Painting Lilith, Queering Lilith by Angela Yarber


angelaLilith 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.” Some queer scholars have surmised that Lilith had a romantic relationship with Eve. Others have claimed that Lilith was a demon who seduced men and strangled children in the night. Quite a disparity, isn’t it?

The first time I painted her, I wrote about my subsequent leaving of the church here on Feminism and Religion. Based almost entirely on Judith Plaskow’s beautiful midrash, “The Coming of Lilith,” I’ve painted a second Holy Woman Icon rendition of Lilith. In the Jewish tradition, midrash is akin to climbing inside the story—inside the Torah—and imagining what happened in the places where the text offers no description; it is the space between the letters, the creative imagination within the narrative that makes the story come alive.

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. Adding a queer twist to this feminist midrash, some claim that Lilith and Eve became lovers, as well.

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 propose 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.

20161224_192415Walking away from the Garden that oppressed her, Lilith reaches beyond the confines of the canvas as her heart cries out to us:

With Eden behind her,
She stood her ground,
Her heart beating freedom and dignity
For all women…

Interpreting Plaskow’s feminist midrash with a queer lens offers further redemptive potential, particularly if we remember the many times we queer folk have been pushed outside the “garden’s walls” because we are not welcome, we do not belong, or we cannot follow the rules of heteronormativity.

I first painted Lilith in 2013, after rereading Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church; I was a pastor facing toxicity and heterosexist and sexist microaggressions, and Lilith gave me the courage to climb over the garden’s walls for the first time, realizing that the church was not a safe place for me as a queer woman. Even if I was the pastor. Even if the church was justice-centered and open and affirming. In order to save my soul, I had to leave the church. In order to save her soul, I believe Lilith had to leave the Garden.

In repainting Lilith on the cusp of a new year, it is my hope that you, too, may be emboldened to climb over the walls that are hurting your soul. As an artist, activist, scholar, and clergywoman, it is my sincere hope that Lilith may empower you to make 2017 the year when you climb into places of bold affirmation, subversive love, and redemptive peace. It may not be easy. After fourteen years of ministerial service, leaving church was certainly not easy for me. And I don’t imagine that leaving the Garden was easy for Lilith, either. After all, look at how her reputation has been sullied over the years.

I am convinced, however, that if the queer feminist community continues to offer a bold witness, an intersectional embrace, and a subversive expanse to what the Church and Garden may look like, we can, indeed, find the freedom and redemption we all deserve. Climb those walls, beloveds. And while you’re climbing, be sure to offer a helping hand to those struggling for liberation alongside you.

 

Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship, Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today, Holy Women Icons, Tearing Open the Heavens: Selected Sermons from Year B,Microaggressions in Ministry: Confronting the Violence of Everyday Church, and Holy Women Icons Contemplative Coloring Book. 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

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Categories: Art, Christianity, Judaism, LGBTQ

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17 replies

  1. “In repainting Lilith on the cusp of a new year, it is my hope that you, too, may be emboldened to climb over the walls that are hurting your soul.”

    I was moved by this line and am pondering.

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  2. Wonderful post and image. I know I sent you my novel The Wild Mother based on the same midrash, written so long ago–in the 1970s! This post makes me think of Celie and Shug in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.

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  3. The arts are an important place the common populace are able to accept and learn from challenges that deepen our personal freedom. And thanks so much Angela, with your delightful paintings, you are certainly here at FAR doing exactly that.

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  4. I was also captured by the image of climbing over the walls that hurt my soul, or keep me imprisoned. And I liked the little bit tucked into the paragraph – to offer a helping hand to those also climbing toward freedom.
    As always Angela, the paintings that accompany your posts are a source of delight and meditation. Thank you.

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  5. So she was not actually evil but just perceived to be because she was an empowered woman? I’m very curious now since I have not heard this story and it fascinates me.

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    • Yes, that’s what many feminist scholars believe. We see this over and over in scripture: Miriam, Salome, Bathsheba, Mary Magdalene…the list could go on and on. We also see it and history and today!

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    • She was considered “evil” since her days in Mesopotamia. She was originally a storm demon and probably a succubus. However, she seems to be based on an aspect of Ishtar (kilili). This aspect is an independent woman, which was frowned upon in ancient times. They didn’t demonize their goddesses such as Ishtar, so they used Lilitu (Ardat lili) as myth to tell women the dangers of being independent. Likewise, she still was a femme fatale and child killer.

      During Babylonian captivity, the Hebrews inherited Lilith and later lore used her in the same way they did in the Ancient Near East; as an example of not to be as a woman. This is especially prominent in folklore.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m so glad you wrote this. Lilith is an amazing character. It figures that she’d be demonized for standing up for herself. I’m glad you found the strength to climb over the wall and leave your toxic church. I wonder if a gay male minister would have had so much trouble with the congregation. I’m UCC and my little church has a gay male pastor and although a couple of people left when we called him, I think otherwise he’s been well received, bu I have to wonder how he’d be treated if he were a lesbian. After all, he does have male privilege – SIGH!

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    • I was recently Author in Residence at a wonderful UCC church with a lesbian pastor and the context was fabulous. I think that anytime there are intersections of oppression, it intensifies the difficulty because of patriarchy, racism, homophobia, etc.

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  7. She wasn’t really demonized, but I am not picky if people perceive her that way. (Ancient Mesopotamian demons usually had good and bad sides. No one knows Lilith’s good side.)

    The biggest thing about this post that I do love is the “queer” adding. In Jewish Mysticism, Lilith has some very queer and gender bending attributes. One story of the Zohar says she seduced and impregnated Eve! Another says her and Samael used to be one and hermaphrodites. Even more curious is the story that says Lilith was created at the same time as Adam, however, in this version, both of them were originally hermaphrodites created in the image of God.

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