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

Faces of Shekhinah: Meeting the Divine Feminine in Jewish Texts

Devotion to the archetypal Divine Mother (“Wise Woman,” “Bride,” “Queen”) has always been a part of Jewish practice.

This course, open to all genders, offers an in-depth exploration of the enormous variety of Divine female imagery in the Torah, rabbinic literature, Jewish mystical text, and contemporary liturgy.

Participants are invited to discuss and meditate on the meaning of these images, discovering their inherent potential for healing and transformation.

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

the face of the deep is heavy

“water hides itself like stone
and the face of the deep is heavy”
—Job 38:30


the sea says come to the shore of the sea
stand between what you were

and what you are
gills fallen away

parents murdered
mourning the villages of old language

the tide flowing in and out
the breathing of the stars filling the body

God gives

and God takes away

blessed is God’s name Continue reading the face of the deep is heavy

every city has a soul

and if you want to get your shit together
go to Jerusalem

a traveling priest said that

there were many wandering saints
in the streets of Jerusalem
before the bombings grew terrible
before the dragons hatched
their hundredth generation

I lived near a playground
my Friday night synagogue
shook with dancing
Sabbath was the sound
of a thousand hands clapping
the faithful ran out to the balcony
to get a breath of air
the blue clouds were a ritual
bath in the sky

on Yom Kippur
the cars stayed home
roller bladers roamed the streets
in spring
there were roses and fresh fruit
saffron bagged in plastic
in the open market

I studied genesis
at the feet of a humble woman
fell in love
in a field of giant pine cones
walked in the alleys
the little alleys
where the tourists buy silver spiceboxes

the silversmiths came from Morocco
when fire licked up the Jewish quarter
in Marrakesh
there is no more fine silvermaking

the Arab taxi drivers
the poor Jewish taxi drivers
took me to the Western Wall
took me to marriage counseling
took me to a costume party
they were like God
they saw everything

I went to the site of a dovecote
two thousand years old
where they raised white pigeons for sacrifice
I went to the site of a demolished home
a Palestinian girl gave me a flower
I prayed at the Western Wall
they threw stones at me
I went to the caves
where rebels against the Romans hid
I wanted to hide there

wilderness is not a place
it is a time
longing to mend
what cannot be mended
longing to break
what cannot be broken
wilderness is a name
you call in the ear of a lover
but you are speaking to someone else

every city has a soul
but Jerusalem is a scar at the heart of the world
I lost my home there
my home is a feral cat yowling
in the streets of Jerusalem

I’d like to find that traveling priest
and tell him something

Author, teacher, midrashist, mystic, poet, essayist, and priestess