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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.

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


I invite you to encounter Her as I encountered Her— with mystery, and with surprise.

The Sabbath night is the joy of the Queen with the King, and their uniting… Scholars who know this secret are intimate with their wives only on the Sabbath night.

This is a text from the Zohar, an important kabbalistic work.  We all know who the King is—the disembodied yet fatherly entity who creates the world by word— not by sex with a goddess— and who gives the Torah.  But who is the Queen?  Don’t Jews reject the idea of a divine queen?  Didn’t the prophet Jeremiah scold Israelite women for worshipping the Queen of Heaven?

There is a Jewish custom to recite the poem Lecha Dodi “Come, My Beloved”— on Friday night, as they turn to the door of the synagogue to greet the Sabbath.  What most Jews don’t know is that Jewish mystics regard the Sabbath as an embodiment of the immanent, feminine face of God.  The Sabbath’s entry into the synagogue, and the sexual coupling of lovers on Friday night, are embodiments of the divine union of the masculine face of God and the feminine face— dare we say— of Goddess.

This feminine immanent face of God has many names, but the most prominent of them is Shekhinah. Shekhinah means “dwelling,” with the noun-verb force of that word: the act of dwelling.  The state of being somewhere.  This talmudic word describes the numinous presence of God that abided in the Temple. In the centuries following the destruction of the Temple, sages begin to depict the Shekhinah as a woman.  They see her as a loving mother who suffers the same exile as her people:

When the Shekhinah went forth from the Temple, she hugged and kissed its walls and pillars and wept, and said: “Shalom, goodbye, my Temple, goodbye, my royal dwelling, goodbye, my beloved house!… —Lamentations Rabbah

In an era when Jews feel punished by God, they turn to a divine mother who loves them and takes to the road with her people.  Shekhinah is the estranged wife of God, beloved but living separately as long as the world remains unredeemed.

This divine mother, according to Raphael Patai (author ofThe Hebrew Goddess) and other scholars, has her roots among the earliest Israelites, who worshipped the divine mother Asherah along with the God of Israel.  The mysterious female figure of Proverbs, Lady Wisdom, may be a version of Asherah, since she is called “happy” (asher) and described as a tree, as Asherah was depicted as a tree:

She is a tree of life to all who hold her fast,
And all who cling to her find happiness.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.

The Divine made me at the beginning of his road,
the most ancient of his works of old….
And humankind was my joy.
Now, children, listen to me,
Happy are they who keep my ways.
                             Proverbs 3:18, 8:22, 27-32

Centuries later, kabbalists take these biblical references, and later talmudic references to Shekhinah, and create a fully-formed female divine figure.  Sometimes she is a warrior, sometimes a mother, and sometimes she is all of nature. A kabbalistic scholar, Hayyim Vital of sixteenth-century Sfat, reports a vision of Shekhinah:

Behold, I saw a dignified woman, beautiful like the sun, standing on top of the ladder.  And I thought in my heart that she was my mother.

The kabbalist vision of Shekhinah still has issues of sexism and heteronormativity— the Shekhinah is often portrayed as passive and defined by her relationship with the divine masculine. Yet she is a powerful antidote to our idea that the Jewish God is male.  Even more interesting is what Jewish feminists have done with the Shekhinah.  She becomes, not a piece of the pie, but the whole pie— an all-encompassing Divine presence who can receive prayer, be in relationship, tend to the world.

Alicia Ostriker, the poet and critic, writes in her poem “Prayer to the Shekhinah”:

you folded wings patched coats
dragged mattresses pans in peasant carts, lived your life
laboring praying and giving birth, you also
swam across the hard Atlantic
landed in the golden land
they called you greenhorn
you danced in cafes
bargained pushcart goods ice shoes Hester Street
put on makeup threw away wigs
and you learned new languages…

Here, the Shekhinah is an exile, but a lively and joyful one.  She is embodied in Jewish women in all their fullness.  In an untitled poem from her book The Volcano Sequence, Ostriker writes of Shekhinah as a complicated figure of compassion and natural law:

womb compassionate pitiless
eyes seeing to the ends of the universe
in which life struggles and delights in life
Alicia Ostriker

