All posts by Jill Hammer

Facing the Angel:  Samson’s Mother as a Model for Feminist Spiritual Practice

Dedicated to Kohenet Andrea Jacobson of blessed memory, a deep practitioner of priestess presence

I have always loved obscure biblical women.  My wife, who was educated in a yeshiva, marvels at the names and tales I mention to her; she’s never heard of them.  Telling their stories, for me, is a form of resistance.  They may be minor to the text, but to me they are main characters.  As a feminist midrashist, I love digging into a text to find out more, to discover a radical take, to imagine a first-person perspective.  As a contemporary spiritual teacher on the trail of the ancient priestesses, I find priestess role models in these hints of story.  As the Jewish holiday season ends and we return to finding the sacred in the mundane, I want to share about a character I love, who doesn’t even have a name, but who, to me, teaches about being present, and meeting the mystery wherever we go. 

“Manoah’s Sacrifice” by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 1641.( Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain, PD-1923)

Judges 13 begins with a traditional biblical scene of annunciation.  The wife of Manoah does not have a child.  An angel appears to her to say that she will bear a son.  He must be a nazir or nazirite and will be a hero, delivering his people from their enemies. A nazir is a kind of self-appointed priest, who has taken a vow not to drink wine or cut one’s hair, and who, like the high priest of the Temple, is forbidden to be near dead human bodies.  Such a person’s hair is holy and, at the end of the nazirite service, will be offered on an altar.  Both men and women could be nazirites; indeed, the nazirite vow seems to be an avenue where women can become holy.  We can see there is patriarchal anxiety about this avenue to priestesshood; Numbers 30 is full of laws about how fathers and husbands can annul the vows of daughters and wives, which likely is partly concerned about women becoming nezirot (sing. nezirah) of their own volition.

The wife of Manoah first appears as a traditional female character—she has no name, though Jewish tradition later gives her the name Tzlelponit or Hatzlelponi, which means “faces the  shadow” or “faces the clarity.” (This already makes me think of her as a meditation teacher.) Yet the angel tells the wife of Manoah that she is to become a nezirah for the duration of her pregnancy: “You must not drink strong drink or eat anything unclean.” (Judges 13:4-5). This command is framed in relationship to her son, who will be a nazir from birth, and it enroles her as a sanctuary, a sacred space for her child to grow.

A depiction of Manoah’s wife, a biblical figure sometimes identified with Hazzelelponi.

But the woman here is not just a vessel.  The story moves from being a stereotypical annunciation to becoming really interesting.  The woman goes home and tells her husband that a man “like an angel of God” came to her, and some of what he said (she doesn’t tell the part about their son being a hero).  The husband either a) does not trust her, b) feels left out and wants to be included, or c) is something of an anxious person and wants to be sure of the instructions.  He prays for the “man of God” to return and give him the instructions directly—“let him instruct us how to act.”  But when the angel returns, it is not to the couple, but to the woman sitting alone in the field.  (What is she doing there?  Planting? Praying? When the rabbis see Isaac walking alone in a field, they assume he is meditating.) The message is for her and only her. 

Wanting to fulfill her husband’s wish to meet the angel, Tzlelponi runs and gets her husband.  She seems to feel completely comfortable that the angel will wait. I can’t help but see this as a very funny scene.  Manoach follows his wife, puffing, and asks the angel for instructions.  The angel says (with what I imagine to be a patient but annoyed tone): “The woman must be careful about all the things I told her.” In other words, she has already been instructed; her husband merely needs to listen to her.  This is a rather extraordinary biblical moment, in which the woman is the prophet and the man is to receive her message. Scholar Yairah Amit writes that “’followed’ should not be understood as merely following her physically but rather in the sense of ‘guided by her words and counsel.’” (Yairah Amit, “Manoah Promptly Followed His Wife’ (Judges 13:11): On the Place of the Woman in Birth Narratives,” in Atalya Brenner’s A Feminist Companion to Judges, p. 146-155).

Manoach, wanting to be polite, offers the angel a meal because he thinks the being is human.  He asks the angel’s name.  The angel (again I imagine a patient but annoyed tone) says that any offering should be made to God, and adds “Why do you ask my name, given that it is wondrous?” (13:15-18)  Tzlelponi understands from the beginning that she’s seen an angel; Manoach thinks he’s seeing a person, and offers human hospitality.

When Manoach makes the offering as requested, the angel causes fire to appear on the altar and then ascends to heaven in the flames of the sacrifice.  (This is reminiscent of apparitions to Moses and Elijah.) Tzlelponi and Manoach prostrate themselves on the ground in awe.  Now Manoach knows he has seen a supernatural being, and he exclaims to Tzelponi: “We will die, for we have seen God.” He is terrified of the miracle he has experienced.

