The Lilith Institute

Who We Are :

D'vorah J. Grenn, Ph.D. is founder and director of The Lilith Institute (1997), a San Francisco Bay Area-based producer of women's spirituality/study circles, public and private rituals and a variety of lecture series. She served as Chair of the Women's Spirituality MA Program at Sofia University (formerly the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology) in Palo Alto, California, and was the founding kohenet/priestess of Mishkan Shekhinah, a movable sanctuary honoring the Sacred Feminine in all spiritual traditions. Dr. Grenn’s dissertation, “For She Is A Tree of Life: Shared Roots Connecting Women to Deity” was an inquiry into Jewish women’s religious/cultural identities, beliefs and ritual practices among the South African Lemba and United States women. Her other writings include:

Lilith’s Fire: Reclaiming our Sacred Lifeforce (Universal Publishers, 2000)

“How Women Construct And Are Formed By Spirit: She Who Is Everywhere In Women’s Voices, Kol Isha, Maipfi A Vhafumakadzi” (She Is Everywhere, Volume I, Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, ed. 2005)

“Creator Woman - Deity, Snake and Life-Giving Waters: The Active Female Principle in the Fertile Crescent, Carthage and South Africa” – She Is Everywhere, Volume II (Annette Williams, Karen Villanueva and Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, eds.; Authors Choice Press, 2007.)

“Claiming The Title Kohenet: Examining Goddess Judaism and the Role of the Priestess” – A paper presented at “Women and the Divine” Conference, Liverpool and later published in the Women in Judaism Multidisciplinary Journal, 2008 (available at http://wjudaism.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/wjudaism/search/results )

“Lilith’s Fire: Examining Original Sources of Power, Re-defining Sacred Texts as Transformative Theological Practice” - Feminist Theology journal, September 2007.

Her most recent book is an anthology of the sacred writings of 72 women from 25 different spiritual traditions: Talking To Goddess, a collection of blessings, prayer-poems, chants, meditations and invocations (available through www.lulu.com.) Comments and discussion are welcome on the blog

Dr. Grenn co-produced the annual Women’s Rites of Spring Festival in Napa with Kahuna Leilani Birely, founder of Daughters of the Goddess since its inception in 2004, through 2007, and co-sponsored a Voice of the Spirit lecture series in Napa with the Women's Heritage Project prior to that.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS to a few of the women without whom this work would have looked quite different:

Thanks to Judy Grahn for giving us a new origin story, and for her extraordinary vision and insight into human behavior. Judy, internationally renowned lesbian feminist activist, poet and author, created Metaformic Theory and teaches a new form of consciousness which can change all our lives. Her books are treasured, including The Common Woman poems; She Who; Another Mother Tongue; Blood, Bread and Roses; Queen of Swords; The Judy Grahn Reader and more; she is editor of Metaformia: A Journal of Menstruation and Culture (http://www.metaformia.org,)

Thanks to Dianne E. Jenett for her leadership, compassion, discernment and courage; for co-creating a powerful feminist research method, Organic Inquiry, together with the late beloved Dorothy Ettling, Jennifer Clements and Lisa Shields; and for co-founding, with Judy Grahn, Serpentina, Women-Centered Research for Everybody (www.serpentina.com), a container big enough to hold us all.  

And thanks to Kris Brandenburger, educator par excellence and author, "THE REDDEST ROSE UNFOLDS: a girl's own fish stories" -- for her feminist consciousness, restless intellect, patient encouragement and wisdom over the years.

Much appreciation also goes to Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, Blu Greenberg, shamanic healer Vicki Noble (www.motherpeace.com), feminist peace activist and visionary Starhawk (www.starhawk.org and www.reclaiming.org), feminist historian and artist Max Dashu (www.suppressedhistories.net), change agents Cosi Fabian, Krissy Keefer (www.dancebrigade.org/) and others too numerous to name here, for their pioneering work in reconfiguring our world.

For years, these women have acted according to their consciences as they modeled new ways of thinking and positive social change, following their visions and manifesting their values even when doing so put them in jeopardy or caused them to be ostracized by those with narrower minds. They, and many other cutting-edge scholars, writers, artists, priestesses and spiritual leaders across different spiritual traditions and disciplines, are part of an ongoing paradigm shift.