Rachel Adler, in her poem “Second Hymn to the Shekhinah,” plays with the mystical idea of nothingness and relates it to the hollow space of creativity. She cries:

Nothing is my own mama and
I am nothing myself…

Hollow in the pot                     nothing
Hole in the flute                       nothing
Rest in the music                      nothing
Shabbat in the week                 nothing

I am your daughter, Lady,
And pregnant with you… 

Holy wind whistle through me
Been a long time since you had a pipe for this music

Many others, men as well as women, have been inspired in the modern age by the image of Shekhinah, emerging from the hidden depths of the Jewish psyche, changing as She is spoken, not only by male mystics, but by women seeking language for their own spiritual experience.

Along with Holly Taya Shere, I am the co-founder of the Kohenet Institute, an earth-based, ecstatic, embodied, feminist spiritual leadership program for Jewish women.  Through ritual, study, and self-reflection, we are reclaiming a vision of Jewish women as priestesses: vessels for Divine presence in the world.  We use the name Shekhinah when we pray, as well as other feminine and masculine God-names.  Like the mystics, we believe in the power of seeing God/dess as a woman, and in all the other ways we authentically experience spirit.  We, and many others, are rebirthing Shekhinah into the world.

One of our students, Tiana Mirapae, writes:

Since the destruction of the Second Temple, we have carried the Spirit of the Divine One within us. Wherever we go, wherever we are, we are home; within us is Shekhinah, Divine Spirit. It is our duty to ourselves and to the Divine, to heal and love ourselves, that we may open fully to serve Her and others, as Her.

This article originally appeared on

Lilith, Lady Flying in Darkness

“Half of me is beautiful
but you were never sure which half.”
—Ruth Feldman, “Lilith”

Lilith is the most notorious demon in Jewish tradition. In some sources, she is conceived of as the original woman, created even before Eve, and she is often presented as a thief of newborn infants. Lilith means “the night,” and she embodies the emotional and spiritual aspects of darkness: terror, sensuality, and unbridled freedom. More recently, she has come to represent the freedom of feminist women who no longer want to be “good girls.”

Biblical and Talmudic Tales of Lilith

The story of Lilith originated in the ancient Near East,where a wilderness spirit known as the “dark maid” appears in the Sumerian myth “The descent of Inanna” (circa 3000 BCE). Another reference appears in a tablet from the seventh century BCE found at Arslan Tash, Syria which contains the inscription: “O flyer in a dark chamber, go away at once, O Lili!”

Lilith later made her way into Israelite tradition, possibly even into the Bible. Isaiah 34:14, describing an inhospitable wilderness, tells us: “There goat-demons shall greet each other, and there the lilit shall find rest.” Some believe this word “lilit” is a reference to a night owl, and others say it is indeed a reference to the demon Lilith. A magical bowl from the first century CE, written in Hebrew, reads:” Designated is this bowl for the sealing of the house of this Geyonai bar Mamai, that there flee from him the evil Lilith…” Ancient images of Lilith which show her hands bound appear to be a form of visual magic for containing her.

In the Talmud, Lilith becomes not only a spirit of darkness,but also a figure of uncontrolled sexuality. The Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat151a) says: “It is forbidden for a man to sleep alone in a house, lest Lilith get hold of him.” Lilith is said to fertilize herself with male sperm to give birth to other demons.

Lilith as Escaped Wife

In Genesis Rabbah, we encounter a brief midrash that claims that Adam had a first wife before Eve. This interpretation arises from the two creation stories of Genesis: in Genesis 1, man and woman are created at the same time, while in Genesis 2 Adam precedes Eve. The rabbinic tale suggests that the first creation story is a different creation, in which Adam has a wife made, like him, from the earth. For some reason this marriage doesn’t work out,and so God makes Adam a second wife, Eve.