To comfort him, Tzlelponit replies: “If God had wanted to kill us, God would not have taken an offering from us, or shown us all these things or let us hear such things as these.” (Judges 13:23).  She is unafraid.  First of all, God has promised her a pregnancy, it does not make sense that God would now kill her and her husband. Second of all, they have witnessed a miracle in the fire on the altar; this is a sign of favor, not punishment.  Third of all, if God was displeased with them, why send an angel to begin with?

Through these words, Tzlelponit shows herself to be brave, intelligent, pious and sensible.  She perceives what is happening much more clearly than Manoach. And, we might see even deeper into her words.  Tzlelponit, to me, is a profound priestess role model.  When Spirit appears to her, she receives the message simply and calmly.  She isn’t ruled by anxiety.  She understands that what she is experiencing is sacred.  Unlike her husband Manoach, she doesn’t try to impose human categories, or establish control or dominance.  She simply experiences what is unfolding, and perceives it accurately.   Even in the face of a spontaneously flaming altar, she is completely present. The name midrash gives her– “faces the clarity”—suggests this is exactly her gift.  Indeed Numbers Rabbah 10:5 translates Tzlelponi as “faces the angel.”  

And, Tzlelponi has deep self-confidence. She speaks up against her husband when she thinks he is wrong.  She’s kind to him— she runs to get him when the angel appears again, and she comforts him when he is afraid.  But she doesn’t let him override her view of reality.  She is also a role model for standing up for our own connection to the sacred and the truth.  She is one of the most powerful biblical priestesses I have encountered.

I must add that according to the Talmud, Tzlelponi did not only give birth to Samson.  She also had a daughter, Nashyan (Bava Batra 91a).  This child too would have been a miracle child. I love the idea of Tzlelponi teaching priestess presence to Nashyan.  I wonder what they talked about together.  I wonder if they never cut their hair.  I wonder if they went back to that field often to meditate and make offerings.  I imagine them as kohanot, as priestesses.

Since then, Tzlelponi’s good qualities haven’t gone without notice. Shlomo Luria, a sixteenth-century kabbalist, reports in his book Chochmat Shlomo that Tzlelponi is “good to defend against evil spirits.” Perhaps this is because of her ability to face into the mystery without fear.  As the Jewish calendar turns and I face into the mystery of the new year, I honor Tzlelponi as one of my Hebrew priestess ancestors. 

Iron Mothers: Iron as Embodiment of the Biblical Matriarchs in Jewish Folklore

Jewish amuletic objects come in many forms: salt, the hamsa or hand, the bowl, the scroll with verses, even sword-shaped amulets. These items are meant to provide spiritual protection from malevolent forces such as demons and the evil eye and vary across different times and places.  One protective item from Jewish folklore is iron. In medieval Germany, for example, pregnant Jewish women carried an iron object to repel malevolent forces.  This was part of a wider cultural norm: across Western Europe, iron was understood to repel fairies and spirits of all kinds, and was sewed into babies’ clothing, hung above cradles and doorways, etc.  According to one Jewish legend, when the waters of Egypt turned to blood during the first plague, water in metal vessels was the only water to remain unchanged. Pieces of iron were placed on all vessels containing water during the solstices and equinoxes—considered to be a time when spirits were roving the world—to protect them from contamination.

The mystic Isaac Luria gives two explanations for the use of iron as a Jewish amulet: first, that the substance of iron derives from malkhut—the divine feminine aspect, and second, that the Hebrew word for iron is barzel, and this word is an acronym for the four wives of Jacob: Bilhah, Rachel, Zilpah and Leah, who can protect their descendants from harm.  In other words, Luria suggests that iron protects because it embodies the sheltering presence of the female ancestors.  The Zohar, a seminal 13th-century kabbalistic work, also associates iron with the divine feminine, assigning other metals such as gold and silver to other divine aspects. 

 Iron amulet buckle from 18th century Poland

The statement that iron is an acronym for the names of the tribal mothers is even more striking because it includes Bilhah and Zilpah, who were Jacob’s concubines but not full wives.  Usually, when the matriarchs are mentioned, only the four full-status wives are mentioned: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah.  It does occasionally happen in Jewish sources that six matriarchs are mentioned; for example, in the ancient interpretive biblical translation called Targum Yonatan, the rod of Moses is inscribed with the names of the three fathers (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), the six mothers, and the twelve tribes.  However, the expression arba imahot, four mothers, is much more common.  The oft-repeated statement about the protective nature of barzel gives Bilhah and Zilpah equal status as protectors of the people.  The letters that represent Bilhah and Zilpah even precede the letters representing their “superiors,” Rachel and Leah. (One 16th-century Jewish text (Yesod Emunah), through exegesis of a biblical text about iron, understands iron to embody all six of the matriarchs.)

