Tag : bible

July 15, 2014 by

Lot’s Wife

"Cleft" by Mary Frank. Reproduced with permission of artist and DC Moore Gallery

“Cleft” by Mary Frank. Reproduced with permission of artist and DC Moore Gallery


She sat in a small patch of shade, churning the goat’s milk to butter. The courtyard was quiet with work, one daughter at the oven baking bread, the other grinding flour for tomorrow’s loaves. It was good to have these girls, she thought, who had learned their way and were of use to those around them.

Slowly, the butter started to come. They’d have it tonight with the bread her daughter was baking.

Good, clean food, but she would admit to counting down to the next feast day, when they’d offer up a ram if the year con- tinued so well. Already preparing the juiciest parts in her mind, crushed figs to bring out the meat’s succulence, cloves for pun- gency, she let her mind wander and didn’t hear the men’s voices until they were inside the house.

Her husband came to the doorway. We have visitors. Traders from Egypt. One of the field hands will bring in a goat. We’ll need a full meal. 

She already had a fire lit when the boy brought the plump animal. While the girls continued to bake and churn, their mother quickly slit its throat and hung it upside down to drain. Once it was skinned, she quartered and pounded it so it would grill quickly and stay tender, then ran her hands and eyes over red lentils she spread across the ground, picked out the tiny stones that would masquerade themselves in the pot and ruin the dish.

The courtyard rustled with activity. It smelled of death and fire, cumin and bread. The scents, she thought, of a good life.

Amid the bustle of work, she looked at her daughters, 13 and 14, older than she’d been when she was married off, taken away from the tents to another land.

At least they lived in the city. She had this courtyard, with its round stove and barrel of flour. Women to sit with in the square at shearing time. It was more than she ever expected. But she would keep her girls closer. She could feel her old age coming in the creases of her knees and shoulders. She needed her daughters.

Too bad we aren’t preparing for a real feast, she thought, something to bring everyone together, especially after the recent infighting. Rich men are not to be trusted, she knew. A poor man might steal a donkey or goat. But a rich man will start a war over an entire herd.

Lot had gotten through these arguments before. This time, Pildash, who already had a bigger flock and more pasture than anyone else, accused him of taking the best grazing land. But they had to live together. Someone would slip some coins to the other. It would be taken care of. 

The shouting began as the men settled down to eat. Muffled at first, but soon closer, and then someone banged on the door.

Let us see these strangers you have taken into your home, one yelled. Another jeered, Bring them out so we can get to know them. A howl of laughter went up from the crowd. She recognized some of the voices. Men with grudges against Lot, or the poor who resented his wealth.

She hurried up to the roof and peeked over the edge. Nearly 20 men, one egging them on. Usually, the other wealthy men in the town could be counted as Lot’s closest friends, and his only peers. But here was Pildash, shouting encouragement. So, this is how he’ll get what he wants, she thought, embarrass my husband in public. Make him look bad enough and he just might give up that pastureland without a fight. Rich men and their pride, she thought. 

No one noticed her up there. But they wouldn’t. Life happened horizontally in Sodom—everyone on an even plane, landowners and the shovelers of shit all living side by side. It meant nothing. Four men still paid everyone else’s wages. But if you can see them sleeping and waking it’s easy to overlook how much more they have than you ever will.

No one would pay attention to a woman anyway. So no one saw her as she watched Lot open their door and step out into the hostility and the evening. 

Friends, what can I do for you? he asked, as if he hadn’t heard their demands or anger.

Give us the strangers! the men called out.

Lot tried to speak, but they cut him off, closing in and poking him in the chest. All this over some grass, she thought, with a small twinge of worry. But she pushed it out of her mind. Her husband would work it out. They’d all go back to their dinners.

She watched Lot grow scared. He raised his voice.

Friends. You know I deal honestly.

What are they paying you? one voice called out.

Why should you get all their bounty? yelled another.

Finally, Pildash spoke. You shouldn’t be the only one with the honor of hosting them. Bring them out. Let’s see how tight their assholes are. 

Again, the crowd surged, but Lot continued, fear audible in every word. I have offered them a meal and a bed for the night. That is all. 

It wasn’t working. The men were getting more worked up. She heard the door slam as Lot rushed back in, and ran down to find him flustered, his cloak ripped at the neck.

I have to do something, he said to her. They’ll break into our house and drag these poor men into the street.

They’re a drunk and worked-up mob, she replied. Throw them some coins and they’ll be happy.

They’ll do unnatural things to those men. I cannot let my guests be raped by a bunch of drunken farmhands.

They don’t want to do any harm, she said, with as much vehemence as she dared in the face of his overweening pride. Go out with a few skins of wine, compliments of the visitors.

You’re not listening! What do you think “let us see how tight their assholes are” means?

It means they want to see if they have gold hidden under their clothes.

Lot didn’t hear her. He paced, head bent in concentration. Finally he said, Go get the girls.

The girls?

My daughters. We’ll give them instead.

You’re going to throw our children to that mob? Are you crazy?

Finally, he looked at her. I have no choice. Our family’s honor is on the line.

Fully hysterical now, she cried, Those men will kill our girls. They will rip them apart from the inside and leave them for dead. How much honor can you have if you are willing to let that happen to your own children?

They will do that to my guests! To men! You’re the one who said they won’t rape anyone.

I said they wouldn’t rape the travelers. But our girls have only their bodies. If, by some miracle, they survive what twenty grown men do to them, we’ll never be able to marry them off. You’ll ruin them forever.

In tears, she clawed at her husband’s clothing. But Lot had heard enough.

Get them now. He turned and stepped out again. She only heard the first few words —friends! I’ve come with an offer —before the door closed behind him. 

She only had a few minutes. She ran back to the courtyard, grabbed whatever she could—tufts of goatskin, batches of raw wool, and a pot of oil cooling by the fire. All the while, she shouted to the girls, Run up to the roof. Grab whatever valuables you see on your way. Gold coins, jewelry, anything. 

She stuffed the wool into a piece of still-bloody goatskin, grabbed an unlit torch and thrust it into the oven. After its end caught, she ran upstairs. When her daughters followed, each carrying a bulging saddlebag, she was already putting the torch to the hay pile in the corner.

Mama! they cried. What are you doing? We’ll burn up!