In the ninth or tenth century, a clever collection of legends titled the Alphabet of Ben Sira draws on earlier stories of Adam’s wife, and of Adam’s coupling with demons, and spins an elaborate story in which Lilith is Adam’s first wife:

When the first man, Adam, saw that he was alone, God made for him a woman like himself, from the earth.God called her name Lilith, and brought her to Adam. They immediately began to quarrel. Adam said: “You lie beneath me.” And Lilith said: “You lie beneath me! We are both equal, for both of us are from the earth.” And they would not listen to one another.

As soon as Lilith saw this, she uttered the Divine name and flew up into the air and fled. Adam began to pray before his Creator, saying: “Master of the universe, the woman that you gave me has fled.” God sent three angels and said to them: “Go bring back Lilith. If she wants to come, she shall come, and if she does not want to come, do not bring her against her will.

The three angels went and found her in the sea at the place where the Egyptians were destined to drown. There they grabbed her and said to her: “If you will go with us,well and good, but if not, we will drown you in the sea.”

Lilith said to them: “My friends, I know God only created me to weaken infants when they are eight days old. From the day a child is born until the eighth day, I have dominion over the child, and from the eighth day onward I have no dominion over him if he is a boy, but if a girl, I rule over her twelve days.”

They said: “We won’t let you go until you accept upon yourself that each day one hundred of your children will die.” And she accepted it. That is why one hundred demons die every day. They would not leave her alone until she swore to them: “In any place that I see you or your names in an amulet, I will have no dominion over that child.” They left her. And she is Lilith, who weakens the children of men….
Alphabet of Ben Sira 23a-b

Some believe that this story is a serious attempt to explain the death of infants, while others are convinced it is a humorous tale of sexual quarrels and unsuccessful angels. The Lilith of this story confronts both Adam and God: she defies patriarchy, refuses a submissive sexual posture,and in the end refuses marriage altogether, preferring to become a demon rather than live under Adam’s authority. Notice that Lilith flees to the Sea of Reeds: the place where the Hebrews will one day go free from slavery. In this version of the Lilith story, Lilith becomes what all tyrants fear: a person who is aware she is enslaved.

This version of the Lilith tale in the Alphabet of Ben Sira quickly spread throughout Jewish life, and others expanded on it. The Zohar, a mystical work from 12th century Spain, imagines Lilith not only as the first wife of Adam but also as the wife of Satan. In the kabbalah, Lilith takes on cosmic power. She is a chaotic counterpart to the Shekhinah (the feminine Divine Presence, the bride of the Infinite). In fact, the Zohar imagines that while the Jews suffer in exile, the Holy One (the masculine aspect of the Divine) separates from the Shekhinah, and consorts with Lilith.Lilith’s sexual-spiritual link with the Divine will only end when the Messiah comes and the brokenness in the world is mended.

In folk Judaism, the primary myths about Lilith continue to identify her principally as a stealer of babies. Numerous amulets for pregnant women and babies from medieval through modern times use the three names of the angels mentioned in the Alphabet of Ben Sira (Sanvi, Sansanvi, and Samangelof) to ward away Lilith. Such amulets may also contain a circle with the names of Adam and Eve on the inside of the circle, and the name of Lilith on the outside: a clear warning to Lilith to stay outside the family realm. A red ribbon is also sometimes placed on a crib to ward off Lilith.

Lilith and Modern Jewish Feminist Midrash

In the modern period, the tale of the put-upon wife who flees to a place of liberation became a celebrated paradigm. Numerous modern Jewish poets and authors, female and male, wrote accounts of Lilith that use old stories to express new ideas.

Perhaps the most well-known of the new Lilith tales is”The Coming of Lilith,” by Judith Plaskow. In this feminist midrash,Lilith flees the garden because she is an “uppity woman” who doesn’t want to be pushed around by Adam or God. However, she misses female companionship.Lilith soon sneaks back into the garden and befriends Eve. Eve has been told Lilith is a demon, but once the two women share their stories, they become allies and companions in the search for knowledge.

Enid Dame, in her poem “Lilith,” imagines Lilith as an eternal bohemian who leaves Eden, drops in and out of men’s sexual fantasies in the Middle Ages, and now lives with a cab driver in New Jersey,where she still cries in the bathroom as she remembers Eden “and the man and the God I couldn’t live with.”