Elan Loeb as Bilhah photo by Elan Loeb

Hadar Cohen as Zilpah photo by Elan Loeb

We might understand the implication of this to be that iron, as the sacred substance of the matriarchs, does not affirm social hierarchies or patriarchal designations like “wife” and “concubine,” but rather includes all the mothers regardless of whether they were relatively privileged or oppressed. Rev. Wil Gafney names that Bilhah and Zilpah were enslaved women and writes that affirming hierarchies in which Leah and Rachel are named but Bilhah and Zilpah are not “puts us in the position of identifying with slave-holding values and against the interests and experiences of our foremothers.” She writes: “Because Bilhah is one of the mothers of Israel and after all that she has been through – after all that was done to her, to erase her name from the chronicle of her descendants and their people is to do further violence to her. Likewise, when I pray the Amidah, I add Hagar, Bilhah and Zilpah for the same reason.”

Many Jews have concurred that Bilhah and Zilpah should be named in our central prayers. Rabbi Susan Schnur notes that “leaving out the two matriarchs who are ‘female attendants’ doesn’t sit well with feminist or Jewish values” and suggests that they also be included in the Amidah, a prayer referring to the ancestors in which feminists have inserted the names of the matriarchs Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah.  Josephine Rosman writes that being a Jewish feminist means elevating “those from our sacred texts who have been forgotten like Bilhah and Zilpah.. I try to keep Bilhah and Zilpah in mind in my daily life.” Combining the names of the matriarchs into the word barzel feels like a powerful affirmation that we are stronger when we come together across our backgrounds and differences.

I keep an iron nail on my altar in a velvet bag.  It was my father’s nail, and it reminds me of him.  For me, it contains the amuletic traditions of the Jewish people, and embodies the presence of the matriarchs—all of them, the oppressed ones, the enslaved ones, the queer ones, the ones of “low status” who were social outcasts or underdogs.  Iron, which my tradition holds to be one of the embodiments of Shekhinah, Divine Presence, is an element that offers great strength and the capacity to form lasting structures.  May the strength of our mothers and all of our ancestors inspire us to build our world together.

Tents of the Matriarchs from the Farhi Bible (including Bilhah and Zilpah)


Becoming the Mother: A Dream Journey to the Sacred Feminine

This essay is dedicated to the memory of Carol P. Christ, scholar of the Goddess, who has brought so much wisdom and liberation to our world, and whom I deeply admired. May her memory be a blessing.

The call of the Divine Mother has compelled me for most of my life. I have scoured kabbalistic works for visions of God/dess as Mother, Womb, Protectress, Home of Being. I’ve gone on treasure hunts through museums to find paintings of the Annunciation and statues of birthing goddesses. I’ve written poems to the Mother Goddess of my imagination. Experiencing Deity as creatrix and nurturer moves me. But when I had a daughter of my own, becoming the Mother in an immediate sense proved to be more difficult than revering Her from afar. I couldn’t fully internalize that I had stepped into the sacred role of parent, even after I became one. I know this is true because of my dreams.

Not long after my daughter was born more than a decade ago, I began to have disturbing dreams. In the first of these dreams, I dropped my infant daughter by mistake into water that had flooded the area around my home. She disappeared without a trace into the deep water. I begged for help finding her, but no one would help me. Soon I realized she must be dead. I woke up terrified and sobbing. In another dream, I realized no one was watching my daughter and she must have fallen into the nearby lake. In a third dream, a huge flood came into my house and carried her away.

Dreams like this, dreams of my only child’s death by drowning, occurred over and over again. I’d had nightmares before, of course, but these dreams were worse for me than dreams of my own death. My anxiety about being a new mother seemed to have spilled over into my dream life, and no matter how carefully I watched over my daughter, the dreams continued to recur.

I took the dreams to my dreamworker, hoping for an answer to my question: what did they mean? He offered the interpretation, based on the ideas of Jung, that the child in the dream was my soul. He suggested to me that I was losing my soul during the daily grind and responsibility of my life: that the drowning girl I kept seeing was me.  What I needed to do was let go of my role as mother, and become the soul-child.  Then the child in my dream would stop drowning.

There were truths in this reading, but it still didn’t work for me. To me, this understanding of the dream denied that “mother” was a fundamental part of my identity. It felt impossible for me to put that part of myself aside, to see it as not fundamental to who I was. The dreams, to me, were not about my soul but about my daughter and my failure to protect her. I feared some catastrophe lay ahead. My dreamworker and I parted ways.

Then, when my daughter (R.) was about six, I had another dream:

I am at a retreat center with my wife S. and daughter R. We are walking with a large group of people. R. and I have gotten ahead of everyone else. There is a large puddle between us and the house where we are staying. As we get close to it, I see that the puddle, though narrow, is really a lake; it is so deep that it fills the valley in front of the house.

R. runs into the puddle. I run after her. R. paddles in it and begins to drown. As she goes under, she yells for me. I tell myself: “This has happened many times before in my dreams; I know I can handle it in real life.”  R. sinks to the bottom of the puddle.  It is very hard for me to penetrate the surface of the water, as if the water is very thick, and it takes me a long time to submerge in it. I summon up all my strength and push myself under the water. I find R., pull her to the surface and hold her up so she can breathe. While I am holding her up, I realize that my own mouth is under the water. I am breathing. I am okay.