We’ll be long gone by the time this is big enough to harm us. Slowly, a wisp of smoke rose from the hay pile. Once it did, she started grabbing tufts of wool and shoving them at her children. Start lighting them, she directed. 

Confused and scared, the girls did as they were told. She hopped from their roof to the neighbor’s, grabbing a flaming ball of wool, hurling it down into the narrow street in front of her house. The girls followed, handing her their fiery missiles as they moved. They went from rooftop to rooftop, setting each hay pile alight, throwing more projectiles down to the city below.

Mama, panted the younger girl, what are we doing? They’ll kill us when they realize what we’ve done.

They can’t see us, she said. If anyone thinks to look up, we’ll already be gone.

But what are we trying to do? cried the older girl. I don’t understand.

I’m saving you, was the only answer she gave.

From below, they heard screaming as people noticed the cramped city was on fire. A few men near Lot’s house had been hit. They rolled on the ground, screaming in fear and pain as they were consumed.

What vengeance is this? came the people’s desperate cry. Why does God rain down fire on us?

Panic spread as people trampled others to save their own homes. By then, she and her daughters had reached a narrow patch of city wall. She was sure her daughters could jump down to the ground, but her body was already feeling the effects of the run across the city’s rooftops. Just see them to safety, she thought. They are all that matters.

Throw away the wool, she told her daughters. She flung the still-burning torch as far as she could. Now, jump.

Once down, she shouted, Head for the lake. Don’t stop and don’t turn around. There’s nothing here for us anymore. 

The girls took off across the flat land. She followed as fast as she could, but her breasts pounded painfully against her chest. She struggled to find breath.

Eventually, she felt the ground change beneath her feet. She was closer to the lake. Up ahead, she saw the surface of the water wink behind her daughters. But she couldn’t take another step. She was too tired. Her breath caught with every inhalation.

Bending over, her chest heaved painfully. Her arms and legs shook from the effort of getting this far.

Standing back up, the blood rushed away from her head, sent her reeling, turning her to face the way she’d come. In the distance, Sodom still burned, higher than she ever thought possible.

Only then did what she had done hit her with its full force. Images of the life she had led passed through her mind. It was all gone. Her husband, who would have whored his own daughters out to serve his pride, was in there too, and she felt, in that moment, what it was to lose an entire life’s work, a history of love and loss.

For the first time, she saw what her hands had wrought. I have killed and I have destroyed to save my own, she thought.

It was then, her body struggling to reassert itself, her mind fighting to align her pride at saving her children with grief at losing her whole valued life and horror at what she had done, that she started to cry. Huge, dehydrated tears poured down her face, sobs wracked her body. She sank down, crying harder even than the morning her own mother had sent her away into her new marriage, into the long life ahead.

She didn’t want her daughters to see her cry, but she couldn’t stop. Something had opened within her. She could not close it.

Stand up, Mama, they said. You have to keep moving or your muscles will cramp. 

She would get up. She would let her daughters half-carry her along the lake’s shoreline and into the hills. She would find a cave for them, sleep with her girls curled around her like lambs. She would wake the next morning to explain they could never return to their home, would have to forget all they had ever known and look only to the future. She would calm them when their fear of God’s wrath shook within them. She would explain that they had done God’s work, or the work God should have done when a man would ask a mother to sacrifice her virgin daughters for his own stupid honor. She would tell them they were instruments of God’s wrath, that God had guided their hands when they set their home alight.

And after they all slept again, she would face their anger when they accused her of making sure there would be no man alive who would have them. She would soothe them, say the riches they had stuffed into the saddlebags would buy them a new life. She would promise to find a way.

She would keep that promise, purchase land where they could live. She would buy sheep and goats, hire field hands and shepherds. When they had enough new wealth, she would find husbands for her daughters. She would see them grow large with child. She would hold her grandchildren on her lap and know she had done something good. But for all that she would go on to do, Lot’s wife would never rise from that spot by the side of the moonlit lake. She would never stop crying fat, salty tears for the life she left behind in flames.


Continue Reading


March 10, 2001 by

The Queen of Sheba’s Fuzzy Legs

Now when King Solomon heard that she was coming to him, King Solomon arose and went to sit down in a bathhouse.  When the Queen saw that the king was sitting in a bathhouse, she thought to herself the king must be sitting in water.  So she raised her dress in order to wade across.  Whereupon he noticed the hair on her leg, to which King Solomon responded by saying: ‘Your beauty is the beauty of women, but your hair is the hair of men.  Now hair is beautiful for a man but shameful for a woman.’  -The Targum Sheni to Esther, c. 7th Century

I stopped shaving my legs, on and off, when I was in college. It had more to do with laziness than with feminism; shaving just started to seem like a messy, time consuming chore in which I was no longer willing to indulge. After a while, my hairy legs started to grow on me aesthetically as well. My legs seemed bald and pasty when I got around to shaving them. After a while, this abstention became symbolic. In a small and gentle way, the hair on my legs marked my body as a body unafraid to play with gender, to break conventions, to get fuzzy. My father was horrified. It even says in the Midrash that women should shave their legs, he told me, because when the Queen of Sheba came to visit King Solomon, he would not be with her until her legs were smooth. Understandably, my father’s argument did little to convince me that my legs would be better off bald. But his comments did start me thinking about the Queen of Sheba, and I am not sure that I have ever stopped.

The Biblical Queen

Many of us only know the Queen of Sheba as the one-time consort of King Solomon, but commentators from a variety of cultural traditions have provided her with stories and legends all her own. These cast the Queen in a number of different guises — and while some are easier to identify with than others, she is always a complicated character and is always, always alluring. In fact, it’s surprising that her hairy legs first captured my attention, considering the many other interesting issues that have been associated with the Queen of Sheba.

According to the national epic of Ethiopia, the Queen of Sheba is the forebear of Ethiopia’s royal dynasty, and through oral tradition the Ethiopian Jewish community also claims her as an ancestor. Islamic traditions imagine the queen as part djinn, and in Jewish mysticism and folklore she is sometimes interchangeable with Lilith. In many of the most traditional Queen of Sheba legends, issues of gender, power, and identity are treated with unexpected frankness, offering insight into present-day conflicts.

So how did the Queen of Sheba become a hairy-legged djinni? These questions bring us back to the Hebrew Bible, which contains the earliest written accounts of the Queen of Sheba legend [I Kings 10-13 and Chronicles 9:1-12].

