Later this week, Jews worldwide will begin the celebration of Passover. Grounded in the ancient story of oppression, liberation and renewal, Passover, like all Jewish holidays, marks an event in the life of the community rather than the life of any individual. The Passover observance centers in the home at the seder, the ritual meal at which we remember and retell the story of 400 years spent in slavery in Egypt, “strangers in a strange land,” and the terrifying, transformative journey through the parted Red Sea towards the Promised Land and redemption.
The seders of my early childhood were interminable affairs, made by and for men who mumbled their way through Hebrew texts that seemed to have as much to do with me as the men had to do with the kitchen from which the bountiful food materialized.
But the Old Testament is full of strong and righteous women, including those without whom the passage out of slavery in Egypt could not have happened. The central message of Passover is one of memory and transformation. We are told during even the most traditionally-conducted seders that “In every generation you should regard yourself as though you had personally come out of Egypt.” In Hebrew, Egypt is called Mitzrayim — “narrow place” — place of constriction and limitation.
I’m not sure that my paternal grandfather of the interminable mumbling would have taken that commandment to mean that women should be supervising seders and becoming rabbis, but that’s exactly what transpired as I grew into young adulthood and a vibrant Jewish feminist movement emerged from within both Judaism and feminism. In 1972, Sally Priesand became the first woman ordained as a rabbi. Numerous Jewish women were U.S. feminist pioneers [think Bella Abzug, Judy Chicago, Gloria Steinem]. And in 1976, Lilith magazine was launched.
At every seder table a cup is placed for Elijah, the prophet whose return to earth will herald the coming of the Messiah. Where participants are committed to the full recognition of women in the Passover story, a cup is often placed for Miriam the prophet, sister of Moses, who foretold his birth and helped lead the Jews out of Egypt.
And some of us put out a cup and put in a word for Lilith, namesake of the magazine whose tag line is “independent, Jewish, and frankly feminist.”
According to legend, Lilith was the first woman, created before Eve, and Adam’s full equal. Genesis itself contains two creations stories; in one man and woman are created at the same time; in the other, Adam precedes Eve, who is formed from his rib. The 10th century Alphabet of Ben Sira tells this story: When the first man, Adam, saw that he was alone, God made for him a woman like himself, from the earth. God called her name Lilith, and brought her to Adam. They immediately began to quarrel. Adam said: “You lie beneath me.” And Lilith said: “You lie beneath me! We are both equal, for both of us are from the earth.”
In some legends Lilith is said to have “jumped off the world,” while in others she is said to have gone to live by the Red Sea. In any event, Eve is the Old Testament figure we think of as Adam’s proper mate. Lilith is sometimes considered the matriarch of witches, themselves generations upon generation of wise women, midwives and healers, thousands of whom were destroyed during the Inquisition and persecuted for centuries after. Her story has been revisioned and retold by numerous contemporary Jewish women writers.
Some might balk at inviting the wild, rebellious Lilith to share the seder. But if we are to regard ourselves as if we had “personally come out of Egypt” — the narrow place — we must make room for those who resist. It was, after all, the midwives Shifrah and Pu’ah who were central to the rebellion against the Pharaoh, disobeying orders to kill all Jewish males at birth and instead hiding the infants, thus saving Moses and others and making the flight from Egypt possible.
So let’s keep inviting Lilith. Let her remind us of all the women who have stood up, who have stood their ground, who did not follow orders, who have gone on strike, who refused to have their lives defined by others, who resisted when resistance meant banishment, torture or death. As the Talmud says: “It was not enough to take the Jews out of Egypt. It was necessary to take Egypt out of the Jews.”
© Rhea Hirshman 2015
(Here is a wonderful midrash on Lilith
by theologian Judith Plaskow: http://jwa.org/media/coming-of-lilith-by-judith-plaskow)