We climb out of the water. The group begins to arrive. I tell S. and everyone: “If I hadn’t been with her, if I hadn’t been watching, she would have drowned.”  I am so grateful R. is alive.

This dream broke the pattern of my nightmares. I finally found the confidence to go under the water with my daughter rather than stand calling on the shore or wading at the water’s edge, and when I did, I found myself breathing under the water. The underwater place I had feared so much turned out to be a place of life, not death.  Once I had this dream, the drowning dreams stopped. I never had another one that I can recall.  

Now, looking back, I think that all those drowning dreams expressed my anxiety about being a mother. In a society that has no real initiation rituals to guide people into parenthood, I had to experience a dream initiation, a moment of finding the Divine Mother in myself.  This dream finally initiated me into motherhood– but I had to be willing to go under, to let go of my old self and become someone new. The dream celebrated my protecting my daughter during those early years and let me know I had developed the resources inside myself to be her parent. I was no longer as afraid of being “drowned” by my responsibilities. As my dream-self said, “I know I can handle it.” 

But the dream didn’t only confirm my identity as a parent. It also let me know that there is an elemental spirit, a watery Mother, that holds both me and my daughter. Looking back on this dream, I feel that the water in the lake was a form of the Goddess surrounding me and my daughter, letting us face our fears and move through them. It now seems to me that my daughter and I were born out of that lake together. In this sense, my dreamworker was right: my daughter and I can both be children of the Mother.

The dream suggests a layered reality is possible: I can be the mother who holds up my daughter, I can acknowledge my daughter as a separate and mysterious entity who must immerse in life on her own, and also I can be aware of the elemental power, much bigger than we are, that supports us both. Since that dream, I have a complex sense of the Divine Mother as a Being I converse with, wonder about, question and rely on– and also a Being I (fitfully) embody.  And, She is also embodied in my daughter, who is herself a nurturing and protecting person, and who, in the dream, leads me deeper than I might otherwise be able to go. To me, this is a feminist way of understanding our roles in the world—we are not solo individuals, but intertwined in relationship with one another and with Being itself.

The Daughters of Zelophehad and the Five Feminine Powers of the Kabbalah

Jill anointing her daughter. photo by Shoshana Jedwab

This summer, I visited Iceland, a beautiful and magical land.  While I was there, I saw the Kerid Crater, which is a caldera: a volcanic crater with a lake inside.  My family and I hiked around the edge of the crater and then down close to the lake.  The perfect roundness of the crater-lake gave the impression of a circular container—a jewel box shaped by some immense hand— or else a massive eye looking up from the earth.  My daughter and I sat by the lake’s waters and anointed one another, having the sense we were in a sacred place.

Later that summer, I grappled with a story that reminded me of the crater. In Numbers 27, five sisters—the daughters of a man named Tzelafchad—approach Moses with a question.  Their father had daughters, not sons, and it seems this means his family will receive no land allotment in Canaan.  The daughters ask that they be given land allotments: “Let our father’s name not be lost to his clan just because he had no son!” (Numbers 27:4).  Moses takes their complaint to God and brings back an answer: the daughters have spoken rightly, and will receive a land allotment as they request.  However, they must marry men of their own tribe so that the tribal land is not lost— if the women married men of another tribe, their heirs would belong to that other tribe and so the land would change its tribal designation.  Thus, patriarchy is mitigated but not ultimately contradicted—the women become heirs to their father, but primarily for their father’s sake, not their own. 

Yet there is an egalitarian shift even in the way these women’s names appear in the text.  It is rare to see the name of even one daughter in biblical lineages, never mind five. Yet the daughters’ names appear in multiple places: Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. These names can mean forgiveness, movement, partridge, queen, and desire.  In another translation, all the names relate to movement: “dance,” “moving”, “circling,” “walking,” “running.” In the Bible and in other texts archaeologists have uncovered, all five names appear as the names of villages in ancient Israel. This suggests that these five women were honored by their clans as founding ancestors. The names appear in different orders in different places, suggesting no one sister was more important than the others.

photo by Shoshana Jedwab

The rabbinic tradition understands these women as wise and knowledgeable in argument and suggests all kinds of reasoning they might have used to support their case. One midrash (interpretive legend) suggests that the daughters say to one another: “While human beings value men more, God values everyone equally” and thus conclude that God may hear their case. Yet most rabbinic commentators depict the women as concerned for their father’s honor and hasten to assert that the women are not asking for land on their own behalf. Contemporary readers, however, often see the daughters as proto-feminist innovators who seek rights they have not yet been granted—as the beginning of egalitarian activism in Jewish tradition. For example, the poet Elizabeth Aliya Topper writes:  “They are pious and wise/and they call us to action:/to move from the place/of injustice and bias/and pave the untrodden way.”