Our heroine in far-off Sheba hears of King Solomon’s famed knowledge and travels to Jerusalem to test him with “hard questions.” When the king answers all of the Queen of Sheba’s queries, and she sees the splendor of his kingdom. she is left “breathless.” They exchange gifts, and King Solomon gives her “everything she desired and asked for.” Finally, the Queen and her attendants return to the land of Sheba.

Like many stories in the Hebrew Bible, this brief tale leaves many questions unanswered. Where was this country of Sheba, ruled by a powerful woman? What were the “hard questions” the Queen asked Solomon? And of course, what about the tantalizing sexual subtext that is often read into this encounter? The text does say that the Queen was “breathless,” doesn’t it? What were those desires that King Solomon met so satisfactorily? You can almost picture centuries of exegetes rubbing their hands in delight, eager to fill in the blanks.

The Queen of Questions

In nearly all of their various formats, the Queen of Sheba legends give a gloss on power and otherness, on the relationships between the insider and the outsider. The set-up could not be more intriguing: Solomon, a male Israelite King and King David’s anointed son, is the ultimate insider. He has all the benefits of gender, class, ethnicity and lineage, and his power would seem to be uncontestable. But what would happen if he met up with his opposite — a foreign, heathen woman — who would dare to challenge his authority? This is exactly the situation that the Biblical text sets up for us and for centuries of Biblical scholars. The situation is so unlikely, so unthinkable, but — the Bible seems to ask us — WHAT IF?

Throughout various times and traditions, we see variant versions of this encounter between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. Generally, in the more traditional texts, the fact that Solomon answers all of the queen’s riddles is used to “prove” that the King is more suited for leadership. The Queen of Sheba, the presumptuous outsider, learns her lesson. She cannot withstand the wisdom and power of her “legitimate” opponent, and is dominated politically, intellectually, and sexually. In most of the texts, she is delighted by Solomon’s victory – she is breathless with praise for her adversary, relieved by the assurance that Davidic men really are more fit for political power.

And yet, nothing that has to do with the Queen of Sheba is quite that simple. She is a wily queen, after all, and more than Solomon’s match when it comes to “hard questions.” In the Targum Sheni to Esther, an Aramaic commentary on the Purim story, the Queen of Sheba’s riddles all have to do with paradoxes and complications that are as relevant to her own situation as they are to the abstract puzzle itself. What is “a cause of praise to the free, of shame to the unfortunate, a cause of praise to the dead, of shame to the living, of joy to the birds, of agitation to the fish?” asks the queen. When Solomon answers that flax can be all of these things, he admits that one substance can have many purposes. Flax can be food that sustains a bird; if can also be made into a net with which to catch a fish. Flax can be made into a beautiful linen garment for the rich, or a crude garment for the poor; it can be made into clothes for the living or a shroud for the dead. The only thing that is clear about the use of flax is that it cannot be pinned down.

Pinning down the Queen of Sheba is as complicated as defining only one particular use for flax. She is a woman and a foreigner, and yet she does not behave like the women or the foreigners who typically cowered in the face of King Solomon’s greatness. She is an outsider who acts like an insider. By challenging King Solomon and presuming to be his equal, she forces us to re-evaluate both of those categories.

The Queen of Sheba does not give Solomon any way to win her game of wits. By admitting that flax does not fit in to any one category, Solomon must acknowledge that human beings can also behave in conflicting ways, and that the Queen of Sheba can simultaneously be a woman, and a powerful ruler. Of course, if he does not admit this, he loses to the Queen of Sheba because he cannot answer her riddle.

As we learn from the Queen of Sheba, there are some competitions you can neither win nor lose. The world is just too fuzzy.

The Queen of Complexities

When I first encountered the Queen of Sheba stories, I identified with her completely. There was the Queen of Sheba, a fuzzy-legged woman like me, struggling against the male king who would limit her access to power and influence. I was the Queen of Sheba, engaged in a game of wits with the anti-feminist Rabbis who enforce unfair religious rules. I was the Queen of Sheba, struggling against the politicians and corporate leaders who create inequalities, support sexist laws, leave women on the outside.

But the Queen of Sheba is not easily owned – not by King Solomon, and not by me. Also linked with Africa and with blackness, the Queen of Sheba represents the cultural categories that our society continues to exploit, exploit, and push toward the “outside.” In a particularly Jewish context, the Queen of Sheba has been associated with the African and Middle-Eastern Jews who have been situated on the margins of the community, and are engaged in a struggle with Ashkenazic “insiders” for influence, power, and basic respect. As an Ashkenazic American woman, what is my relationship to the people who are even further on the outside? Am I the Queen of Sheba, as I had always presumed to be, or am I, in fact, King Solomon?

The Queen of Sheba is of the “wrong” gender and the “wrong” origin — the very embodiment of the outsider. And yet, as one might expect from such a slippery and complicated queen, she also reminds us that the relationship between the insider and the outsider can shift. At different points in our lives, in different contexts, every human being gets to play the role of the Queen of Sheba as well as that of King Solomon. In fact, we can well imagine the Queen of Sheba herself playing the “insider” in interactions with her own servants and subjects. Caught in the paradoxes and complexities of a fuzzy world, the Queen of Sheba too can be complicit in injustice.

In a world where our roles are always shifting, the encounter between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon becomes symbolic of the very moment of struggle, the pivotal point at which we learn to secure power in some contexts and to share power in others. Being a Jewish woman — and an “outsider” in certain contexts — does not make me incapable of oppressing others, of supporting a system of hierarchies and inequalities, of pledging tacit allegiance to King Solomon. What is my relationship to the sweatshop workers who create the clothes that I wear? What is my relationship to the people who pick the grapes that I eat? In a fuzzy world, everyday choices are pregnant with significance, as monumental as the royal encounter between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

The Queen of Symbols And for me, the Queen of Sheba always leads back to fuzzy legs. My fuzzy legs are my tribute to a fuzzy world, in which categories of gender, origin and identity become blurred at the edges, fuse into one another, and cannot contain the totality of who I am. They remind me that I am never completely helpless nor am I ever completely powerful — the rules of fuzziness do not allow for absolutes. They remind me that I can be a cause of praise to the free, as well as a cause of shame to the unfortunate, and all at the same time. Through a world full of paradox, riddles, and hard questions, I travel on my own fuzzy legs.

