Chidusz 5/2022: Lilith, Eve and Judith Plasow’s Jewish Feminist Theology

Lilith and Eve

There was nothing worse for Lilith (the first wife of Adam, according to a rabbinic legend) than living with her husband. So she decided to run away. And so God caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam and out, of one of his ribs, created for him a second companion, Eve. 

One day, after many months of strange and disturbing thoughts, Eve, wandering around the edge of the garden, noticed a young apple tree she and Adam had planted, and saw that one of its branches stretched over the garden wall. Spontaneously, she tried to climb it, and struggling to the top, swung herself over the wall. 

She did not wander long on the other side before she met the one she had come to find, for Lilith was waiting. At first sight of her, Eve remembered the tales of Adam and was frightened, but Lilith understood and greeted her kindly. “Who are you?” they asked each other, “What is your story?” And they sat and spoke together, of the past and then of the future. They talked for many hours, not once, but many times. They taught each other many things, and told each other stories, and laughed together, and cried, over and over, till the bond of sisterhood grew between them. 

The drawing on this month’s cover of Chidusz symbolizes sisterhood. The scene – Eve and Lilith holding hands in the Garden of Eden – is a variation on a modern feminist midrash created by the women’s movement in the early 70s. This issue of Chidusz marks the beginning of a new publication series. The Coming of Lilith is a collection of essays by the remarkable Judith Plaskow – the first Jewish feminist theologian considered one of the most important thinkers of contemporary Judaism. We invite our readers to embark on a tough, but an extremely fascinating journey into the world of Eve and Lilith, who finally find each other and discover the power of sisterhood.


Intersections. An Introduction 

In the early 70s, Judith Plaskow – a religious studies student at Yale University at the time – along with a small group of women set out to take on the daunting task of laying the foundations for new religious research, thus establishing Jewish Feminist Theology. In this introduction to her collection of essays, Judith Plaskow talks about her personal and academic journey from “becoming a feminist”, through her pioneering work developing a new strand in Jewish theology, to engaging in research on sexual ethics.

Fragment of the essay:

I came to feminism with an inchoate sense of diƒerence, oppression, and power that was clarified and transformed by my feminist experiences. I grew up Jewish in the 1950s in a Long Island town where Jews were a large minority, and I was both comfortable in my surroundings and aware of not being part of the dominant culture. In the classical Reform Jewish congregation in which I was raised, Judaism was defined as “ethical monotheism.” Jews, we were taught, had given the world the purifying vision of belief in one universal God. It was our obligation to manifest this belief in the realm of human relations through fair dealings with others on an interpersonal level and through commitment to the vision of social justice central to the prophets. I fully embraced this version of Judaism without worrying about either its internal coherence or whether it really distinguished Jews from anyone around us. 

An important part of my Jewish self-understanding as a young person, and a central source of the ethical awareness that fed my commitment to “ethical monotheism,” was my fascination with the Holocaust. From about age twelve through my college years, I read obsessively about the extermination of European Jewry. This reading fed an interest in theological questions that had attracted me from my earliest childhood: Was there a God? Could God be said to be good? How could the death camps have been built in the middle of the twentieth century? What did they say about God’s relationship to the Jewish people? What did they reveal about the nature of human beings? My preoccupation with the Holocaust meant that my Jewish identity was closely tied to a sense of victimhood. I experienced being a victim as a moral privilege that exempted me from having to know whether the evil perpetrated by the Nazis was also inside me. The question of whether Jews could have been Nazis, whether it was a historical accident or some real moral difference that cast Jews in the role of victims, has haunted me for as long as I can remember. I felt the painfulness of the Jewish historical experience, yet I was grateful for the privilege of the outsider’s consciousness that led me to contemplate difficult ethical issues from the time I was a young girl. 