I wanted to make some meaning out of the listing of the five names, and so I conducted a search of the sources, and found that the kabbalistic tradition sees a hidden secret in the naming of these five women.  An eighteenth-century text called Nachal Kedumim, written by the kabbalist Hayyim Joseph David Azulay, suggests that the five daughters of Tzelafchad relate to the five feminine aspects of the divine, known as the five gevurot or strengths. The other five of the ten divine aspects are the masculine powers, the five chasadim or generosities. In the kabbalah, the masculine is identified with love and “outflow” and the feminine with severity and “containment” which is somewhat reversed from modern gender stereotypes.  Together, these two sets of five form the ten sefirot or divine facets.

The five gevurot or feminine powers are the five sefirot of Binah, Gevurah, Hod, Yesod, and Malkhut—which I would translate as: creative knowing, boundaried strength, humble grace, intimate connection, and grounded being. (Note: Yesod is not always considered a feminine aspect, and in fact often represents the divine phallus, but for purposes of dividing the ten aspects in half, it is considered feminine rather than masculine, as a conduit between male and female.) 

While I use the kabbalah as a spiritual tool with a bit of caution, given that I don’t generally buy into its complex gender and sexual polarities, I do find it a rich source of spiritual imagination. I wondered what would happen if, in honor of the five sisters, I meditated on these five divine aspects as a set of attributes of God/dess. When I did, what I discovered was a variety of spiritual containers: a bubbling cauldron-like container for creative knowing, a strong-walled container for strength, a vast oceanic container for grace, a long telephone-cord-like container for connection, and so forth.  Each container, as I entered them one after another, seemed to offer me a different opportunity to fortify, relax, or expand my boundaries. This mystical teaching has given me a new way to appreciate the five daughters who stood up for themselves, who reached for new boundaries, and to whom God/dess said: “Yes.”

The caldera I saw this summer was a crater that had provided a container for rainwater, and had become a wondrous round lake ringed by cliffs. The water by itself was powerful, but it was the size, shape, majesty and strength of the container that made the lake as awe-inspiring as it was.  That magical site, and my experience of the five gevurot, are leaving me with a new sense of the power of taking shape, of recognizing our form and substance. Only when we take our right shape can we hold all we were meant to hold. This is also the lesson of the five daughters of Zelophehad.

Rabbinic and Kabbalistic References:

Midrash Aggadah, Numbers 7:1
Midrash Tanhuma, Pinchas 7:1
Nachal Kedumim (Azulay) on Numbers 26:33
Sifrei Bamidbar 133:1

Contemporary References:

Tamara Cohn Eskenazi. “Pinchas: Legacy of Law, Leadership, and Land,” in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, eds. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea Weiss (New York: Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

Elizabeth (Aliya) Topper, “Call to Gather,” from Parasha Poems.

Kohenet Ordination Speech 2015

L’shem yichud immah ilaah ushechintah —For the sake of the unification of the transcendent creative power with the divine presence dwelling here and now:

May everything we do be for the good of each person here, for the interlocking communities of which Kohenet is a part, and for the earth that is our home.  May everything we do reflect our gratitude to the well of being which has brought us to this place and time.

It is my great joy to be addressing you at the fourth Kohenet ordination ceremony, as we begin the tenth year of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute.  We have so much to celebrate.  I want to begin by telling you who have gathered here to celebrate our graduates and our honorees and the work of the contemporary Hebrew priestesses, how grateful we are that you have come, that you have taken a chance on an utterly new, yet ancient, movement and offered us your presence here today.  I want to explain a little about the vision of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute and what we hope to accomplish in this unique time and place.

When Taya and I met in 2005, we had the hope that we could heal a wound in Jewish history and in human consciousness. We wanted to explore the women among our ancestors who offered gifts of spirit, to resist their erasure, and to bring forward the practices that were sacred to them.  We wanted to learn from ancient prophetesses, shrinekeepers, altar tenders, healers, dreamworkers, magic-makers, and others who were part of our tradition but who were rendered invisible, so invisible that no one in Hebrew school learned about them.  We wanted not only to study them but to link ourselves with them across time. As the Jewish people has looked to its sages and prophets for inspiration, we wanted to look to our foremothers for inspiration, to discover how the rituals and beliefs of wise women who were kept at the edges of our communities, could heal us in the twenty-first century.  We wanted to build the altars, drum the drums, sing the songs, dance the dances, and dream the dreams.  And we wanted to discover in these forgotten teachings a new relationship to the earth, the body, and what I would call the mysticism of the material: the understanding that in our physical lives and our lived experience we are closest to divinity.  We wanted to meet the submerged version of deity called Shekhinah, Imma Ilaah, Elat, Goddess, Divine Mother, and understand why she has been so feared and rejected, yet also been a deep and lasting part of our tradition as Jews.

