Lilith has been a misunderstood, appropriated, and redeemed woman throughout the ages. Many feminists claim her as an empowering figure in Jewish mythology, her story reclaimed by contemporary artists such as Sarah McLachlan, who created the all-women music tour, “Lilith Fair.” Others have claimed that Lilith was a demon who seduced men and strangled children in the night.
Based almost entirely on Judith Plaskow’s beautiful Midrash, “The Coming of Lilith,” this new Holy Woman Icon with a folk feminist twist has empowered me to reject the sexism and heterosexism that was rendering me broken. So, she joins Virginia Woolf , the Shulamite, Mary Daly, Baby Suggs, Pachamama and Gaia, Frida Kahlo, Salome, Guadalupe and Mary, Fatima, Sojourner Truth, Saraswati, Jarena Lee, Isadora Duncan, and Miriam as powerful women who have done holy and remarkable things. First, her story. Then—if I may—my own.
According to Plaskow’s Midrash, God created Adam and Lilith from the same earth. Tired of Adam demanding that she be subservient to him, Lilith left the Garden of Eden. She was later befriended by Eve and her legacy of empowering women continues today.
Plaskow’s powerful Midrash stems from a myth that has shifted over time. There is no single Lilith story, but many different stories must be sifted and sorted to determine who Lilith truly is and was. She appears explicitly only once in the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah 34:14) in a list of wild animals in desolate land. She is not described, but named simply: “Lilith.” Some scholars surmise that the Lilith myth was so well-known by Isaiah’s audience that there was no need to offer any explanatory words.
In Talmudic literature, Lilith is associated with the creation story in a manner similar to Plaskow’s Midrash. Here she is also banished from the Garden. In the Alphabet of Ben Sira (7th-11th centuries) Lilith is presented as Adam’s first wife. When she refuses to lie with Adam during sex, she calls out the name of god and flies away to an evil place filled with demons. By the end of the Talmudic period, the demonic and seductive elements of the Lilith myth were solidified. So, in the writings of the Kabbalah, Lilith is primarily understood to be a seductress and child-killer. Regarding this reputation, some feminist scholars assert that the vilification of Lilith intensifies over time because Lilith is perceived to be more and more powerful. The more powerful Lilith is perceived to be, the more evil her portrayal. What Plaskow’s Midrash creates, redeems, and affirms is that Lilith left what was hurting and oppressing her and lived into who she was called to be: one who empowered women.
Like many other clergywomen, I have faithfully served the church for nearly fourteen years. After eleven years of ministry, I accepted a call to become Pastor for Preaching and Worship at a Baptist church after finishing my Ph.D. Upon hiring me, we became the only Baptist church in the country with two out lesbians as head pastors. My pulpit was free. My calling to justice, inclusion, and radical hospitality affirmed. I loved—and continue to love—the staff and the people who call this church home. I loved—and continue to love—preaching. But sexism and heterosexism have their way of creeping into the most unlikely of places. And the inner-workings of power and privilege make dealing with these “isms” ever more difficult.
Though the church would nary tolerate overt and blatant sexism or homophobia from within the congregation—and spoke out against the blatant forms I receive in hate mail—microaggressive sexisms and heterosexisms continued to exist, flourishing in spaces we thought were safe, affirming, and progressive. Microaggressions are everyday slights, insults, or invalidations directed at marginalized groups—persons of color, sexual minorities, women, etc—by individuals who typically have good intentions and are decent, moral, thoughtful persons who may not be fully aware of their privileged positions of power. Psychologists who focus on cultural diversity issues claim that microaggressions build up over time, causing stress, pain, and anxiety for marginalized persons.
After months and months of trying to address these issues, my health continued to decline. I reread Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church and I thought a lot about Lilith. How did she garner the courage to leave the “safety” of the Garden for the great unknown? I began to paint.
With Eden behind her,
She stood her ground,
Her heart beating
Freedom and dignity
For all women.
Not knowing what lies beyond the place I’ve called “home” for nearly fourteen years, I resigned from my position in a coveted, progressive Baptist pulpit. I will proclaim the Word in that pulpit one last time tomorrow morning, preaching with my voice firmly set on freedom, insisting that all humanity be treated with dignity, equality, compassion, and beauty, knowing that my calling is to justice. No exceptions.
Since I offered my resignation many have asked me if I think the church—any church—can exist without sexism and heterosexism. Called, ordained, degreed, and with over a decade dedicated to working to overcome it, I’m afraid my answer is a faint, but hopeful, “I don’t know.” The Garden—the church—can be a beautiful place. Like Lilith, I must climb over the Garden’s walls and find out what’s on the other side.
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of three books: Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship and Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today. She has been a clergywoman and professional dancer and artist since 1999. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com