Continue Reading

  • 1 Comment

March 15, 1998 by

The Womantasch Triangle

The figures of Vashti and Esther, clearly in origin full-moon prespring relatives of the ancient mythological life cycle goddesses, come down to us, in the Book of Esther and in rabbinic midrash, so disfigured and devalued that it is hard to know how to begin resurrecting them.

But let’s start with Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan, whose research shows us that females’ self-esteem is highest before puberty, but then we turn into women, males enter our consciousness, and it all goes to hell.


In the Book of Esther, Vashti is that pre-pubescent Gilliganesque girl—self-confident and self-determining (who does what’s right for herself and says “no” to the boys), but she is punished for her assertiveness, and she therefore “grows up,” as it were, into Esther, a female who submits much more graciously to patriarchal domination. The rabbis take an almost erotic delight in hating Vashti and they kill her off (Lilith redux); the midrash lasciviously describes Vashti’s head “brought before the King on a platter.” Ahasuerus is neatly freed up to start all over again with the new, young trophy wife named Esther.

So where does Vashti, the dead girl, go? The Book of Esther has at its thematic core the same ancient fertility myths in which one goddess or another serves metaphorically to explain winter’s death and spring’s resurrection. If Vashti were, for example, Demeter’s daughter Persephone (instead of being Esther’s disowned ‘daughter’), she would go down to Hades and then eventually rejoin her mother on Earth. If she were the young Inanna, she would remove herself from ordinary life (the Megillah’s harem is a distorted echo of this), and descend into the Underworld, where she would sacrificially rot on a peg, be transformed, and return to Earth a larger, wiser, more creative goddess—no longer patroness of fertility alone, but also of death and resurrection, the new ruler of the now-conjoined Earth, Sky and Underworld. From the Underworld, one returns bearing gifts—not shalach memos, mind you, but gifts only acquirable down under. Wisdom, Letting Go, Awe and Gratitude.

Inanna’s “rotting” is an initiation into understanding the inexorable cycle of life—that each one of us is born, ages and dies, only to be born again from the earth in some new form—maybe as humus, maybe through our children. Death is a pan of life. Vashti, in parallel fashion, makes a sacrifice in Hell (in this case, the palace) too: she says “NO”—understanding full well that she will suffer terrible consequences. But unlike Inanna, the wisdom Vashti derives from her self-determination is confiscated by the text and never conveyed to her ‘daughters.’ Vashti’s resurrection is that she exits, stage left, only to be replaced in the next act by a freshly minted queen with a new name and no memory.

Let’s imagine, say, that Vashti had been a part of the ancient Greek women’s ritual of the Thesmophoria. She would not, then, have resurfaced solely as a “head on a platter” at the King’s supper club; rather, she would have encountered an “older sister” in the Underworld, someone who came before her and is wiser, and who inducts her into wisdom. But the Megillah keeps its significant women isolated from one another, erasing any suggestion that there might be significant female interaction. (In Esther’s case, of course, the text goes so far as to make her an orphan.) Hardly anything, as we know, is as scary to patriarchal men as two women alone in a room together. Vide: Lilith and Eve, Sarah and Hagar.


Queen Vashti is summoned by the King to dance nude, in a clear bastardization of fertility myths. Queen Inanna, for example, to jump-start spring’s fertility, herself summons King Dumuzi, ordering him to “plow my vulva!”

Vashti’s King, on the other hand (not, like Dumuzi, epithetically called “caresser of the navel, caresser of the soft thighs”) functions on a stage with no mythological overtones, and the text Vashti finds herself in—a repudiation of Inanna’s—seems to take particular sadistic pleasure from disempowering and humiliating her. Vashti’s agency is reduced to her ability to say “NO” when the King orders her, a Playboy bunny, to strip before a mob of drunks at his house party.

What’s in it for Vashti? She dies—the assertive girl-child dies, the one who is not afraid to be assertive, not afraid to displease the males. The Megillah kills off not only Vashti, but the whole cycle—death, rotting, rebirth, the whole awakening, empowering experience. It’s a deliberate theft, a humiliation. She doesn’t get to re-emerge as a woman. There ain ‘t no journey at all!

To borrow a phrase from the writer Deena Metzger, “In a sacred universe, she [Vashti] is holy; in a secular universe, she [Vashti] is a whore.”


The Demeter-Persephone myth expresses an interesting cultural compromise: the emotional centrality of mother daughter bonds (hence Persephone gets to spend a part of each year with Demeter) and the inevitable severing of that bond when the girl grows up. (Persephone, raped by Hades, eats a seed—ahh, shades of the hamantasch!—and must stay with Hades, Lord of the Underworld, during the other part of the year.)

In the Megillah. however, Vashti is, of course, punished, and is not allowed—ever—to bring her laundry home to Mama Esther’s house. Esther’s early debutante world coarsely compartmentalizes women, too. Like cattle in a cattle chute, each girl arrives from Harem A, spends one night with King Ahasuerus (chapter 2:14) and then returns, via chute, to Harem B.

Keeping mothers and daughters apart finds resonance in the story of Zeus and Metis. The pregnant Metis gets tricked by Zeus into becoming small, at which point Zeus swallows her. When the baby, Athena, grows to adulthood, she emerges from her father’s head—with no sense that she had ever had a mother who might have taught her anything, or, in any way, ‘birthed’ her. In this way, women’s stories, too, get ‘swallowed’ by patriarchal ones like the Megillah. Vashti is ‘swallowed’ up by the story—to keep Esther from picking up any bad habits.


Who among us, as a teenager, hasn’t had Vashti’s experience of saying “NO” to a boy and getting punished for it? Really, though, what if Vashti had said “YES”—follow that storyline out. Poor Vashti was double bound; it’s lose/lose.

And a final Vashti question: What if the text had let her grow up? When Vashti die.s, we girl readers die with her, every goddamn Purim—warned not to take good care of ourselves. Frozen in Vashti-land, banished. What if we let Vashti talk, follow her story? What if we imagine what she might have gone on to do besides getting transmogrified into Esther? What if we let her become herself!

In a sacred universe, she would not be treated like an object by abusive men, she would not be forbidden access to her sister, mother, daughter, be forbidden to take her trans formative journey. In a sacred universe, she would be holy.


