was integrated into Christian folklore and storytelling as well.
Even later in history, Lilith was also adopted into some Islamic folk stories, where she was said to be the original mother of the Djinn just as she was viewed in other cultures as the mother of all demons. There are no references to Lilith in the Qu’ran or Hadith, but a Sufi author Ahmad al-Bunni mentions a demon in Sun of the Great Knowledge called “the mother of children” who might be derived from Lilith.
Today in some occult circles and in many forms of modern Satanism where usage of Christianized Kabbalistic texts and demonology abounds, Lilith is extremely popular and sometimes even viewed as a goddess rather than a demon. Unfortunately, in these contexts, there is often a lack of understanding about where Lilith originally comes from and views of her have been heavily filtered through both Christianity and Satanic or Western occultist interpretations.
Lilith & Cultural Appropriation
Lilith is a challenging topic when it comes to cultural appropriation, because much of Christianity, Islam, and other Abrahamic faiths derive their beliefs and sacred scriptures from Judaism. The line between simply practicing an Abrahamic religion versus appropriation Judaism can be complex, confusing, and fiercely debated. However, there is a way to understand where some respectful boundaries are when it comes to Christian concepts that are open as sources of inspiration for one’s spiritual practice as opposed to Jewish traditions that are closed.
First and foremost, it is important to understand that while Christianity and Islam are religions that are open to anyone to convert and proselytize widely across the globe, Judaism is a very closed religion. Technically, it’s semi-closed because you can convert, but it certainly feels closed because traditionally a rabbi is supposed to say “no” three times to potential converts before saying “yes.” The conversion process into Judaism is considered like being permanently adopted into the Jewish family, and it’s a very lengthy and detailed process that can take up to a year or longer. It involves rigorous study, special ceremonies, joining a Jewish community, and working closely with a rabbi. So when goyim try to practice aspects of Jewish that they aren’t explicitly invited to practice, it’s a serious violation of this religion and culture that has been marginalized and oppressed for most of its very long history.
That being said, Christianity, Islam, and other Abrahamic religions developed out of Judaism and used many aspects of Judaism as a part of their foundational beliefs. That’s why it gets complicated to discuss where the line between Judaism and other Abrahamic religions ends or begins. For some Jewish traditions, however, there is a clear precedent for what many of us Jewish folks consider cultural appropriation – and it definitely includes Lilith as a figure who never became a part of other religions until after she was a popularized folkloric and esoteric figure within Judaism.
Outside of the one brief Lilith mention in the Tanakh, Lilith as a fully conceptualized figure developed within rabbinical literature after Christianity had already emerged as a new religion. Unlike elements of Judaism that were used as a basis for the formation of Christianity at the beginning of the religion, Lilith was a separate and distinct part of Jewish culture that wasn’t originally a part of Christianity as a religion at its inception.
There are other aspects of Judaism that weren’t incorporated into Christianity from the religion’s beginnings such as celebrating Seder or the Kabbalah but were later adopted or culturally absorbed into Christianity. The notion of a “Christian Passover” or “Christian Qabalah” are considered very culturally appropriative by much of the modern Jewish community today – and goyim (non-Jewish people) incorporating Lilith into their religious beliefs is regarded the same way, as a form of blatant cultural appropriation.
On both Tumblr and Discord, Jewish folks who are a part of the spiritual/occult/magical/witchcraft communities that so often appropriate Lilith have spoken out against goyim who incorporate Lilith into their spiritual and religious practices. These are just a few examples from several Jewish bloggers:
If you made it this far, seriously thank you for taking the time to read this! Unfortunately, this is a hotly debated but largely misunderstood topic, but it’s an important one to many Jewish folks like myself who see our religion and culture appropriated on an almost everyday basis in New Age and pagan spiritual circles – as well as in Western magick and witchcraft traditions that were built off of so much appropriation from Judaism and other closed or semi-closed religions and cultures.
If you are Jewish, you have every right to work with Lilith in your spirituality or not and to view her as a demoness, an old folktale, a feminist hero, or simply the first woman that Hashem created. If you aren’t Jewish, please understand how significant Lilith was traditionally and still is today in Judaism, and please don’t misrepresent her or incorporate her into your practice. If you find the archetype of Lilith inspiring, you are more than welcome to work with the Mesopotamian spirits and goddesses or Greek lamiai who share some commonalities with Lilith but belong to open religious traditions that anyone may practice.