Message From Rabbi Gold
LILITH – FEMINIST OR DEMON?
“Count the sons of Levi according to the house of their fathers, by their families; every male from a month old and upward shall you count them.” (Numbers 3:15)
Most of this portion involves a careful census of the people Israel, about to begin their journey through the desert. Moses counts the tribes from the age of twenty upward, those who could participate in military campaigns. But the tribe of Levi, the religious leaders of the people, were counted from the age of one month upwards. Even babies had a role in religious leadership.
Why one month? Why not from birth onwards? The answer is that Jewish law considers a baby as viable only after thirty days. That is the reason we wait until the thirty-first day to perform a pidyon haben, the redemption of a first-born son. That is why, if God forbid, an infant dies before thirty days, the family does not observe the full traditions of mourning. Throughout history a huge number of babies died in infancy. So only after thirty days has a baby proven himself or herself to be viable, truly capable of survival until adulthood.
Jewish tradition is filled with customs, many would say superstitions, to protect newborn infants. For example, I have always learned that Jewish parents do not have baby showers. A baby shower might attract the ayin hara, the evil eye, and prove a threat to the baby. Some parents do not buy any baby furniture until after the baby is born, again to avoid tempting the evil eye. And according to very old superstitions, there are many traditions to protect a newborn from demons. In particular, parents would have special amulets in the baby’s room to protect against the most threatening of the demons, Lilith.
Who is Lilith? The book of Isaiah actually mentions the name, the only time it is found in the Bible. “The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the jackals; the scops owl shall cry to his fellow; the lilith also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest.” (Isaiah 34:14). Most scholars consider the lilith some kind of owl. But in this rather threatening section of Isaiah, one could see how lilith could be considered a kind of demon resting in the wilderness. Later mystics would identify Lilith as a demon who threatens infants.
Nonetheless, the story is a bit more complicated. According to a medieval mystical text known as the Aleph Bet of Ben Sira, Lilith was actually Adam’s first wife. The Torah said that God created the original man and woman equally, “in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). Adam insisted on his superiority over Lilith, saying I am fit to be above and you are fit to be below. Lilith in anger fled from Adam, and when God tried to bring her back, she became the demon who threatens babies. Only by wearing an amulet can those babies be protected. Eve was then taken from Adam’s rib, understanding her role as secondary.
Many feminists have embraced Lilith as the first woman who stood up for feminist values, refusing to be inferior to a man. There is a popular Jewish feminist magazine named Lilith filled with articles about the role of women in Jewish life. Many women claim that Jewish life has been out of balance since the birth of Eve, and it is time to reclaim the first wife of Adam, the one that wanted equality. Of course, there are other Jews, born in more traditional times, who have been told by their parents and grandparents that Lilith is a demon out to injure new born infants. Many parents, even those embrace feminist values, still put an amulet in the room of their sleeping infant, if for no other reason than to satisfy a superstitious grandmother.
So was Lilith the first feminist or is Lilith a dangerous demon? That is the question I will deal with in my tikkun leil Shavuot Wednesday night. The answer is the Lilith is both. In the story of Lilith we see how ideas develop and change among Jews. When my daughter was young, I prayed that she would grow up to be a strong-willed, self-reliant woman, like the original Lilith. And yet superstitions die hard. When my daughter grew up and gave birth to our grandson, she received some gifts to put in the baby’s room for protection from the demon Lilith. Adam’s first wife, has a fascinating history in Jewish tradition.
With Rabbi Gold
WEEKLY CLASS – The Bible and Everything Else Under the Sun – Wednesdays 12:15 – 1:15 at the office of Ken Rubin in Coral Springs, 9900 Sample Road Suite 404, Coral Springs 33065.
May you and your family have a restful, joyous Shabbat.