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Kabbalah: Lilith and the Mystery of Femininity

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Writing my “Kabbalistic Mystery” I knew Lilith would feature in it. I’ve always had a warm spot for rebellious women. However, as I wrote last week, more than being known as Adam’s first unruly wife, Lilith became infamous as baby killer and evil seductress.

Delving into the figure of Lilith, I was surprised to read how Isaac Luria (the sixteenth century Safed Kabbalist) represented her, and the importance he ascribed to her in his idea of Tikkun – the amending of the world.

Luria conceived of two systems, that of holiness (Kedusha) and that of defilement (Tumah). The relation between them is complex and goes back to the act of Creation, when the vessels that contained divine light broke and their remains became the kellipot, husks or shards. These husks of defilement have ever since been seeking to seize holiness. As a result, the two systems are intermingled – even the holiest realm bears traces of kellipot, and the task of Tikkun is to purge holiness of defilement, and redeem the kellipot.

Contrary to Lilith’s traditional role as exclusively evil, Luria assigns her the highest place in his system as Adam’s first wife who is superior to Eve. (Never mind the fact that Eve has also been the subject of patriarchal hostility for her part in the expulsion from paradise). In Luria’s intricate scheme of re-incarnations of souls, Lilith returns in several biblical women who rebel against patriarchal norms and dictates.

More boldly, Luria equates Lilith with Leah, the third Hebrew matriarch, who becomes Jacob’s wife by ruse. Leah’s highest spiritual quality, in fact holiness, cannot be manifested in this world but as pertaining to the archetype of Lilith.

For this reason Leah is a threat to Jacob and he tries to avoid her. Yet Leah finds ways to buy her place in Jacob’s bed, quite unlike a chaste matriarch.

To my delight, I found the work of two contemporary rabbis who were intrigued by Luria’s view of Lilith, and took it upon themselves to elaborate on the theme, and demonstrate how the process of Tikkun is about embracing one’s darker self and sanctifying it. As the two show, the figure of Lilith served patriarchal culture to repress and demonize what it considered the “dark” side of women, out of fear of free, erotic femininity.

To accept Leah, Jacob will have to go trough personal transformation and grapple with the erotic, animalistic aspect of his own self, as manifested by his wild twin brother, Esau. Only when Jacob will embrace his own “dark self” will he be able to see the holy side of Leah, his rejected wife.

The two rabbis explain that Tikkun would embrace these aspects and respect them as the integral part of a woman’s spirituality, and not its fiendish opposition. 

It turns out that grappling with the figure of Lilith does have its price, especially, so it seems, for pious men.

Unfortunately, one of these two rabbis was accused of sexual harassment, and as his co-writer has noted, he has failed to embrace his own progressive ideas regarding the feminine.

It is fascinating to learn about the figure of Lilith and witness how men grapple with her and with womanhood generally. Myself, I see no need of redemption, at least not on account of my gender.

As I am going away for three weeks, I’ll send my next posts from Rome and Israel.

Meanwhile, Happy Holidays!

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About michal Schwartz

  • Dea Phoenix

    Very interesting :) I enjoyed this article very much.