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Kabbalists believe Lilith’s mission began with her expulsion from Eden. Determined to populate the world with demons instead of men, she set out to kill babies and expectant mothers. To advance the spread of demons over men, she also entered the homes of sleeping men and had sex with them, harvesting their seed to fertilize her womb.

Analysis

The story of Lilith has been used by kabbalists to explain to explain two mysterious and sometimes troubling human phenomena: fatal childbirth and nocturnal emissions. The Bible says that the pain of childbirth is Eve’s punishment for eating of the apple from the Tree of Knowledge, but kabbalists have a different view. They use Lilith to explain why even virtuous women and innocent babies sometimes die during childbirth—Lilith attacks them. Some kabbalistic legends attribute the phenomenon of nocturnal emission, in which men ejaculate in their sleep, to Lilith’s sneaky demonic deeds. As Lilith passed from man to man, arousing each in their sleep, she slyly stole their sperm for use in creating more demons. But because Lilith’s human-demon offspring were an impure mix, they could not survive.

Lilith’s bad reputation has been reversed in recent years as she has become a feminist icon, a symbol of female strength and independence. One Jewish feminist magazine is named Lilith, and for many years a summer festival featuring an all-female lineup of performers, called Lilith Fair, gave sold-out concerts nationwide. The women who have tried to reclaim Lilith as a heroine emphasize her spirit of rebellion: rather than subjugate herself to Adam, Lilith risked resisting, which led to a life of power and independence fired by the thirst for revenge.

Summary: Gilgul

Gilgul refers the life of the soul after death. Kabbalists believe in reincarnation, the rebirth of a soul into a new human body, and transmigration, the movement from one form of life to another. Kabbalah’s Sefer ha-Bahir says human souls can only migrate into the bodies of other human beings, but kabbalists over the years have expanded upon this limited understanding of gilgul. Some now believe the human soul can enter any living being, plant, and animal, a view that closely resembles the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation. Some think only the souls of sinners reappear time and time again as punishment, whereas righteous kabbalists ascend to Ein Sof. Others maintain that only righteous souls are recycled through generations, with the aim of improving the world.

Luria argued that everything changes form constantly as energy cycles across the universe. Energy from the sefirot descends into the human realm, human souls rise up to the realm of the sefirot and back again. Luria believed all human souls are pieces of Adam Kadmon, Ein Sof’s blueprint for humans. He described gilgul as the process of human souls trying to assemble themselves to match and rebuild the form of Adam Kadmon. Restoring Adam Kadmon became a key facet of tikkun, the process of mending Ein Sof’s shattered vessels of energy. As human souls triy to remake themselves in Adam Kadmon’s image, they help to restore wholeness to Ein Sof, bringing the universe back into harmony following the catastrophe of creation.

Analysis

Gilgul should be viewed as a policy of punishment and mercy. Though it may seem unfair that righteous people could be condemned by inheriting the recycled sinful souls of others, it’s important to remember that Kabbalah is a religion based on patience and continuity. The suffering of a righteous person for the past sins of his soul was a step toward redemption for that soul. Whereas some religions condemn sinners to eternal hellfire after one mistake, Kabbalah offers every misguided soul further chances via gilgul. Gilgul also rewards the souls of the righteous by reusing them in the bodies of sinners. That way gilgul spreads goodness and rewards the righteous by bestowing good souls with endless life.

Gilgul was also used to explain a few other human phenomena. If a man’s soul transmigrated into a woman’s body, for example, the woman would become unable to bear children. When an infant mysteriously died, gilgul explained the death as a punishment of the parents for their sins in a past life. A Jewish soul passing into the body of a gentile explained why some gentiles were eager to convert to Judaism. The punishment for performing forbidden sexual acts was transmigration into an animal.

In Luria’s slightly more complex version of gilgul, every soul has a place in the universe. After the crisis of creation, the order of souls fell into disarray. Souls therefore recycle and migrate in an attempt to restore order, like puzzle pieces trying to fit themselves back together. Luria believed that each person could be composed of fragments of different souls, and that only rarely would new souls enter the universe. Luria also viewed gilgul as a method of redemption for sinful souls, rather than as punishment: sinners’ souls were recycled in an effort to give them a second chance to act righteously. As souls approached perfection, each would return to its rightful place in the universe, helping to restore the body of Adam Kadmon and the wholeness of Ein Sof.