In Lynn Gottlieb’s story of Lilith, Lilith is made from the sky and Adam from the earth. In her love for Adam, Lilith chooses to forget she came from the sky, and she becomes Eve, settled and happy but ignorant of her own true nature. In her story, Gottlieb dramatizes the struggle of women to love men while still loving themselves.

On the other hand, Jacqueline Lapidus’s brief poem”Eden” imagines a lesbian encounter between Lilith and Eve. Using the Lilith legend, Lapidus invents an origin story for love between women. Scholar and author Ohad Ezrachi frequently writes about Lilith as a split-off sexual component of women, an image created by men fearful of a full relationship. He encourages men and women to see Lilith and Eve as the same person.

Lilith has become such a popular figure that whole enterprises (like the women’s music concert Lilith Fair and the Jewish feminist journal Lilith Magazine) are named after her. Once a source of fear, Lilith has been transformed into an icon of freedom. While some disapprove of this widespread embrace of a former demon,Lilith’s rehabilitation makes sense. The frightening character of Lilith grew,in part, out of repression: repression of sexuality, repression of the free impulse in women, repression of the question “what if I left it all behind?” As modern Jews begin to ask questions about sex, freedom, and choice more directly, Lilith becomes a complex representation of our own desires.

This article originally appeared on

“Woman” is the Gateway to Full Humanity

A Conversation With Poets Jill Hammer and Joy Ladin


HER KIND: Prompted by comedian Elayne Boosler’s quip, “I’m just a person trapped inside a woman’s body,” Jill and Joy takes on a conversation that opens our minds and hearts to the limitations of gender identity, with letters and poems that speak to the things in which we have a difficulty in naming—spirit, body, sexuality, love, womanness, humanness. Their exchange is one of compassion, and it serves to affirm the bodies in which we are blessed to inhabit and inspires us to develop a more precise, richer, and embracing language for ourselves. Thank you Jill and Joy for being a part of the conversation.


Sept. 22, 2012

Dear Joy,

I don’t feel like a person trapped in a woman’s body. I try very hard not to believe in the mind-body split. I try not to think of myself as a non-gendered person, or soul, or personality, inside a woman’s body. I try to think of myself as a body with biological and spiritual dimensions. I think this way of understanding the self is an important resistance to the mind-body split that governs so much of Western civilization and takes us out of our own experience. So for me, having the body I have isn’t an accident of birth; it’s part of my identity.

For me, that means finding language to describe my body experience, particularly those parts of my body experience that mainstream society hides. I’m bothered by the ways that the body experience of people identified by society as biologically female (i.e., people with a vagina and uterus) is commodified or erased, along with body experiences that don’t jibe with normative views of body or gender. For example, my pregnancy experiences were a complete surprise to me because real experiences of being pregnant aren’t discussed in the public sphere. And there’s more complicated stuff, like how body interacts with sexuality, or what it means to be a woman born of a woman, with that connection of sameness and difference.

As part of my effort to find a language, I’ve been part of communities that explore liturgy and ritual based on the body experience of women. I’ve also tried to write from that place of inventing language for what our bodies feel. In a poem called “Ariadne,” I write:

Trust what the body tells you.
Everyone else is lying.

The girl with the lantern is here,
disorganized, stubborn,
to take you through the dark tunnels.
You don’t want to trust her,

but she knows the way.

Follow her down
into the arms of the earth:
the other disorganized, stubborn body
that never lies.

Do not turn left or right.
Below the skin,
the pulse is singing.
Follow that sound.

Cynthia Ozick writes in an essay called “The Meaning of Life”: “Our task is to clothe nature, to impose meaning on being.” Ozick has also expressed that her body experience as a woman is irrelevant to who she is as a human being. I disagree with both statements. I think we don’t need to clothe nature but to relate to it. I don’t think we need to impose meaning on being, but to uncover it. And I don’t think we should deny our body experience; we should embrace it. To me, that doesn’t mean embracing easy dualities about gender, but it does mean taking our bodies seriously as sites of being.


