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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.