Although she isn’t mentioned explicitly in the Hebrew Bible, Kabbalah teaches us of the existence of Lilith; the first woman who existed before Eve and was Adam’s first wife. The Kabbalistic literature, describes Lilith as having fallen out with Adam and subsequently vanishing from the Garden of Eden by speaking the secret name of God. It is only after this point that God creates Eve.
Lilith is described as an evil, unchaste, demonic figure working with the Satan. In more recent times feminist writers have embraced the figure of Lilith as a symbol of the struggle against patriarchy. However, to properly understand who Lilith is, its crucial to understand what is really meant by the terms good and evil.
Good and Evil in the Kabbalah
According to a traditional Jewish understanding the best way to grasp the essential meaning of an idea is to see where it first appears in the Torah. The word tovmeaning good first appears in the Hebrew Bible in Genesis 1:4, where we are told that the light is good. What are we supposed to understand from that?
The Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto, teaches that goodness is “giving of one’s self to another”. The reason that light is described as good is because it adds something of itself to everything it comes into contact with and in doing so vastly alters the situation for the better. This is what it means to be good.
The Problem of Evil
The Ramchal teaches that goodness is the reason that God created the world, to give of His goodness to another. This is based in part on logical derivation of various Jewish teachings. According to this way of thinking, God needs nothing; He is complete and since there is no benefit to God from the creation the only meaningful alternative is to say that the beneficiaries of the creation are the creatures themselves.
Yet if G-d wanted to give of Himself to another, a question which arises is why God created a world in which evil exists? Philosophically, this is known as the problem of evil and it’s a question posed to all monotheistic religions. Jewish tradition has a unique answer and its most clearly explained by the Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto (the Ramchal), in his book “The Way of God”.
The Ramchal states that since God is the source of his own goodness, the only way He can give His good to another is if that other also has the potential to be the source of their own goodness and must create it themselves.
If we are given this potential to be the source of our own goodness, we must also have the potential to be evil. According to this view, evil is not a power over which we have no control but rather an inclination to be overcome. Indeed the Hebrew word for Satan translates as adversary.
The presence of both good and evil are necessary. If there weren’t two inclinations or we couldn’t exercise free will to do good, then we wouldn’t be the source of our own goodness. God would not have given His good but another lower type of good.
So evil in the Jewish tradition is seen as the absence of good. This may sound like a weak statement when one considers the damage that is caused by evil acts such as murder or child abuse, yet this is not a correct understanding. Just as the presence of something can bring great benefits so its absence can have catastrophic consequences. Just as drought isn’t merely the absence of rain, but also the terrible effects of starvation, death and the suffering of hunger, so the absence of goodness has awful consequences.
Lilith and Evil
So what does it mean to say that Lilith symbolizes evil? It means that Lilith is representative of the inner struggle we have to be the source of our good; the inclination which is to be overcome. Perhaps that is why Lilith is also strongly associated with sexuality because the sexual drive is one of our strongest urges and this serves as metaphor which is easily understood by almost everyone.
Remember, according to the Zohar, Adam argued with Lilith and what is argument other than two forces confronting one another. The sages teach that the source of the arguments between Adam and Lilith was that Lilith had absolute standards. Since she demanded adherence to absolutes, she couldn’t help Adam because she refused to accommodate his failings. It’s no wonder their marriage didn’t work out!