Sept. 23, 2012

Dear Jill,

I love starting with that quote, though I see it as less about the mind/body, or human/nature, split than about the way the gendering of bodies dims and distorts our humanity. I think the quote is reflecting on the way our bodies are given meaning by others, meanings that are read as revelations of who we are rather than projections of social, cultural, or family assumptions: “woman” here is an existential cookie cutter, taking the pattern of the female body and cutting humanness down to fit. From that perspective, this joke is a sort of Zen distillation of feminist awareness of the inadequacy of the term “woman,” a term identified by most people with a certain kind of body, to name the humanity of those to whom it is applied.

Obviously, that’s never been my problem. I have struggled instead to make myself visible by embodying the sense of femaleness that my male body couldn’t embody. To me, the identity of “woman” is the gateway to full humanity, and one of my ongoing challenges is the reluctance of others to call someone with a body like mine a woman.

For me, the mind/body split has been a life saver. Thank God I wasn’t born into a culture that encouraged me to dissociate body and mind, body and self, body and soul! The mind/body split is the foundation of my experience. I’m not saying that you are wrong to see that split as something to resist—as your marvelous poem shows, there is much to be discovered about the richness and wholeness of life by insisting on the body as the fundamental fact of existence. I think you are right that we don’t have adequate language for bodily experience—I think that’s true of all bodily experience, actually, and I don’t think that we can ever really make language (a system of signs that will always be bound up with culture and that must apply to many bodies) adequate to bodily experience. As poets, I’d say that’s good news—we’ll always have plenty of work to do in the gap between language and bodily experience. As people, well, like other failures of language, this one can be painful, violent, and sometimes fatal.

I love the idea that truth can be found by listening to the body, that the voice of the body is the voice of the earth, the meeting point of the human and the largeness the human grows out of. For me, though, the body is most truth when it is in dialogue with the mind/self/soul it can’t adequately express:

Letter to My Body

Philosophers shilly-shally, but it’s true: you are me; I am you.
This dust, these rays, this strange internal sense
that after all these years, I finally exist – all of this
is only mine through you.

You still seem surprised – that’s part of your charm –
that I wish to be extracted
from your handsome bindings.
This, you say, is only the beginning,

which is why it feels like drowning
in what we’ve both survived.
Ever the politician, I say I’ll be your widow,
smiling cheerfully as you die.

Not yet, you say, as though
– this is the other part of your charm –
you still believe in time.
Violent laughter, yours and mine.

Let’s go out into the woods
of meaning and matter, among the laurels and the mustard,
the unlit suns and unnamed branches, listening shoots and loosening leaves
we only appreciate when we’re drowning

in one another. Let’s break up before we meet
and fall in love again
in the darkening parlor of the heart,
let’s wait for God in the gathering dusk

and watch the stars come out.



Sept. 23, 2012

Dear Joy,

Your reading of Boosler’s quote makes sense to me. It’s moving and challenging to me that the mind/body split has been so important to your emotional and spiritual health. I’ve spent so much time trying to undo that split in myself. I have felt that in my early life I rejected the body—because it’s so frail, so awkward, so inconvenient, so abused, and unloved by our society, and so easy to dislike. As an antidote to that, I have tried to be open to the truth and beauty of my body as best I can express it. I’m trying to figure out how to write about the soul within the body without dividing the two—as you do so beautifully in your poem about the dance of soul and body.

I deeply agree with you about the “existential cookie cutter” that is gender essentialism. I can remember the pain of being rejected because some piece of me fell outside the (visible or invisible) dotted lines. What’s complicated for me is the ways that mythic images of gender have helped me appreciate my own experience. I’m thinking, for example, of the sheela-na-gig (a vaginal figure meant to embody the gateway to life) I saw in a cathedral in Ireland, which is an image of rebirth—a very different image of vaginal anatomy than the ones we see in our own society. Those images are important for me, and they are also problematic because they may be used to reify what gender is or “means.”

I like when I can find a more complex mythic structure—such as medieval kabbalah, which has plenty of sexist aspects, but which speaks of gender as something that is relational. The Divine, and the individual, can have one gender in relationship to one entity and another gender in relationship to a different entity. That’s powerful for me as a reflection of how we might sometimes experience gender in our bodies and souls.