Purim’s origins, scholars generally agree, derive from an ancient full-moon pre-spring Persian holiday; Esther is descended from the Babylonian Ishtar (who derives from Inanna) and Mordechai from the Babylonian Marduk. (These gods are allied against the Elamite goddess, Vashti, and the god Humman, that is, Haman.) Ishtar, a universal life cycle goddess, also rules the morning star and evening star, so Esther’s Hebrew name, Hadassah, means “myrtle,” which has star-shaped flowers, and leaves which are vulvate or boat-shaped, again that fertility symbol that goes back over 30,000 years to engravings on cave walls.

Ishtar was a virgin-warrior, and Esther can be seen as a translation of that—compared to Vashti, she’s a virgin, and she’s a warrior for her people. Ishtar is also the moon goddess, her story described in the moon’s phases (for example, an absent moon depicts Ishtar losing her clothes on the way to the Underworld). In the Megillah, the Queen’s being ordered to appear in the King’s “underworld” nude is a corruption of this.

In the process of mythological assimilation, Ishtar and Isis, over time, take on each other’s traits. Esther’s capacity to overturn the Jews’ fate (the death warrant fatwa put on Jewish heads by Haman) derives from Isis’s famous capacity to keep death away from her faithful followers. And Isis’s well-known boast, “I will overcome Fate,” which she proceeds to do, is echoed in Esther’s valiant statement (“If I perish, I perish,” chapter 4:16) which the Queen utters when she appears before Ahasuerus without his royal permission. Esther, like Isis, overcomes fate, because the King, against the odds, stretches out to her his golden scepter, thereby allowing her to live. For many women, this part of the Megillah tells a deeply moving Jewish story about female courage.

But unlike the goddess Ishtar, who has power in her own right just like a male god, the less ancient Esther (like the Virgin Mary, who can intercede with God but who isn’t God) can only intercede with the King, but has no power for herself.


Gerda Lerner, in The Creation of Patriarchy, argues that, over time the “Great Goddess, whose powers are all-encompassing (mother, warrior, creator, protector), loses her unified dominion, and becomes split off into separate goddesses.” Vashti and Esther are heiresses to this split.

Of course, the split becomes a male projection. Men seek the erotic from one source (Vashti, the whore, the mistress), and nurturance from another (Esther preparing banquets at the stove mother, wife, madonna). Women live with this split, and we thus lose the ability to connect our own sexuality, our own bodies, to the sacred, to the universe.

For women today, the real loss is not as much the suppression of female rites, as it is the deprivation of consciousness. In other words, it is the rare woman these days, in hating her body, who even thinks to make a connection between her body and the Earth’s body, her breasts, vulva, thighs and the Earth’s, her seasons and cycles and the Earth’s. This is a big loss, both in terms of our self-esteem and sense of well-being, and in relation to women’s sense of spiritual connection.

Inanna’s sacred erotic experience which brings on April’s showers and May’s flowers devolves, in the Book of Esther, into Vashti as whore. Queen Esther becomes adored by the rabbis, but Vashti gets split off as a dirty body, coarse nature.

If you have any doubts about the propagandistic effectiveness of Vashti’s utter demonization in rabbinic misogynist texts, here’s an experiment. This Purim at synagogue, count how many girls dress up as Vashti (zero; just a guess). Ask the little Esthers why they aren’t dressed up as little Vashtis. Write down their answers. Ask what Vashti did to make her so “bad.” (My daughter’s friends generally reply that Vashti “said NO to the King.” We discuss whether it is bad to say ‘NO’ to males. Does that mean you should say ‘YES’ to males? Etc.) Invite all the little Esthers to your next Rosh Hodesh event, and help them burn all their old misguided answers in a big black cauldron. Call the event “We’re All Witches” (all right, “We’re All Sisters” will do).


As anyone who has been on the idealized (vs. the devalued) side of the madonna/whore split knows, it’s no picnic being Esther, either. The male rabbis love her (ostensibly because she saved her people), but then the rabbis piggyback other virtues on to the courageous lass just to confuse us: Esther’s tiptoeing wifely style, her dependence on the King, her title of ‘prophetess’ (which is very odd. given that the Megillah is a highly secular book).

Most creepy of all, though, is the rabbis’ lewd, peeping Tom’ish interest in exactly how Esther is beautiful. In the midrash, they literally quantify and rank her beauty vis-a-vis other Jewish women, and descriptions of the exact quality of Esther’s sexual appeal take up many pages. The rabbis sound remarkably like tho.se classic fathers of anorexic girls who feel compelled to comment to their daughters, “You’ve gained weight at college,” or “Your roommate’s a knockout.” These contemporary Esthers, as we all know, get their sad revenge.


they are journeysVashti and Esther, of course, are in coalition, not opposition. The journeys of females—Isis, Demeter, Inanna—are not journeys to find answers, they are journeys to gather something together, to make things whole. Even the Shekhina, the female aspect of the Jewish God, gathers up lost souls. Isis gathers up the parts of Osiris. Demeter searches for her daughter. Our themes, as contemporary women, are the same: to restore something that has been . separated, to reconnect body and soul, to reunite Vashti and Esther, to integrate and reclaim the feminine that has been lost or abandoned in human history.

Esther must circle back to carry Vashti across the threshold into telling her story. And it is not just the girl’s story that must be retold and reheard, it is also our mothers’ stories— Vashti, Esther, and their mothers’ stories, Ishtar, Demeter, and all the rest.

To be nourished with only male images of what’s female and what’s divine and what’s Jewish is to be badly malnourished.

So let us reclaim the womantasch, and tell the whole Megillah.


Continue Reading

  • 1 Comment

September 2, 1976 by

The Lilith Question


After the Holy One created the first human being, Adam, He said: “It is not good for Adam to be alone.” He created a woman, also from the earth, and called her Lilith.

They quarreled immediately. She said: “I will not lie below you.” He said, “I will not lie below you, but above you. For you are fit to be below me and I above you.”

She responded: “We are both equal because we both come from the earth.”

Neither listened to the other. When Lilith realized what was happening, she pronounced the Ineffable Name of God and flew off into the air.

Adam rose in prayer before the Creator, saying, “The woman you gave me has fled from me.” Immediately the Holy One sent three angels after her.

