You’ve probably heard of Lilith: namesake of the women’s music festival and of the Jewish feminist magazine, but did you know that the feminist heroine was plucked straight from the ancient world? And that the Lilith of the ancients made an unlikely candidate for such a figurehead?
The earliest Jewish references to Lilith portray her as a nefarious temptress. In the Song of the Sage, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, she appears—among demons, howlers, and desert bandits—in a list of creatures that God protects against. She’s mentioned three times in the Talmud, each with a startlingly vivid description. Most memorably, in Niddah 24b, Rabbi Judah says that if a stillborn or aborted fetus bears traces of wings, Lilith must have played a hand in the conception. Other ancient Babylonian and Jewish references portray her as a demon or half-demon, with long hair and bestial features: a figure not so rife for adulation.
But—presumably unbeknownst to its writers—the Alphabet of Ben Sira, an 8th-10th century work of Jewish folklore, lays the groundwork for feminist reclamation. In the story, God creates Lilith as a companion for Adam, meant to be his equal. “I will not lie beneath you, but only on top,” she proclaims. Adam rebukes her: “You are fit to be in the bottom, while I am to be superior.” In reply, Lilith utters aloud the name of God and flies away. A thousand years later, in 1972, feminist theologian Judith Plaskow published “The Coming of Lilith,” a rewriting of the midrash. The rest is feminist history.