On another note, I love the moment in your poem when you say, laughingly, that the body still believes in time. In most spiritual systems, time is an illusion—but it’s the deepest reality for anything with a body. And I love the idea that the body can only appreciate the beauty of the woods when it’s accompanied by the soul, and vice versa. Time and the timeless have to go together.

I am always trying to understand the dichotomy between the weightless and timeless soul and the body, which feeds on other bodies and is implicated in death, violence, and time. In one of my poems, “The Face of the Deep is Heavy” (the title is a quote from the book of Job), I write this:

I give nothing
says my soul curled up in the night
I take away nothing

my soul does not know what is true
but the sea knows

we are the life that comes from death
we stand on crushed shells

of the creatures we once were…

Here is another poem, “The Dragon and the Unicorn,” on a similar theme. It was inspired by “The Lady and the Unicorn,” a series of six unicorn tapestries housed in Paris.

The Dragon and the Unicorn

She will never understand
why he does not eat the maiden
and be done.
If that white horn were hers, she would use it differently:
to play dance tunes for volcanoes. To pierce God.

She will not lay her head in a pale lap.
She despises halters,
and even before she was born, she was not a virgin.
She has a double portion of lust
for the world and for what lies behind the world.

The unicorn vanquishes death. The dragon is not impressed.
She curls around the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil,
flicks her tail, pretends to doze.
The unicorn gazes at heaven. The dragon eyes a bird.

The maiden shows the unicorn a mirror,
round and perfect as Venus, its blond handle graceful.
The unicorn looks into the mirror and smiles.
The maiden shows the mirror to the dragon.
The dragon breathes on it.
It cracks into a million pieces,
each one reflecting her burning eyes.
Has she not improved matters?

Death will be back. She has no doubt of it
and it will be her turn then. She will choose differently.
She will let death live
in her, and consult it
at every moment.

Thanks for this conversation, and much love,


Sept. 24, 2012

Dear Jill,

I love “we stand on crushed shells // of the creatures we once were”—that strikes me as a kind of transgender motto, although I find myself uncomfortably aware that whatever I mean by “I” at any given moment will end up as the “crushed shell” of whoever I become. I’m coming to think that one of the most interesting aspects of trans experience, both phenomenologically and in terms of poetry, is that it reverses the usual ratios of being and becoming. I mostly experience myself as becoming, a process, transition from not-being to—more transition. I have a sense of being too, but it’s tenuous, fractured, relative. As a result, neither my body nor gender feel like firm foundations on which to build or rigid templates that threaten to oversimplify my messiness. Reading your poems—I’m so happy to see them, they meld myth and archetype in a fluent, precise and personal tongue—I recognize the peculiarity of my trans perspective, and my fantasy that my transition was bringing me toward some kind of stable sense of gender and identity.

Most importantly, though, your combination of critique of gender cookie-cutters and embrace of gendered symbolic systems gives flesh to something I say but don’t, I think, fully experience: that whatever else it is, gender is a language of self-definition, self-awareness, self-expression. Some of the violence of conventional genders is social, physical, economic—beating up feminine boys or masculine girls on the playground, killing trans women in city streets, not hiring the gender deviant, not paying women as much as men, etc. But some of the violence is what happens to us when we try to understand and express ourselves with an inadequate language, a language that has too few verbs and nouns and only the most simplistic syntax, a language that renders much of us mute, inexpressible, unthinkable, unspeakable. So I don’t see a contradiction between your critique of the conventional meanings of “woman” and your embrace of feminine archetypes and myths: having suffered the effects of a gender language that is unworthy of and inadequate to you, you, as poet and scholar and teacher, have scoured the treasury of human song and story to create a more capacious language, one that enables God-piercing double-lusting carnivorous unicorns to name themselves, that offers women feminine symbolic language for the darkest, wildest, most violent, least conventionally feminine aspects of themselves. Your language doesn’t substitute one set of terms for another, insisting that women stop naming themselves as passive and only name themselves as violent; that would be just as inadequate and coercive as the conventional gender language you reject. Your unicorns and dragons stand in relation to maidens, your Persephones are passionately involved with boundary-blurring Hades figures. As you say, you are striving toward gender languages that are relational rather than static, and the sky of your conception of “woman” is crowded with wheeling constellations.

