Neither hellion nor heroine, this archetypal female energy has been historically misunderstood.
Lilith is the mythical woman who ran away from paradise rather than bow to Adam. The legend surrounding her has been used by orthodox religion as an example of feminine evil and by feminists as an example of feminine power.
Both stances, however, miss the mark by a mile. The nuances of Lilith’s story, shared in the early rabbinic interpretations of the Torah known as the midrash, can instead lead the way to a higher and more powerful perspective.
If you read the Bible with a literal mind, it’s a pretty nasty, misogynistic, xenophobic book. But if you read it as a mystical Jew would—on four levels—every story takes on new life. Mystics read the Bible literally (did it happen?), allegorically (what’s the message?), metaphysically (what does this mean to me?), and mystically (what does this say about the evolution of humanity?). Once we do that, all the smiting and cutting off of foreskins become metaphors for the internal work that will heal our relationships with ourselves, with God, and with each other.
Who Was Lilith?
According to the midrash, Lilith was created at the same time as Adam, as described in Genesis 1:27: “Male and female he created them.” Most people assume that Adam was already living on the physical earth, but Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah) teaches that this part of the great plan is taking place in heaven. In Kabbalah teachings, heaven is known as Beriah, the world of concepts and ideas. A mystic would interpret this as the creation of the first idea of humanity—one androgynous being of light energy rather than two gendered humans.
The next stage is the formation of two separate humans as souls with different genders. This takes place in the world of Yezirah—the plane that Kabbalah teaches is between heaven and earth and is where the soul and identity of the being (race, gender, and so on) are fashioned prior to physical manifestation.
Genesis 2:18 then describes how Eve was formed from Adam’s side: “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’” Here, the androgynous one primordial being becomes two human beings of different genders. It’s important to specify that the Hebrew text uses the word tsela, which means “side” rather than the usual translation of “rib,” so contrary to what most of us learned in Sunday school, the first human woman did not come out of a male being. Instead, the original being God created (made up equally of masculine and feminine) was divided at the level of the soul into two equal human beings we now know as Adam and Eve. Only after eating from the Tree of Knowledge did they put on “coats of skin,” becoming physical beings on earth.
But wait, what happened to Lilith? Lilith is what the midrash identifies as the female aspect of that first androgynous being, created along with and as an equal to the male aspect. Lilith was never born on earth, yet some interpretations of the legend take the liberty of depicting Lilith as a human being said to be Adam’s first wife. That’s where all the crazy stories about Lilith go off the rails.
Trouble in Paradise
Most of these stories about the discord between Adam and Lilith say it began when Lilith was commanded to bow to Adam and she refused. Jewish medieval versions of the story blend several of the legends, creating Lilith as a child-slaying night-demon who seduced Adam, wanted his power as well as her own, and refused to lie beneath him during sex.
The stories claim that Lilith rebelled, spoke the true, unspeakable name of God, and chose to exile herself to the kingdom of the demons. She is said to have hated Eve (as a first partner often resents the second) and vowed to destroy all of Eve’s children. Both her anger and her punishment for that vow are said to take many horrific forms I won’t detail here. To this day, Orthodox Jews place tokens of three protective angels in their newborns’ rooms to protect them from Lilith’s fury against Eve’s children. (They also hang amulets with the words Lilith abi—“Lilith begone”—which later became associated with the word lullaby.)
The legend has been used to demonstrate that any woman who refuses to take male orders is demonic as well as to raise the banner of female power. Both misinterpretations are tainted with bitterness and anger.
To get out of that mud pit and move closer to the truth, we must get mystical. The key is in Kabbalah, which uses a scaffolding called the Tree of Life to give structure to stories, as well as to life itself (see diagram on page 17). The tree consists of 10 sefirot, or creative forces, on seven levels linking God with the physical plane. The top sefira, known as Keter or “crown,” represents divinity. On the level beneath that are two sefirot. The second-level sefira to the right is divinity’s first “child,” known as Hokhmah—imbued with wisdom, revelation, or revolution. The sefira to the left is the second “child,” known as Binah—imbued with understanding, boundaries, and karma. (Each of the other seven sefirot are associated with their own distinct attributes.) Each of the sefira can be positive or negative, according to how it is used.
Each sefira receives the divine breath or light before flowing it on to the next in a kind of zig-zag down the diagram. Therefore, each one is both feminine (receptive) and masculine (active) in turn, and the feminine was the first aspect to receive the divine light.
Lilith represents the breath that filled the sefira of Hokhmah. Legend says she knew the unspoken name of God, which Adam, one step further away, did not. Figuratively, she would have had to bend or bow to Adam to pour her power onto him.
Yet as many of us in the modern world would, Lilith balked, feeling demeaned because she assumed that being asked to bow was a sign she was the lesser one. But this request was no insult. In Eastern countries, for example, it is the great masters who bow first to their students, allowing the divinity within the master to flow to the other as well as acknowledging the divinity in the other person. If the Dalai Lama were to bow to you, you would see it as a sign of his great spiritual humility, not as a sign of weakness. Such a bow is a beautiful honor offered in grace.
Lilith’s lesson to all of us, then, is to take a higher perspective and be willing to receive grace. Celebrate it so we can facilitate the flow of light throughout humanity instead of seeing the “other” who has not yet had the opportunity to be filled with light as someone to resent. That first fateful error, the fall that has haunted humanity ever since, was an assumption—it had nothing to do with apples.
Applying the Lessons
Kabbalah teaches that every human is one cell in the body of the original androgynous being—in effect, God’s baby— and that we must all become perfect so that this sacred child can be born. To achieve that, we take four journeys throughout many lifetimes. First, we learn how to live in the physical world; second, we learn how to rise up from ego-consciousness to the soul; third, we teach what we have learned; and finally we return to union with the Holy One.
In each incarnation we have a specific gender but our soul itself is androgynous. Many traditions teach that a soul does have a gender but this may be because we have one preferred sex into which we choose to incarnate most often. Perhaps the modern acceptance of homosexuality and transgender issues are all a part of our deep yearning to return to our Source, part of the next important step in humanity’s growth. We have a long way to go: Kabbalah teaches that humanity, as a whole, is approximately 2 years old.
How we flow the light of the Divine through the world, then, is to reinterpret the Great Law, succinctly summed up by Jesus as “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself,” so that this law can be understood and honored anew.
If we close our hearts and minds to the needs of each generation and reiterate outdated interpretations, then we become Lilith. But there is hope. The vibrant message of Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, back in May, about love not only having the power to change the world but also being a part of God’s plan was evidence that this generation’s own message of love is being received loud and clear—and transmitted onward.
Rev. Maggy Whitehouse is an expert in the Toledano tradition of Kabbalah and the author of 16 books, including A Woman’s Worth: The Divine Feminine in the Hebrew Testament (Axis Mundi, 2013). She’s also a stand-up comedienne and former journalist for the BBC World Service who lives in the United Kingdom. Visit maggywhitehouse.com.