Why did we want to do this?  Why weren’t traditional avenues of Jewish leadership enough?  All of us could go to rabbinical or cantorial school and some of us did.  We have all benefited from the egalitarian movement in Jewish life. Egalitarianism has had a strong and salutary effect on Judaism, and, it doesn’t address the root of the problem. The root of the problem is the exclusion of women and other marginalized people from the development of Jewish spiritual culture.  It is wonderful to have synagogues where men and women can lead public worship.  It is wonderful for girls and boys to learn Torah together. It is wonderful for women to study Talmud and to lay tefillin, as they do in many seminaries and places of study. And, when a bat mitzvah gets up to read a text about the subjection of wives to husbands or the persecution of those who worship the local goddess, or when a rabbi gets up to lead a prayer where God is conceived of exclusively as a king, we haven’t solved the problem. When all of us continue to act as if we own the planet rather than live in a dependent biological relationship to her, an attitude that is a legacy of patriarchy, we haven’t solved the problem, and in not solving the problem, we endanger our future. We need Jewish leaders who express the indigenous wisdom of our people, who understand our interdependence with one another and with the source of life.  We need Jewish leaders who have a language not formed by the dominant culture but by a new paradigm that is also an ancient truth.

We want to re-equip the Jewish people with an energetic and earth-based form of Judaism in which women and men can serve spirit as architects of sacred space within a living and sacred cosmos. We value the portable and long-lasting forms of Judaism we have inherited, and, we believe that something is lost when we make text and law received from one powerful Jewish community our only spiritual authorities.  We choose to build communities where our experience of the source of life, in prayer, in dreams, in creative process, in community can guide us as it did our earliest ancestors.  Our intention is to weave the ancient legacy of the priestesses with the rest of Jewish history; with Bible, Talmud, kabbalah, and the rest, in ways that restore and heal and bring new wholeness.  We come not with a desire to tear down but with celebration for what is possible.

We have often been asked why, in a world where we strive to make all genders equal and where we are coming to understand the complexity of gender, Kohenet is still a women’s community. There are three reasons.

  1. Firstly, there are still ways that women in egalitarian mixed-gender community cannot find the language to undo their own exclusion. There is some work we have to do ourselves.
  2. Second, we rejoice in the legacy of women across time, since before there was written language, as spiritual leaders. We continue to need that specific legacy for our healing.
  3. Third, we find gifts in being together that we cannot find elsewhere.

These things are true and real for us, and, we are eager to partner with all people who have sustainable goals for our tradition and our world.  We are eager to partner with Jewish sages, mystics, shamans, and magic-makers who also see themselves as part of the sacred circle in which all beings are interwoven.

What I most want to tell you right now is that we have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.  We started our Kohenet retreat experience as a small circle of women at the Elat Chayyim retreat center in Accord, NY in 2006.  Here at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, now merged with Hazon, in 2015, let me tell you what we have accomplished a decade later.  We have run nineteen Kohenet retreats.  We have ordained three classes of kohanot and are about to ordain a fourth. This summer, we have published The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership. We have founded Kohenet West, a new branch of the Kohenet Institute in the Bay area.  We have been part of Jewish and interfaith conferences in Washington DC, in London, England, and in other places.  We have published Siddur haKohanot: A Hebrew Priestess Prayerbook in multiple editions.  Taya’s CDs and chants as well as Shoshana’s songs have gone viral across the Jewish community and have surfaced in shuls and chant sessions and even in the ordination ceremonies of rabbinical schools.  Kohenet-style prayer services have been led all over this country and in Toronto, Dublin, and Jerusalem. And over time our students have gifted us with beautiful ritual objects: a washing bowl, a ritual umbilical cord, Torah pointers that celebrate the wise woman—artifacts of material culture that we hope will become part of Jewish tradition. This year for the first time, we are honoring women scholars and ritualists who have been pioneers in understanding Jewish priestessing and the sacred feminine with honorary titles from our institution.  And we are giving our smicha to nine new kohanot, each of whom is inspiring and each of whom brings magic to our people.

Our students and graduates have accomplished profound things.  They have led communities in prayer.  They have facilitated marriages, funerals, house blessings, and many other ceremonies.  They have written books of poetry, and novels, and books about the alef bet.  They have created artwork, amulets, card decks, Torah pointers, and other creative expressions that embody spirit.  They have been dreamworkers and dream healers.  They have revived ancient rituals of harvest procession, animal blessings, and fire ceremonies, right here on this land and elsewhere.  They have studied Torah together.  They have been activists for human rights, for dialogue and understanding, and for ecological sustainability. They have created sacred chant.  They have been healers and medicine women and listeners to the heart.  They have been guides in the wilderness. They have created workshops where women can talk about their history and legacy, where people can understand gender better, where women can talk about aging.  They have worked in interfaith communities and earth-based communities, bringing Jewish teachings to new places.  They have trained as guardians who honor and care for sacred space.  They have helped people to find the sacred in their bodies.  They have helped people to find the sacred feminine and find themselves.  They have comforted the bereaved and relieved the oppressed and given joy to the weary. They have made spirit live for so many people, and we are so proud of them.