My sky is pretty bare by comparison. It’s foggy and quiet in the dawn of my gender, one or two birds are singing but I can’t name them. The little window of my self frames a world of familiar things to which I stand in new, still-evolving relationships. Whole histories unfold in a single day, histories that those around me would probably call the past or future, childhood or myth, or utopia or apocalypse. I call them “today,” and know that the today I call “tomorrow” will erase and rewrite them as patterns in sand are erased and rewritten by waves.

Letter to the Feminine

You are a dream of clam shell and olive,
dark places between tails and spines, sheets stained
to reveal the spiritual complications
of your carefully perforated wings,

a calculated performance I rehearse again and again,
style detached, breasts incandescent,
little theaters of impossibility, immature stages
of the women in which you clothe me –

dead women, married women, women stuck between medieval pages,
fluttering in slips, flirting with socialism.
mounted, judged, incarcerated,
rubbed by unknown hands.

I wade through your editions,
lives you’ve bound, lives you’ve stitched,
lives you’ve flushed with dedication,
to unearth the truths you’ve hidden

in my own time, my own skin,
my own self unfolding
toward you and away,
over your passionate objections, through your suffering.



Sept. 24, 2012

Dear Joy,

Thank you for reading my poem so carefully. I’m grateful. I’m just going to take a minute to enjoy “carnivorous unicorn.”

And I want to take another minute to appreciate your sense of becoming. So many of us build a castle out of our identity, holding strongly to the self-definitions we have won with great difficulty. The unfolding, shifting, unpredictable sense of becoming seems to me to be a real truth about all of us, one that many of us try to hide from others and ourselves. Thank you for exposing my sand castles!

You speak of the feminine as a “calculated performance,” but I love the image in your poem of the feminine as a book publisher, producing various bound volumes (which of course are not as neatly bound as history or society would have it) that we can read, but not experience. “My own self unfolding” then feels like your own book of the feminine coming into being, writing itself down, beginning to be read. “Clam shell and olive,” for me, dips into the world of myth: Aphrodite being born fully formed out of the sea. You’ve hidden creation stories in your poems! I love the phrase “spiritual complications”—it somehow manages to span theology, gender ambiguity, and childbirth.

I’m also very struck by what you say about gender and language. “Some of the violence is what happens to us when we try to understand and express ourselves with an inadequate language, a language that has too few verbs and nouns and only the most simplistic syntax, a language that renders much of us mute, inexpressible, unthinkable, unspeakable.” I’ve had the experience of having something I wanted to say or feel and not being able to get there because I didn’t have the language—and having to painfully, slowly, almost traumatically invent the language (which is why I love poet Alicia Ostriker’s phrase “stealing the language”). Sometimes I’ve brought together communities of women to try and find this language which is unknown, unmade—language about spirit, about body, about sexuality, about community, about love. It seems to me this is a necessary act of resistance: to attempt to discover what we would say if our language truly belonged to us, if our vocabulary was not deliberately scoured of words of self-knowing. It seems to me that you, “in the dawn of your gender,” are inventing your own language, from which I and others have learned and will learn so much.

I’m sending you most of a poem called “What is in the Goddess’s Tefillin?” (Tefillin are Jewish prayer objects containing sacred text, traditionally worn only by men but now worn by some women.) Like your “Letter to the Feminine,” it’s a search for “the dream of clam shell and olive.”

a tendril from a grapevine
one grape clinging like a jewel

a stone from a funeral
hide from a tambourine
the bag of a weary midwife

wicks of Sabbath candles
ink of burst berries
ground antlers
floodwater from a submerged city

seed from a barley harvest
emptiness of famine

sugarcane   quartz crystal sun

a parchment
who is like your people
one nation in all the earth

no words

an orphic hymn:
creator of the world
diversity of the sea
you are the great fullness
and you alone give birth—

and who is like you
o my people
who bind your stories to your arms

I too
tie my story to the parabolic curves of my body
my physics like an alphabet

do not think
I have remembered
you must recover me
from the tar pits of the years

bind me as a sign upon your hand
let me be an ornament
between your eyes
my temple
is in the glands and synapses of your body


So glad to be remembering with you.