The Holy One said to Adam: “If she wants to return, all the better. If not, she will have to accept that one hundred of her children will die every day.”

The angels went after her, finally locating her in the sea, in the powerful waters in which the Egyptians were destined to perish. They told her what God had said, and she did not want to return (Alphabet of Ben Sira 23a-b)

“And God created the human species in His own image . . . male and female created He them” (Genesis: 1-27)

The most ancient Biblical account of the Creation relates that God created the first man and the first woman at the same time. Jewish legends tell us that this woman was Lilith.

Lilith, we learn, felt herself to be Adam’s equal (“We are both from the earth”) but Adam refused to accept her equality. Lilith, determined to retain her independence and dignity, and choosing loneliness over subservience, flew away from Adam and the Garden of Eden.

Jewish tradition characterized Lilith after her escape from Adam as a demon and embellished this reputation with legend upon legend of her vengeful activities to harm children and women who give birth in rooms without industrial-strength amulets to ward her off. The Alphabet of Ben Sira provides us with the most coherent account of the Lilith myth, embodying features of past legends and providing the basis for future additions. The Alphabet tells of Lilith’s struggle for equality and her escape, Adam’s complaint to God, and the dispatching of three angels to bring his recalcitrant mate back. She refused to return and accepted the punishment of 100 of her “demon children” dying daily, for which she takes revenge. The demonic Lilith overshadowed the original independent Lilith in all subsequent legends to the point where the name Lilith engendered only the association of demon/witch. It is this demonic image which has both reflected and shaped men’s thoughts and feelings about women for generations. But the time for reassessment of the Lilith myth has arrived.

Who is Lilith? Or, more to the point, which is the true, the real Lilith — the rebel against tyranny or the wild-haired vengeful witch? Is Lilith a myth without historical basis, and, if so, why was it necessary to invent her? Or does she embody a clue to our past and if so, what?

Is Lilith a model for Jewish women and if so, can only part of her history constitute the model? Should we forget her revolt because of her later (alleged!) crimes and thus reject her; or should we forget her later crimes and focus only on her revolt because only this is significant; or do both parts have value for us?

All these are aspects of the The Lilith Question.

Let’s begin by taking a close look at Lilith as she appears in the Alphabet of Ben Sira. We immediately see how significant it is that she perceived herself as an equal to Adam, to man; her consciousness of equality was not only high, but it was a given, a natural thought process. Anything less than equality was unthought of and unthinkable, unnatural.

Not only does Lilith immediately recognize tyranny for what it is, but she immediately resists it, too. Nowhere do we see her complain (as Adam does); she states her case and takes risks for her dignity. She is courageous and decisive, willing to accept the consequences of her action.

Her strength of character and commitment to self is inspiring. For independence and freedom from tyranny she is prepared to forsake the economic security of the Garden of Eden and to accept loneliness and exclusion from society. Her strength of character also comes through in her taking total responsibility for her life. Note that she does not appeal to God to straighten out her relationship with Adam. She draws on her own strength; she is self-nurturing, self-sustaining.

Lilith is a powerful female. She radiates strength, assertiveness; she refuses to cooperate in her own victimization. By acknowledging Lilith’s revolt and even in telling of her vengeful activities, myth-makers also acknowledge Lilith’s power. Even if we accept Lilith’s vengeful activities (and whether or not to accept them is a subject we will deal with later), we can regard them as having originated in self-defense against male domination and as a consequence of having to fight on alone, century after century, for her independence. What men are saying, really is that Lilith “fights dirty.” But this is a meaningless concept designed to keep women from developing and utilizing their strength to fight, period. Lilith, it must be emphasized, is a fighter and a fighter in a good cause.

Finally, besides having physical power, she has spiritual power and knowledge. She utters God’s secret name and flies off to the Red Sea (significantly, the scene of the Jews’ transition from the security of bondage in Egypt to the insecurity of freedom in the desert). Adam did not know or utter the Ineffable Name. But Lilith is a knower of secret wisdom.

We must bear in mind here that the Lilith stories, like the rest of our tradition, were written by men. We know that most of whatever women have invented or created has been destroyed or discounted, and very little has come down to us, certainly nothing in its pure, original form. We must consider the possibility that the story of Lilith’s revolt may be one of women’s creations which was told by mother to daughter over many generations before surfacing in the Alphabet and then being contaminated with male bias.

The Lilith story may be a clue to our own history, reflecting some assertive, rebellious behavior of women in the past. Lilith may represent a whole group, a whole generation; or she may reflect the existence of a type of woman who appeared in generation after generation, a woman who would not be dominated, a woman who demanded equality with man. Or she may embody the thoughts and feelings of women about their equality, even if they could not act on them in their generation. With so few materials about women, particularly of this nature, it would be unthinkable for us to let Lilith be forgotten simply because of the male biases grafted onto the story of her revolt.

These legends of Lilith-as-demon, the vengeful female witch, are, of course, not unique to Jewish culture and tradition. Many scholars theorize that vengeful female deities or demons, like the Greek hecatae, represent the vestiges of the dying Matriarchy or are an attempt by men to discredit the Matriarchy.

What we have to explore are the uniquely Jewish aspects of the Lilith story, and how they relate to the Jewish experience, to Jewish history. After all, Jews lived among many different peoples and were subject to a bombardment of cultural and religious concepts and myths from all sides. What they accepted is important because it shows us what Jews perceived as necessary and appropriate to Jewish life and its continuity. How they transmuted what they accepted is also significant for this reason.

The account of Lilith’s revolt in the Alphabet is, to the best of my knowledge, intrinsically Jewish; no non-Jewish source tells of a female struggle for equality or gives it as a reason for the vengeful behavior of a female demon. This is especially important to us in exploring how the Lilith myth connects with our unique history.

What is particularly intriguing about the Lilith myth is that most of the legends about her developed in Exile, either after the Babylonian Exile (586 B.C.E.) and certainly after the Roman deportations of Jews into captivity (70 C.E.). Lilith appears in the Babylonian Talmud in rudimentary form; her character is developed in the Zohar and other medieval mystical works. No scholar has dated the Alphabet of Ben Sira but all agree it was written in the Gaonic period, before 1000 C.E. The Babylonian Talmud, Zohar, Alphabet are all texts written or compiled outside Eretz Israel presumably after 70 C.E., although they may draw on earlier legends, oral or written. [See article by Judy Weinberg.]