My sense of Jews as victims led me to identify with other victims of oppression, especially African Americans. My introduction to social justice issues came in 1957 when my father explained a newspaper article about Governor Orval Faubus blocking the entry of black students into a high school in Little Rock. His voice shook with conviction as he insisted that all people were equal, regardless of the color of their skin. Ten years old at the time, I had never seen my father so earnest and vehement, and his words made a profound impression on me. When I was in seventh grade, I won second place in the junior high speech contest, talking about the relationship between apartheid in South Africa and segregation in the American South. In 1963, I went with a substantial contingent from our temple to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This event was my first experience of the power of transformative vision and the importance of collective action as a vehicle for social change. I can still feel the extraordinary exhilaration of standing at the foot of the Washington Monument, hearing Martin Luther King deliver his “I have a dream” speech, and feeling that, in that all-too-brief moment, the dream was a reality. 


The Coming of Lilith. Toward a Feminist Theology 

Fragment of the first essay in the collection:

It was here that we realized that, although we had failed to come up with a single event or symbol that captured all of feminist experience, there had emerged out of our discussion many of the central elements of a myth. We had a journey to go on, an enemy (or enemies) to vanquish, salvation to be achieved both for ourselves and for humanity. If we found ourselves with a myth, moreover, this was particularly appropriate to our experience, for we had come together to do theology by beginning with our stories. It was no coincidence, then, that we arrived back at the story form. 

We recognized the diffculties of “inventing” a myth, however, and so we wanted to tell a story that seemed to grow naturally out of our present history. We also felt the need for using older materials that would carry their own reverberations and significance, even if we departed freely from them. We chose, therefore, to begin with the story of Lilith, demon of the night, who, according to rabbinic legend, was Adam’s first wife. Created equal to him, for some unexplained reason she found that she could not live with him, and flew away. Through her story, we could express not only our new image of ourselves, but our relation to certain of the elements of our religious traditions. Since stories are the heart of tradition, we could question and create tradition by telling a new story within the framework of an old one. We took Lilith for our heroine, and yet, most important, not Lilith alone. We try to express through our myth the process of our coming to do theology together. Lilith by herself is in exile and can do nothing. The real heroine of our story is sisterhood, and sisterhood is powerful!


Fragment of the modern feminist midrash:

In the beginning, the Lord God formed Adam and Lilith from the dust of the ground and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life. Created from the same source, both having been formed from the ground, they were equal in all ways. Adam, being a man, didn’t like this situation, and he looked for ways to change it. He said, “I’ll have my figs now, Lilith,” ordering her to wait on him, and he tried to leave to her the daily tasks of life in the garden. But Lilith wasn’t one to take any nonsense; she picked herself up, uttered God’s holy name, and flew away. “Well now, Lord,” complained Adam, “that uppity woman you sent me has gone and deserted me.” The Lord, inclined to be sympathetic, sent his messengers after Lilith, telling her to shape up and return to Adam or face dire punishment. She, however, preferring anything to living with Adam, decided to stay where she was. And so God, after more careful consideration this time, caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam and out of one of his ribs created for him a second companion, Eve. 

For a time, Eve and Adam had a good thing going. Adam was happy now, and Eve, though she occasionally sensed capacities within herself that remained undeveloped, was basically satisfied with the role of Adam’s wife and helper. The only thing that really disturbed her was the excluding closeness of the relationship between Adam and God. Adam and God just seemed to have more in common, both being men, and Adam came to identify with God more and more. After a while, that made God a bit uncomfortable too, and he started going over in his mind whether he may not have made a mistake letting Adam talk him into banishing Lilith and creating Eve, seeing the power that gave Adam. 


Chaim Grade’s Di agune (Aguna) in Polish

Part VI of the Polish translation of Chaim Grade’s novel. 

In this episode of the outstanding Yiddish novel Di agune, we will find out how a little bit of ill will is enough to churn up all of Jewish Vilnius.

Translated into Polish by Magdalena Wójcik


Twenty Years of the Wrocław Rosh Chodesh Women’s Club

Women in the desert refused to give away their jewellery to make the golden calf. And thanks to their righteousness, they didn’t have to work on the first day of every new month. It was God who gave us this holiday – a day for ourselves, free from any duties.