We are particularly proud of our nine graduates, who have made the priestess journey to this day of anointing. We will talk about them specifically during the smicha, but I particularly want you to know that most of them have literally crossed oceans and continents to be here time and again.  Their dedication is as great as their talent.  We also welcome our wonderful alumnae who have traveled far to gather with us.  We welcome the family and friends who have supported our kohanot on their journey.  We welcome our new Kohenet class, Kohenet Hei, as they continue in their learning together.  We welcome members of Kohenet West who are here.  We welcome the Hazon and Isabella Freedman staff, who has supported us so generously and tirelessly throughout this journey.

It’s not an accident that we are meeting here the day before Tisha b’Av.  We are the rebuilders of lost temples. Archaeologists have found three thousand year-old artifacts in the ancient cities of Israel and Judea, statues of priestesses with drums.  These artifacts testify to a reality only partly revealed in Torah and sacred text: priestesses are part of our history.  Now they are part of our future as well.

May we be sheltered beneath the wings of Shekhinah.  May we be nourished by El Shaddai.  May we receive wise counsel from Chochmah, the spirit of wisdom.  May we find the tikkun, the healing, that is ours to do.

And let us say: Amen.

Press Release: Kohenet Institute Ordains Nine Hebrew Priestesses, Graduating Class of 2015 Serve As Jewish Ritual Leaders and Educators

These Are the Names: Five Meditations for Parashat Shemot

1. Compassion

The daughter of Pharaoh went down to wash in the Nile, and her maidens walked along the shore of the river. She saw the basket in the reeds and sent her handmaid, who fetched it. She opened it and saw the child-a boy, crying — and she had pity on him and said: “This is one of the Hebrew children.”

Think of a moment when you, like Moses, were in need of compassion from someone else. Remember or imagine receiving compassion in that moment. Now, think of a moment when you, like Pharaoh’s daughter, experienced deep compassion and love for someone else. Return to that moment and bring the heart-movement of hesed, of lovingkindness, to the present.

Name: אל רחום וחנון

El Rahum ve-Hanun: Divine Compassion and Graciousness.

2. Wonder

An angel of YHWH appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of the bush; he looked, and lo, the bush was burning with fire, and the bush was not consumed.

Think of a moment when you experienced wonder or awe-when you saw or heard something that lifted you out of your ordinary life and touched your soul. It might even be a frightening occasion-or perhaps it is a moment of joy, or serenity. Return to that moment and feel the awe you felt. Take that awe into yourself and bring it into the present moment.

Name: נורא תהלות עשה פלא

Nora Tehilot Oseih Feleh: Wondrous in Praises, Performing Miracles.

3. Surprise

Moses said to God: “Now, when I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors sent me to you,’ and they say to me, “What is his/its name?’, what will I say to them?” God said to Moses: “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh.”

Remember a moment when you were utterly surprised and delighted by something. Bring this surprise and delight into the present moment. Take it into yourself. The world has the ability to surprise us, and we have the power to surprise ourselves. God too can appear in ways we did not expect.

Name: אהיה אשר אהיה

Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh: I Will Be What I Will Be.

4. Doubt

Moses replied and said: “What if they do not believe me and will not listen to my voice, but say: “YHWH did not appear to you!”? YHWH said to him: “What is that in your hand?” He said “A rod.” He said: “Throw it on the ground.” He threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and Moses ran away from it. Then YHWH said to Moses: “Put out your hand and take it by the tail.” He put out his hand and grabbed it, and it became a rod in his hand.”

Think of a moment when you doubted yourself, when you were certain you would fail. Think of a moment when you did not trust that you were enough. Remember, or imagine, God coming to you in that place. Remember, or imagine, the gifts you found in yourself at that time. Take into yourself the knowledge that facing what scares you can bring you to new possibilities. In the present moment, feel the Source guiding you toward the strength you need.

Name: סומך נופלים

Someikh Noflim: the One Who Supports the Falling.

5. Reunion

YHWH said to Aaron: “Go to meet Moses in the wilderness.” He went and met him at the mountain of God, and kissed him.

Remember a moment when you had a reunion — with God, with a person, or with a place. Remember what it was like to come together again after so long. Bring the love and longing you felt in that moment to the present. Take into yourself the possibility of reunion with the One in every moment.

Name: ידיד נפש

Yedid Nefesh, friend of the soul.

ואלה שמות

Ve-eileh Shemot: These are the names.

There are infinite names. Add as many as you need.