The destruction of the First Jewish Commonwealth in Eretz Israel and the deportation of most of the population to Babylonia was a shock; the destruction of the Second Jewish Commonwealth was atraumatic watershed in Jewish history. It marked the Jews’ break from life in their own homeland, to existence as an international minority with no control over their own destiny. For the next 2,000 years (until 1948), Jews would live at the fringes of societies, marginal to their socio-economic structures, their history, culture, religion, politics and passions; subject to the whim of the ruling class; to summary expulsion; to persecution by the law and the lawless; to humiliation; and to murder.

Exile was understood and perceived by Jews as a threat to Jewish survival that had to be endured and overcome.

When the Jews went into Exile, they decided that the only way to survive without a land was through study (create one, two, three Yavnehs, Gittin 56b). Halachah — Jewish law — became the constitution of a Jewish “government in exile” under which scholars made basic decisions. The model role for Jewish men was to be scholars (this model, begun earlier, reached its apotheosis during the Exile).

Even before the Exile, Jewish society was patriarchal. The role of woman under patriarchy is that of enabler. The woman is programmed to submit to and please men, doing whatever it is that men of a particular time or place demand in order to enable them to do their thing and to ensure their “manhood” and power. Part of being an enabler involves withdrawing from the areas of activity that men have marked off as their domain and which, thus, in the absence of women, come to define “manhood.” Enabling also means altruism: doing what is in the man’s interest, the family’s interests or society’s interests, not one’s own.

The Bible portrays women in various positive model enabler roles. In the Exile, it became even more important that Jewish women continue to function as enablers because of the threat to Jewish survival. The enabler role expanded to include doing everything to make possible men’s study of the Torah. Lilith is the embodiment of the woman who refuses to be an enabler.

Elizabeth Janeway, in her pioneering study Man’s World, Woman’s Place, points out that every positive role has a negative flip side, a “shadow role.” The shrew, she writes, is the shadow role of the public pleasing woman; the bitch, of the private loving woman; the witch, of the all-giving mother. Negative roles support the patriarchal order just as positive ones do; the positive ones arc promises, the negative ones, threats.

Lilith is a negative, shadow role, the flip side of Eve. Eve is the enabler (“helpmeet”), Lilith, the disabler; Eve, the “mother of all life,” Lilith, a destroyer of life. In creating the Lilith shadow role, men are telling a woman that if she is independent, assertive, free, as Lilith was, she’ll end up a frigid nymphomaniac childless witch.

It is especially significant that Lilith, the only important negative female role model invented by Jews, was primarily an Exile invention. Why was her creation as a negative role model so important at this particular juncture in history?

Let’s look at the unifying theme behind the three “crimes” of the post-rebellion Lilith. She allegedly: kills child-bearing (pregnant and birthing) women; injures newborn babes (boys until the bris, girls until 20 days of age); excites men in their sleep and takes their sperm to manufacture demon children to replace her own. Of all the indeterminate number of qualities a negative role could embody it was precisely these three that were incorporated in Lilith. All three of these embody several crucial male fears: loss of potency and “manhood,” loss of a woman’s companionship and emotional support, and threat to survival. While all these male fears have been embodied separately in various non-Jewish myths, their coalescence into one Jewish mythical character at this point in history is not hard to understand. The Exile was a stress situation in which Jewish men feared the loss of manhood, the destruction of their morale, and the extinction of the Jewish people.

In patriarchal societies where a man’s manhood is defined in whole or part by his ability to father children, the fear that Lilith (woman) can prevent men from having children in one way or another means that she robs them of their manhood. In their powerless condition in Exile, Jewish men needed to prove their maleness to differentiate themselves from women, the group whose condition of ultimate powerlessness they feared being reduced to.

Fathering children also guaranteed survival of the Jewish people, something that was threatened in the Exile and that Jews were anxious about. Another fear was woman’s power to withhold herself from man, either by refusing comfort or even her very presence (Lilith actually left Adam). In the stress situation of the Exile, Jewish men may have been especially anxious that women would not fulfill their role of providers of emotional support. All these fears’ of Jewish men were projected onto woman as if she held the power to make them into reality by refusing to stay in the subservient enabler role.

When the Exile reduced Jews to subservience, it was a discontinuity for Jewish men, a condition they were unfamiliar with, a situation in which they felt they had lost all their bearings — in which the whole order of the universe was turned upside-down.

For Jewish women, like all women, it was not different in kind, only in degree — more stress, more problems, but not a discontinuity: the real ruler was still at home. Perhaps they were therefore better able to cope with the practical realities than were the men.

As the men needed them more and perceived their strength, they may have feared that the women would use their strength in their own self-interest and stop being enablers. It had to be made forcefully clear to the women that their strength was tolerable — even desirable — as long as it did not connect with power.

We can ask here, could it be that there was also some rebellion in the women’s ranks at this time that also contributed to the men’s need to threaten them with a negative role myth? Janeway writes that negative roles often appear in times when there is social change and when power is no longer bound by customary limits. New roles are called for but at the same time, people feel nervous because they do not know what the new role player expects of them. They want to “separate themselves from the troublemaker and hold him at a distance. The means they find at hand is to call up the negative shadow role.”

Perhaps women did become more assertive at this time because their situation demanded it. Men must have realized that this assertiveness could be harnessed to altruism, thus creating an even better enabler than before. Thus began the role model of the altruistic-assertive woman, personified in Esther, also an Exile creation. Actually it is Esther, not Eve, who is the flip side of Lilith, the nonaltruistic-assertive woman.

Megillat (Scroll of) Esther, which tells the story of Purim, is an excellent source for the substantiation of some of the assumptions we have been dealing with here: the threat to Jewish survival in the Exile, and the role of the Jewish woman as an altruistic-assertive enabler.

The megillah tells how Jews in Persia were apparently leading a good life but actually lived at the edge of a volcano. When the king, persuaded by his premier that the Jews were bad for his Empire, put his approval on a pogrom, there was nothing the Jews could really do. What saved the Jews? Mostly Esther’s action, first in becoming Queen, which necessitated her living apart from her own people and being a closet Jew, all because her cousin, Mordechai, thought it best (altruism, self-sacrifice); and then, taking her life in her hands by asking the king to save her people (assertiveness). Esther’s altruistic assertiveness, which is obviously “good for the Jews,” is sharply contrasted in the megillah with the nonaltruistic assertiveness of her predecessor, Vashti, who lost her crown (some even say her head, too) for refusing to obey the king. The punishment of both Vashti and Lilith states, in effect: Jewish women, be enablers… or else.