Michał Bojanowski in a conversation with Mirosława Peszko-Krieger who, for twenty years, has been running the Wrocław Rosh Chodesh Women’s Club.


Chaim Grade: Facts of a Life

Part III of Susanne Klingenstein’s and Yehudah DovBer Zirkind’s article containing hitherto unknown information about the life of the outstanding Yiddish writer Chaim Grade. The essay offers the first research in Grade’s papers – infor­ma­tion ver­i­fied by doc­u­ments about Grade’s home and edu­ca­tion, his escape to and sojourn in the Sovi­et Union between 1941 and 1945, his return to and depar­ture from Vil­na in 1945, and his sub­se­quent moves to Łódż, Paris, and New York.


A Queer and Pleasant Danger 

The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She Is Today 


In part IX of her memoir, Kate Bornstein talks about her shrinking penis during hormone replacement therapy; recovering from sex reassignment surgery without painkillers; and her complicated relationship with the Philadelphia lesbian community.


On the morning of my presentation, all the attendees were listening to the plenary speaker. The audience sat in two sets of bleachers, facing each other. The speaker stood in the middle. Everyone nodded as she wove intricate links between dramaturgy, feminism, and postmodern theory—everyone but me. I had no idea what she was talking about. I didn’t even know what the word plenary meant. The speaker was saying something about “the male gaze.” I heard it as “the male gays.” And then, from the bleachers across the room . . . 

“I think there’s a man here, in drag.” 

It was supposed to have been a whisper. 

“A man? Where? In drag? What?” 

“Over there.” Two women in the bleachers across from me lifted their heads and gazed at me. 

Most people in the room called themselves women. Three of the women were out as lesbians. There was one man—John Emigh. Then there was me, the transsexual. 

“Man? There’s no man.” 

Doctor Vicki was one of the conference organizers. She looked at me and judged me woman, then shifted her gaze to the lady next to me, to see if she was the man in drag. The other woman’s eyes continued to bore into mine. She knew, and she knew that I knew that she knew. (Kindly forgive me—I’ve always wanted to write a sentence like that.) 

“Yes, there is,” said the knowing woman. “That’s a man right there. In drag.” Doctor Sue was another of the conference founders—one of the three out lesbians. Doctor Sue described herself as a working-class, butch, Marxist lesbian theater artist, critic, and theorist. Her blend of identities made me shiver with delight. Most everyone described her as a genius. One or two women quietly described her as prickly. 

“Where? I don’t see him.” 

I was wearing a classic audition outfit for my presentation later that afternoon: jeans, black turtleneck, high-tops. I added one bit of girly-girl: a long, flowing, ripped-and-distressed olivegreen cotton scarf. It was the morning of my presentation, and Doctor Sue was now saying, 

“Him,” again in the overloud stage whisper. She pointed at me with an accusing finger. “Look at that. It’s a man in drag.” 

“Don’t be silly,” giggled Doctor Vicki, “You just don’t know what big midwestern girls look like.” 


Translated into Polish by Jola Różyło


Setting the Stage for Pluralistic Judaism

Steve Gutow’s queer commentary on Parashat Beha’alotecha:

In Bamidbar 11, Moses, weary of the constant complaining of the Israelites, asks G-d why he has this burden of leadership. He says that the burden is too great and in particularly dramatic and idiosyncratic Jewish guilt-invoking parlance asks G-d to take his life rather than force him to continue as leader. (…)

In Beha’alotecha Moses himself insists that everyone should have the opportunity to speak for G-d. If everyone has the chance to prophesy, then certainly, at least in Beha’alotecha, everyone in the community can lead. There is remarkable reach in such an idea. If the reader carries the concept to its fullest extent, then certainly the text supports a call to permit LGBT and women the rights of communal integration and leadership.


In Brief

In a couple of dozens of short articles, we write about cancelled Israeli trips to Poland, Catalans accusing The State of Israel of apartheid, Maximilian Maria Kolbe becoming a patron of a new institute “promoting Polish culture”, new breakthrough in treating HIV with injection, and much, much more. 


Click here to read about this issue in Polish.