About six months ago I was hired to write a curriculum for a Jewish organization on biblical women in ancient and contemporary midrash. Midrash—the ancient process of creative interpretation of sacred text that began two thousand years ago and continues to this day—has been one of my fields of expertise, and women in midrash is a particular specialty. I knew the first lesson I wrote would be on Eve (Chava in Hebrew), the first woman of Genesis. Yet as I began to write lessons, I started with Sarah and Hagar, then proceeded to Rebekah and Lot’s wife, Rachel and Leah, even Asnat (Joseph’s wife) and Naamah (Noah’s wife). It became clear over the months that I was avoiding Eve. Whenever I began to think about beginning “her” lesson, I grew anxious and immediately began to think of something else. Only when I had already written six of my ten lessons did I finally, reluctantly, begin to research ancient legends and modern feminist poems on the first foremother of the Bible.
Why was I avoiding Eve? In part, because she seemed like such a huge topic. Generations of Jews (and, of course, Christians) have had a great deal to say about Eve, her creation, the fruit of knowledge, the serpent, Eve’s relationship with Adam, and more. How would I encapsulate it all? And then there was Lilith, Eve’s alter ego, and all of the legends about her. Choosing a handful of midrashim out of this vast corpus seemed impossible. Plus, there was a whole literature about the relationship between Eve and ancient Near Eastern myth I wanted to allude to—Eve as a kind of human version of the Goddess with her Tree. How to choose what to put in and what to leave out?
Even choosing among modern feminist poems and artworks on Eve seemed difficult. I loved Kim Chernin’s poem on Eve’s creation: “Was I summoned/or did I rise from my own emergency?” Susan Donnelly’s poem “Eve Names the Animals” (differently than Adam, of course) was a favorite: “To me, lion was sun on a wing/over the garden. Dove, a burrowing, blind creature.” Meanwhile, in Ursula LeGuin’s “She Unnames Them,” Eve took away all the names Adam had given. Marge Piercy’s poem “Applesauce for Eve,” about Eve as mother of invention was wonderful— “we are all the children of your bright hunger.” So was Siona Benjamin’s painting in which Eve and the Tree are one. Judith Plaskow’s story of how Eve and Lilith meet was a classic. But there was so much more. The task was daunting, and I felt intimidated.
But also, I was afraid of what I might find in the ancient lore. Some statements about Eve from ancient Jewish interpretation are hard to read. In one rabbinic midrash, she is called immodest and a gossip. In another, her body secretions are disparaged. One legend imagines she had sex with the snake. Other texts blame her for bringing death into the world. She is also imagined appealingly in some places—for example, one midrash describes her as cleverly arguing with Adam for why he should eat the fruit. Still, all in all, while ancient Jewish sources don’t quite have the concept of “original sin,” Eve doesn’t come off very well in many traditional midrashim. I was reluctant to face what felt like a firehose of misogyny aimed not only at Eve but at the generations of women who came after her.
And, gradually, I had to realize that I have feelings about Eve. For me, Eve’s story has always been about the amazement and fragility of being alive. I think about death a lot. I imagine that once Eve left Eden, she did too. Thinking about Eve makes me think about death, choice, and right and wrong—not comfortable subjects in a year rocked by crises. Perhaps that too was why I did not want to write about her. And, the very first midrashic poem I wrote was about Eve—how all of the changes to her body that came as she grew and gave birth and aged and died were a surprise to her, how she had no one to tell her what any of it would be like. I saw her as full of wonder but also lonely. I don’t have that poem anymore, but I think in some ways it stands at the root of all of my writing. And certainly I relate to Eve as one who had to confront mortality, to recognize it and accept it. Giving birth to my daughter and watching her grow, and getting older myself, has only intensified my awareness of my finitude. Facing Eve, I suppose, means facing myself.
I did in the end overcome my fears and begin writing. The lesson plan for Eve in the midrash is finished—it was a joy to write, once I got started — and I’ve reconciled myself to my limitations in writing about the first foremother. Re-encountering the feminist poets and storytellers who have been fascinated by Eve has been a privilege. I did, at the end of the process, write this poem, which I share here as a kind of bracket to that very first midrash-poem I wrote when I was nineteen or so. It is, in some ways, the same poem—wondering what it was like for Eve to live, and grow, and know herself to be mortal. The poem has given me a new image of Eve—buried at the foot of the Tree of Knowledge—or the Tree of Life— and entwined with its roots, her bones and her wisdom at the root of us all.
Eve’s Last Dream
On one of those autumn nights
when the garden was a memory,
when even your first two children
were a memory,
when your hair was as white
as the snow that once had fallen
on your fig leaf cloak,
you dreamed of the Tree,
gnarled and green-leaved,
and this time
you ate the fruit
without anyone’s advice,
willingly, knowing what it meant,
that what you’d waited for
since the first bite
had come at last,
for a bright moment
the roots of the great Tree
- Benjamin, Siona. “Chava.” https://artsiona.com/paintings/finding-home-2/#&gid=2&pid=29
- Chernin, Kim. “In the Beginning,” in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York: Women of Reform Judaism/URJ Press, 2008), p. 33.
- Donnelly, Susan. “Eve Names the Animals,” Susan Donnelly, in Modern Poems on the Bible: An Anthology, ed.David Curzon (Jewish Publication Society, 1994), p. 62.
- LeGuin, Ursula. “She Unnames Them,” in The New Yorker, 21 January 1995.
- Plaskow, Judith. “The Coming of Lilith,” in Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality: A Sourcebook. Ed. Ellen M. Umansky and Dianne Ashton. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.
- Piercy, Marge. “Applesauce for Eve,” Marge Piercy, from The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme (New York: Knopf, 2000), p. 99.
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute and the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion. She is the author ofThe Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for all Seasons, The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership (with Taya Shere), Siddur haKohanot: A Hebrew Priestess Prayerbook (with Taya Shere) andThe Book of Earth and Other Mysteries. Her forthcoming book is titledReturn to the Place: The Magic, Meditation., and Mystery of Sefer Yetzirah. She is a poet, scholar, ritualist, dreamworker, midrashist, and essayist.