One final word about Lilith as an Exile creation. The real threat to the Jews, as we know, was not that women would rebel, but the Exile itself. For it is the Exile that made Jews powerless and put them at the mercy of the rulers, on the fringes of society and into roles that turned the masses against them. Exile is a threat, but the Exile cultures — or more accurately, the adoption of Exile cultures (assimilation) — is a seductive solution that in most periods was held out by non-Jews as an inducement to fame, fortune and sometimes even life itself. Many Jews were seduced by assimilation, only to find it sterile and unsatisfying.

Lilith is seductive but unsatisfying. She saps a man’s “life fluid,” a metaphor for strength; she destroys his possibility for achieving immortality. She attacks Jews when they’re most vulnerable or unaware. She robs them of their power and of their future. Lilith is thus in some ways a metaphor for the Exile itself.

We have seen how the creation of Lilith as a negative role model served to coalesce the fears of the men and project them onto the woman, thus reflecting a fear of woman’s power to refuse to be the enabler; and to warn all women of the fate awaiting a woman who refuses to be an enabler.

Is there anything we can learn from all the negative portrayals of Lilith? Are they of any use to us? Should we reject them outright?

Ahad Ha’am, founder of “spiritual Zionism,” once wrote an essay called “Half-Consolation.” He asked: how can Jews know if what the non-Jews say about Jewish inferiority isn’t really true? Ahad Ha’am cited the blood libel. Look at it, he said. If non-Jews can believe this dangerous nonsense, they’re wrong about Jews’ “inferiority,” too.

Similarly, as we struggle for our liberation, we hear men insult and vilify feminists as man-haters and child-haters, destroyers of the family in particular and Jewish life in general. Is this, we might ask tremblingly, could this be true? So it’s not at all bad to have in front of us the Lilith story with all its ugly smears. How candid it is about why Lilith is punished! If men could have invented these hateful smears — like non-Jews invented the blood libel — if there is so much hostility toward women inside their addled brains, then there is no need to think there is any truth in the latest pseudo-sociological smears of feminists. Women need not fear that if they become assertive and independent, they will no longer be “women” but monstrosities, as men say Lilith became. Such smears and lies are, of course, something we should expect. Lilith is a role-breaker and, as Janeway points out, role-breakers should be prepared to find themselves “attacked, regarded as unattractive and frightening [and running] into all kinds of hostility.”

Knowing all this now we have the choice of how to look at Lilith, or rather, at what aspect of her character to focus on when we look at her. In doing so, we can bear in mind that mythological characters have never remained constant or immutable; they are always changing in response to human need. The character of Lilith changed — but so did that of Elijah — from the fire-eating prophet of First Commonwealth times to the latter-day jolly beggar who wandered from shtetl to shtetl, pack on back. There is nothing in tradition which dictates the acceptance of either the later Elijah or of the earlier Elijah as the “real” Elijah.

Furthermore, Jewish tradition has been very flexible in what it seeks to emphasize in role models. King David is a much-beloved character in Jewish lore. But tradition could easily have emphasized his immoral personal behavior and cavalier political maneuverings instead of his love of God and the Jewish people. Had this been done, David could have become a negative role model of adulterer and Machiavellian politician. Jewish tradition, however, chose to forget and forgive those reprehensible aspects of his character because it did not regard them as intrinsic to his soul.

It is both necessary and within our tradition to use the same approach with Lilith, bearing in mind the aspect of human need as a factor in focusing on specific aspects of a historical or mythological character. What is intrinsic to Lilith, what is the most central aspect of her character is her struggle for independence, her courage in taking risks, her commitment to the equality of woman and man based on their creation as equals by God. It is this Lilith who is faithful to her innermost self, her nature and her principles.

The other aspects of the Lilith character can in no way be considered central to her very essence, because they do not flow out of a commitment to self but are a reaction to an outside event: Adam’s refusal to accept her as an equal. Had Adam accepted her equality, these negative traits would be absent; in fact, there would be no war between the sexes at all, a war based on men’s unwillingness to accept women’s equality.

The traits attributed to Lilith after she lost her struggle for equality are tainted with male bias and fear. Moreover, Lilith’s post-revolt “character” cannot be accepted because it is not a character at all but a hodge-podge of negative traits that contradict each other (seductive/frigid; mother of demons/sterile) and thus cancel each other out. We can relegate all these contradictory traits to the realm of differing speculations as opposed to a definite image that all agreed upon. We can thus do what Jewish tradition does with King David: accept the essence, glorify the essence, and reject the later additions as contradictory, contaminated by fear and distrust, and not central to the intrinsic nature of the character of Lilith.

Finally, we must ask ourselves: which Lilith is closer to the spirit of the first account in Genesis, the account that tells us how God first created human beings — the female who accepts the idea of equality and fights for it, or the female who has lost sight of the original struggle and persists in seeking revenge? There is no doubt that the Lilith who claimed her equal birthright with Adam is closer in spirit to both the original Biblical account and to Jewish women of today.

Jews have periodically created movements to “return to the source” of Judaism, and Jewish history is replete with such efforts. When we struggle for equality of woman and man and see Lilith as the personification of that struggle, we are part of this tradition of returning to the source and building from its pure, uncontaminated foundation. This pure beauty is contained in the words “And God created the human species. . . man and woman created He them.” The equality of man and woman is embodied in that sentence. This equality must be embodied in our lives if humankind and all the values we hold dear are to survive.

Aviva Cantor-Zuckoff is a founding member of the LILITH Editorial Board, the Jewish Feminist Organization, and the Socialist Zionist Union.

 Copyright © Aviva Cantor 2012. All rights reserved.

Aviva Cantor, a journalist, originated Lilith and served as the magazine’s Founding Co-Editor during its first decade. She is the author of Jewish Women, Jewish Men: The Legacy of Patriarchy in Jewish Life, a feminist exploration of Jewish history, culture and psychology (Harper, 1995), and of the self-published The Egalitarian Hagada.

Continue Reading