The Two Promises: on the Bones of Jacob and Joseph

Parashat Vayechi, the Torah portion at the very end of the Book of Genesis, begins with a promise and ends with a promise.  The Torah portion describes the last years of Jacob in Egypt.  It begins with the promise Joseph makes to Jacob: an oath that he will bury his father Jacob in the cave of Machpelah.  As Jacob says: “Bury me with my fathers…”  It ends with the promise that Jacob’s brothers make to Joseph that when their descendants leave Egypt, Joseph’s bones will accompany them.  As Joseph says: “Carry up my bones from here.”  What can we learn from these two promises?

Jacob desires to be rejoined with the land on which he lived, and with those whom he loves most.

The promise to Jacob relates to the past.  In his deathbed request, Jacob asserts that he does not wish to be buried in Egypt.  He emphasizes that he wants to be brought to the cave of Machpelah, specifying “in the field of Ephron the Hittite” so there will be no mistake about what he means.  The cave of Machpelah is the family tomb, which Abraham bought from the residents of Canaan so Sarah could have a resting place. Jacob desires to be rejoined with the land on which he lived, and with those whom he loves most.  After blessing his children, Jacob’s thoughts turn to his wife Leah, parents Rebekah and Isaac, and grandparents Abraham and Sarah.  He wishes to be buried with them, observing the tradition of his family and mingling his bones with those of his ancestors.  He must depend on his children to fulfill this longing.

Jacob’s children, by observing this last wish, do him chesed: great kindness. The sons of Jacob, who have hurt their father terribly in concealing from him that Joseph was sold into Egypt, attempt to set right their relationship to the past by honoring Jacob’s wishes.  Jacob’s funeral is full of pomp and circumstance, as the family processes back to Canaan to inter the patriarch.  Midrash Tanhuma on Parashat Vayechi notes that Joseph makes sure his father’s funeral is fit for a king—and receives the reward that Moses himself will see to Joseph’s bones.

The promise to Joseph, however, relates to the future.  At the end of Genesis, Joseph is old and about to die.  He will be buried in a coffin in Egypt, probably because he is an important Egyptian official and Pharaoh would not consent to bury him in the land of Canaan.  Joseph’s relatives promise, on behalf of their descendants, that when God causes the Hebrew tribes to leave Egypt, they will retrieve Joseph’s bones and carry them to the land of Israel.

Joseph seems less concerned with being reunited with those he loves than with giving the nation of Israel something to live for.

Joseph does not specify a burial site; he only says: “Carry up my bones from here.”  Joseph seems less concerned with being reunited with those he loves than with giving the nation of Israel something to live for.  By exacting this promise, Joseph makes sure that the people must remember who he is, remember where he is buried, and remember their connection to the land of Canaan.  The oath to Joseph means his family cannot forget who they are. Joseph is doing a chesed for his descendants: his deathbed request makes the Exodus possible.  The Midrash Tanhuma quoted above indicates that while others are packing to leave Egypt, Moses is searching for the bones of Joseph so that the Exodus can unfold as it should.

These two promises reflect two aspects of our relationship to Torah. The central word of Jacob’s promise is kivru, bury, a word that indicates descent or downward motion. The promise to Jacob teaches us to show loyalty and love to our ancestors, respecting the people, ideas, and places they loved.  One aspect of Torah is the call to live in harmony with the past.  The other aspect of Torah is the call to prepare for those that will come after us by creating a world and a heritage that our distant descendants will find beautiful, useful and uplifting.  The central word of Joseph’s promise is veha’alitem: lift up.   This promise to Joseph, a word that indicates ascent or upward motion, teaches us to show love and loyalty to the generations to come.  Our connection to humans, to the world, and to the Holy One reverberates between these two promises.

May we too fulfill these promises.  May we care for the planet, for its people, and for our tradition in such a way that we extend our love to the past, and give those who come afterward something to treasure.  May we embody the mystery of Joseph’s bones by becoming partners in creating the future world.


An Altar of Earth: Reflections on Jews, Goddesses and the Zohar


For many years, as I sat in synagogues, someone on the bimah would make an off-handed reference to the evils of idolatry. Many Jews who would never think of condemning the religious practices of Australian aborigines, Peruvian shamans or Buddhist nuns, and who might even enjoy the art in a Catholic church, give sermons about how worshipping images or praying to multiple deities is the root of all evil. Traditional teachers often equate idolatry—that is, worship of multiple gods, worship using images, or worship of components of the natural world-with murder, child sacrifice, and incest. Less traditional ones still condemn idolatry, but identify its evil with the worst kind of misguided materialist beliefs (worshipping one’s money, for example). In Torah study sessions, I have seen individuals share their private ideas about God’s tangibility or presence in nature, and even point out these ideas when they appear in a Biblical text. But then, someone asks “Isn’t that pagan?” as if the conversation is now over. Paganism is bad. Even a hint of paganism is bad. That is the Jewish position. Continue reading An Altar of Earth: Reflections on Jews, Goddesses and the Zohar