Sept. 25, 2012

Dear Jill,

I’m so grateful for this conversation, for all you are teaching me both about your engagement with gender, the body and poetry—and about mine. I’ve never seen my own experience in this light before, and I’ve never reflected, even in the privacy of my own mind, with the feeling of safety, acceptance and affirmation, of compassionate welcoming witness, you have given me.

One of my deepest wounds—I think it’s common among trans people—is my lifelong awareness that most people won’t accept what I know about myself, won’t grant me the right of self-awareness and self-definition. I still carry on a silent argument with voices that insist that my drive to become myself is delusion or solipsism, that my expression of my gender is caricature and self-parody, that there is no perspective or set of values from which I am not essentially monstrous. I grew up telling myself that I really was who and what I thought I was, even though no one could see it and no one would believe it. Like many trans people, I kept combing and questioning my feelings, testing them, trying to prove to myself and to that invisible audience that they, and I, were true. The conventional model of transition—the one that gets publicized—seems to erase this argument by saying that I have always been “a woman trapped in a man’s body,” so that once my body is brought into alignment with the woman I’ve always been, all the conventional forces that reinforce non-trans people’s sense of gender identity should reinforce mine. But I have never been “a woman trapped in a man’s body”—I’ve been me, a person with a male body and female gender identity and little in the way of language or safety to explore what that has meant at different moments in my life. This conversation has given me both, freeing me to say aloud, to myself and others, that whatever else I am or seem to be, I continue to become. Thank you for accepting and embracing this truth. This me.

I celebrate the work you are doing to help women develop richer, more precise and embracing language for female selves. Having lived on both sides of the gender binary, I have found that neither masculinity nor femininity are adequate languages for selves. Gender is mostly elaborated as an external language, a means for identifying (and misidentifying) one another, and locating masses of people in large interlocking systems of relationship. Thus, the work that you and other feminists are doing to enrich the language of femininity is also blazing a trail for those who identify as male.

You recognize something in “Letter to the Feminine” that’s crucial to the language I’m working to develop—the idea that I can name myself and my relation to the world paratactically, through accretion, lists of overlapping and sometimes contradictory assertions that wave toward the truth that keeps growing through and beyond me. In your “What is in the Goddess’ Tefillin?” poem you do this too, bringing an extraordinary range of image and experience together into a torrent that washes away boundaries between modes of spiritual experience:

wicks of Sabbath candles
ink of burst berries
ground antlers
floodwater from a submerged city

This list reminds me how wide and wild the soul—my soul—is, how rich the birthright of humanity. Thank you.

Letter to God

You say because I’m always about to die,
I am truly alive. My shadow stretches
over fallen branches, my skin smiles
under fingers of light, grass smiles along the path

You say is mine.
When You look at me, you see a child.
When I look at You, I see
a woman under a tree, a dog, a sign,

libraries of books I neither read nor write.
Life for You is easy as death, You do both all the time.
Try it You say. Be dead. Now be alive.
Now be everything you desire. Now let desire lie.


Sept. 25, 2012

Dear Joy,

I’m so grateful, too, for your loving witness, your poetry, your friendship, and your courageous presence with these questions and becomings. You help me understand the evanescent images I am trying to look at without holding them too tightly. And you help me by being so vulnerable to your ephemeral self.

As per your penultimate request—Now, be everything you desire!




Joy Ladin, Gottesman Professor of English at Yeshiva University, is the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution, and author of the recently published Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, as well as six books of poetry, including newly-published The Definition of Joy, Forward Fives Award winner Coming to Life, and Lambda Literary Award finalist Transmigration. Her essays and poems have been widely published.

This article originally appeared on, December 6, 2012.