Lilith, then Miriam
By Vanessa L. Ochs
To understand why Miriam has become a role model for many Jewish women since the 1980s, we must explore her predecessor, Lilith, in effect the “poster girl” of Jewish feminists of the 1970s. In the rabbinic legends, Lilith is Adam’s first wife, who assertively claims equality with her partner (specifically, she desires also to be “on top”). Lilith is dispatched from the garden and a more compliant wife, Eve, takes her place. Thereafter Lilith is marginalized and silenced; vilified, she becomes known as the threat to new mothers, the demonic snatcher of newborn babies. Jody Myers, in her essay “The Myth of Matriarchy in Recent Writings on Jewish Women’s Spirituality,” articulately describes the role Lilith played for Jewish feminists in the early 1970s.
The tale of Lilith functioned to justify and explain male dominance and to frighten and coerce women into socially acceptable behavior. Judith Plaskow may have been the first to use Lilith as a rallying cry for Jewish feminism in 1972, but wider dissemination came in 1976 with Aviva Cantor’s article in the opening issue of the first Jewish feminist journal, Lilith Magazine.... Cantor points out that the explicit misogyny in the original Lilith story is useful for making Jewish women both angry and brave.... Cantor did not revise the Lilith myth, but she did argue that there was an essence to it that was free of male bias and closer to the Genesis story: the ideals of women’s struggle for independence, courage in taking risks, and "commitment to the equality of woman and man based on their creation as equals by God."1
When Lilith emerges in the work of Jewish feminist poets and writers, she tells her own story of the creation of woman and man, restating her platform for sexual and gender equality. She offers an enticing role model, an alternative to the compliant Eve. Lilith, empowered by an anger she embraces, speaks her peace and makes demands rather than waiting for concessions. Neither nice nor accommodating, she will be called “shrill and strident.” Should her actions lead her to a place outside the camp, there is no risk: already an outsider, she is alienated, marginal, and has nothing to lose.
However effective a standard-bearer Lilith may have been for dissidents, her disenfranchisement is problematic for insiders: those Jewish women wishing to transform Jewish practice and culture more slowly, without risk to personal status and without bringing undue attention to themselves. There are also other limitations to Lilith’s myth, as Myers describes:
It is difficult to integrate Lilith into the Torah when she is simply not there…. Second, the Lilith legend reinforces the view of woman as victim and implies that her essential morality arises from her victimized status.... The problems this raises for individual and communal consciousness are manifold. In its favor, though, one could argue that ritualized storytelling of victimization may be an effective therapeutic tool in a world in which people do abuse one another. This myth would have only transitional value; I would think that it is too negative to be the narrative foundation of one’s individual or communal identity.
Finally, generating attractive qualities for Lilith poses a challenge. She can be refashioned as an independent woman who seeks equality, but the tale cannot exist without her disdain for men.... Most women who are creating new liturgy, ritual, and exegesis seek a more positive tone and aspire to live within a harmonious mixed community. They are loathe to be labeled as man-haters, and they tend to avoid Lilith altogether.2
Enter Miriam. If Lilith kills babies, Miriam—as midwife and guardian of Moses-in-the-basket—saves them. If Lilith stands at the shores of the Sea of Reeds threatening pregnant women, Miriam—standing in the very same place—celebrates the successful birth of a people through a dangerous, narrow, wet passageway. Miriam leads the women who emerge out of slavery and into freedom and works alongside powerful men, her brothers Aaron and Moses. She has the women’s respect and, by leading a song of deliverance, gives voice to their memories and hopes. Miriam works gracefully, yet critically, within the system. Powerful, but not egoistic, Miriam stands for a set of positive virtues that include healing, inspiration, foresight, courage, cooperation, nurturance, and the capacity to celebrate all victories along the journey. She mentors younger women and girls who have a dim memory of Judaism in which women count less, or not at all.
This version of Miriam who emerges after Lilith is the latter-stage Jewish feminist: her consciousness has already been raised and awakened. She speaks to “Miriams” in a Jewish world being realigned daily by incremental small gestures made by women rabbis, cantors, federation executives, seminary professors, synagogue presidents, professors of Jewish studies—and, just as important, Jewish women in their communities and homes. Miriam’s anger is not debilitating: well channeled and well supported by many sisters who echo her voice, it affirms women’s different ways of knowing and acting in the world. Confident, the new Miriam feels empowered to “integrate the personal with traditional rituals” and make them her own.3 She stands for any Jewish woman who is a ritual expert, amateur or professional, who widens tradition, transforming it just as she transforms sacred texts and ritual objects, moving toward active repair of the community.
In the current social climate, a woman can claim this Miriam—cooperative, patient, and ready to negotiate—as her role model and still remain within the mainstream. Unsurprisingly, Hadassah, in its 2000 publication Moonbeams: A Hadassah Rosh Hodesh Guide, includes Miriam among the four Jewish women to be studied by Hadassah chapters—even by those who resist identifying themselves as feminists “because of the many negative associations.”45 and to share their creative representations. Miriam’s traits highlighted in the Hadassah guide include her intelligence, courage, and leadership among women (not surprisingly, traits valued within the Hadassah organization). She is praised for her human capacity to err, her goodness, her defiance of Pharaoh, and her lifetime of merits that preserved her people.6 She has power, stature, loveliness, and a place at the table.
1 Jody Myers, “The Myth of Matriarchy in Recent Writings on Jewish Women’s Spirituality,” Jewish Social Studies 4, no. 1 (1997): 3, available at http://iupjournals.org/jss/jss4-1.html
2 Ibid., 5.
3 Lily Rivlin, Miriam’s Daughters Celebrate, VHS (New York: Filmmaker’s Library, 1986).
4 Carol Diament, ed., Moonbeams: A Hadassah Rosh Hodesh Guide (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2000), 103.
5 Ibid., 156.
6 Ibid., 104.