Fear No Man: The Image of Lilith in the Jewish Museum Collection
As the Jewish Museum approaches the end of Women’s History Month and the #5WomenArtists campaign that raises awareness of women in the arts, we decided to revisit one of the most iconoclastic women in Judaism: Lilith.
Most people know the biblical story of Adam and Eve. God created Adam from the earth, created Eve from one of his ribs, and placed them both in the Garden of Eden. Then came a snake, an apple, and the expulsion from paradise. Less frequently known is the figure of Lilith — created alongside Adam — who refused to submit to his will, and fled from his control. Her story is told in the Midrash, a collection of Jewish commentaries and interpretations of the Hebrew Bible, and in the Zohar, a book of Jewish mysticism. When Lilith rebelled against Adam and fled, God created Eve as a replacement.
Lillith’s story has been transformed from one of a rebellious demon sent to torture humanity, to a modern feminist icon celebrated for her refusal to submit to the patriarchy. This transformation makes Lilith a particularly fascinating subject for artists, from historical Judaica to contemporary art. Examples of each can be found in the Jewish Museum collection.
Midrashic literature goes on to discuss Lilith dozens of times and throughout the narratives, she gains greater and stranger powers. Lilith is described as a demonic figure that is blamed for everything, from giving Eve the apple in the Garden of Eden, to murdering babies in their sleep.
To that end, it became a popular practice in Judaism to create an amulet for a baby’s bed that offered protection from Lilith’s vengeance, such as this mid-19th century amulet from the Ottoman Empire in the Jewish Museum collection. These amulets were worn by new mothers and offered as guard posts on the cribs of sleeping babies.
Lilith’s status as an ostracized force of evil was transformed as 20th century Jewish feminists began to claim their own power of authority within Judaism in roles once reserved for men, such as rabbis. Lilith’s story was reborn from a legacy of destruction, into one of empowerment. As women began to claim their place in liberal Judaism influenced by feminism in the 1960s and beyond, Lilith’s story of attrition changed into a heroine’s tale of a woman who refused to submit to male authority.
Contemporary artists too have embraced Lilith’s story, giving rise to a new visual language that celebrates the feminist Jewish legend. Painter Melissa Meyer, whose paintings are characterized by elongated, curvaceous brushstrokes, uses colors of red and pink to impart a feeling of feminine power in her 1988 painting Lilith. Artist Alice Aycock’s 1998 work Babylonian Devil’s Trap with Magical Inscription for Protection Against Lilith is another example that takes the traditional inscription in Lilith’s amulets and transforms it into a beautiful object of Jewish text written in Hebrew letters.
For Lilith, whose story began with the written word, it seems a fitting transition from being demonized through the narrative in Midrashic literature to being celebrated by the contemporary art of Jewish women.
— Ruth Andrew Ellenson, Editorial Brand Manager, The Jewish Museum