 

A BRIEF HISTORY OF LILITH

The mythical figure of the 'dark goddess' Lilith—a symbol of the independent, rebellious, sensual, courageous, passionate, rageful potential in us all--has been as much a source of inspiration as she has been a flame igniting my curiosity since I was first introduced to her in 1985. For this, I thank an extraordinary teacher, Rabbi Bernard M. Zlotowitz of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

According to Jewish legend, Lilith was Adam's first wife and Eve's predecessor. In the most commonly-told version of the tale, she is made from the earth, as is Adam. For this reason, she refuses to lie beneath Adam sexually, and when he insists, she mutters God’s secret name, leaves the Garden of Eden and Adam, and flies off to the Reed Sea [today called the Red Sea] to live her own life. After Adam complains to God about being alone and Eve comes into the picture, we learn—in traditional patriarchal recountings—that she is warned against the ‘evil’ Lilith and feels Lilith is a rival competing for Adam’s affections. In a contemporary feminist midrash or reinterpretation of this legend by Judith Plaskow, however, we see Lilith painted as Eve's counterpart, confidante and friend (Womanspirit Rising, 1979).

Lilith is consistently portrayed in many cultures first as a demon, who might have been good or bad, then as a child-killer and temptress; as a woman embodying or representing the devil and often personified by Eden’s serpent. In literary and iconographic representations, she is clearly depicted as symbolizing the "evil" inherent in all women. Yet many contemporary women see in her the embodiment of the Goddess, Great Creatrix, Queen of Heaven and Earth, Goddess of Love and War, designations she shares with her counterparts Inanna, Ishtar, Asherah, Anath and Isis. As a goddess of love, beauty and things erotic she is akin to the Greek Aphrodite and the Roman Venus; in her wildness and thirst for justice she and Bhadra Kali, the Hindu goddess, could be thought of as sisters. The question of how bloodthirsty she may or may not be—and whether the role of avenger is a positive or negative one—remains an open one. There is also the question, which has gone largely unexplored, of the royal or divine status which may be signified by her serpentine crown and the rings she holds, usually recognized as symbolizing Sumerian royal authority. "She also holds the ring and rod of power. Thus she joins the first rank of gods" (Johnson, 1988).

Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, in her landmark work Black Madonnas (1993), calls Adam’s treatment of Lilith "the first violence done to women". If one reads this as rape, as some writers do (Philips, 1984; Ostriker, 1993), one begins to view the Garden of Eden as more prison than paradise. No wonder, then, that Lilith left Adam and Eden; in so doing--as Aviva Cantor wrote in the first issue of LILITH Magazine (1972)—Lilith chose loneliness over subservience.

The patriarchy's treatment of Lilith has been similar to its treatment of Eve. Both have been demonized - Lilith for her independence and open sexuality, and Eve for her quest for knowledge.

We can trace Lilith's development through both art and text; through mythological as well as talmudic, pseudepigraphic and apocryphal sources. They include: the 3rd millenium story of Gilgamesh and the Huluppu Tree; a 2400 BCE text referring to a Sumerian storm demon; the famous terracotta relief of Lilith known as the Burley plaque from circa 2300 BCE; in Babylonian legends dating from roughly 1800 BC; in Aramaic incantation texts found in bowls around 600 CE in Nippur, Babylonia (Iraq), Arslan Tash (Syria) and Persia (Iran); in Rabbinic literature, midrashim and folklore from the 5th to the 12th Centuries CE, in 15th and 16th Century European sculpture and woodcuts, in Kabbalistic sources beginning in the 12th and appearing through the 17th Century CE, in literature carrying her through to the present day. The only actual Biblical reference to Lilith or ‘the liliths’ is in the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah 34:14); whether or not it truly represents this mysterious figure is a matter of conjecture.

I find Lilith, as both symbol and mythological figure, endlessly fascinating. When I first learned of her I was in corporate life; when I returned to school to pursue an MA degree, she rapidly became the focus of my thesis: "Lilith as Everywoman in Ancient Text & Modern Midrash: Transforming a Demonized Eros". Whichever legends about her one chooses to believe, for me she symbolizes both the best and the worst in women (and men), and shows us the desirable, mysterious, pro/creative, regenerative and healing powers of the dark or unknown as well as the socially unacceptable or amoral attributes of ‘the dark’.