“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.

Love,
Joy

 

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,
Jill

 

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.

Love,
Joy

 

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

nothing
no words
nothing
blackness
blackness
stars

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

remember

So glad to be remembering with you.

Love,
Jill

 

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!

Love,
Jill

 

 

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 herkind.org, December 6, 2012.

The Hebrew Goddess: Complexity, Unity, Gender, and Society

by Jay Michaelson and Jill Hammer

The biblical religion which eventually became Judaism was but one of many authentic Israelite traditions. The priestly elite condemned those other traditions, banning their magical practices, outlawing their images, and insisting that God was only male, and only in the sky. But we today are not only their heirs, but also the heirs to those suppressed and marginalized voices who spoke of the earth, the goddess, and the sacred feminine. What does this mean for those of us who seek to create a Jewish identity that includes these voices?
In their new, radical, revolutionary prayer book, a group of modern kohanot – priestesses – has recovered, reinvented, and renewed some of these silenced voices to create a liturgy that is alive to the multiple energies of the manifest world. Not only is the result, the Kohenet Siddur, edited by Rabbi Jill Hammer and Holly Taya Shere, “not your father’s siddur” – this is a siddur which, if he were a traditionalist, your father would regard as heretical. In discussing the siddur project, Jill and I talked about nonduality and the Divine feminine, the difference between unity and nonduality, the surprising accord between polymorphism/polytheism and monism (and discord with monotheism), what’s meant by “returning to the womb,” goddess worship and complexity/hierarchy, Ken Wilber and the web of life, re-encountering the Divine masculine, and other fun stuff. Read on. -jm

Jay: Let’s start with by talking about the title of Raphael Patai’s seminal book, The Hebrew Goddess. Who is the Hebrew Goddess? What do we mean, conceptually or experientially, by this term? I noticed in the Kohenet siddur that the goddess seems to stand for nonduality, which as you know is a subject I’ve done a fair amount of work on lately. I have a somewhat different view: to me, the language of god/goddess is important precisely because it is a dyad. Now, goddess may indeed be the non-dividing, non-dyading principle in that dyad – but that is still in the context of a dyadic relationship. To me, to say that goddess stands for the nondual flattens out what’s interesting about the goddess as an entity and object of devotion. Another way of asking this is, why is the goddess female?

Jill:The Goddess as a feminine yet non-dual force partly has to do with the mammalian experience of womb/child/mother as a unity/multiplicity experience. It also has to do with the cycles of birth and death, with which the Goddess is almost invariably associated (while God-stuff often has to do with the transcendent, the infinite, and/or the hero’s journey through the cycles). I experience these characteristics deeply in my spiritual life, yet when I try to talk about them I feel I’m approaching gender essentialism.

I struggle a lot with the non-dual piece. My experience is that people (at least in American Goddess culture) see Goddess as non-dual and this distinguishes their experience from the general Western experience of God; however, saying “the feminine side of the non-dual” seems a bit absurd, since that by definition is dual.

Jay: Maybe it’s helpful to use the word “unitive” and “dualistic” as the pairing, and then “nondual” as that which includes both. I tried to make this distinction in my book, but I don’t think it came through. For example, a few people have told me”ooh, I had an experience of the nondual.” What they really mean is they had a unitive experience, a sense that everything is one and/or connnected. Whereas a nondual experience is… just this.

I think the womb piece is spot-on and it doesn’t feel essentialist to me. Wombs are pretty darn universal. Because of my own woman/man issues, I still experience the unitive as either non-gendered or as male. It feels like “me,” which feels male. But when I look inside that, I see the anxiety/discomfort about being in a (female) womb, which is probably related to my own sexuality.

Jill: The unitive vs. non-dual distinction is useful (and helpful to me in digesting my own experiences of both). I appreciate your sharing about your experience of the unitive and also about your discomfort with wombs — an issue I think many men and women share. I believe much of the levitical purity system deals with fear of the womb and fear of death, two issues which seem intertwined in Western myth. Thinking about your comments, I wonder how the queerness of many male mystics impacts this. (Not that straight guys don’t have issues too…)

Jay: One irony here is that “paganism” is at once more multi-theistic and more uni-theistic than monotheism. On the one hand, paganism includes lots of energies, deities, etc.; it’s very polymorphous, or even polytheist. On the other hand, in the pagan view, we’re all part of one web and not separate. Whereas, traditional monotheism has only one big Energy, but yet maintains that I’m separate from it . Monotheism seems like more of “one,” but it’s actually more of “two.”

This is similar to a phenomenon I’ve noticed in several unitive traditions. Strangely, though one might expect a radically iconoclastic emphasis on nothingness in nondual mystical traditions, in fact the opposite is the case: religious traditions which most embrace nonduality often embrace polytheism – Hinduism, for example. Classical theosophical Kabbalah also embraces a theological polymorphism when it posits a cosmos in which the higher contains the lower, the lower contains the higher, and lower forms of religious expression are seen as the highest form of nondual expression, since it is the dance the One does as the many.

Ken Wilber talks about these things a lot, but I feel like he’s a little too “male” to really get the web-of-life view he tends to disparage. One argument against web-of-life views is that the web-of-life is regressive (“back to the womb”) and not able to do much with real hierarchies, like complexity, or animal > plant > mineral. Of course, maybe that’s what some web/goddess people want. But I think it’s possible to have a back-to-the-womb piece that isn’t about going “back,” as in backwards, but more like getting “back in touch with, and then back out.” There can be a goddess model that includes hierarchies of complexity.

And, even if having both (i.e. both circle/web/feminine and line/hierarchy/masculine) is desirable, there is also a question of balance. Let’s agree that what we want is 50% masculine, 50% feminine. Well, since we’re now at 98% masculine, “balance” really means “more feminine.” We could say “yes, of course we also want to include hierarchy and rationality and so on, but that’s not where we have to place emphasis right now because we’ve got plenty of that already, thanks.” I think this is what Wilberites tend not to get on their way up the hierarchy of life stagges- they’re an elite few, and maybe not so interested in moving the world from “stage 3” to “stage 4” if they’re already at “stage 6” or whatever. Whereas, when we are teaching actual people, our work has to be about moving to a stage that is itself not ultimate, but which is a much-needed next step from where 98% of the world is right now. We can worry about next steps later.

Jill: I’m right with you on the irony of monotheism (where there is one god but many things) and paganism (where there’s really only one thing).

Your words about the womb and Ken Wilber reminded me of something that has been transformative for me regarding the back-to-the-womb experience. One of my early Goddess experiences was studying with Layne Redmond, a percussionist who researches priestess/Goddess connections to drumming. While teaching about drumming as an echo of the maternal/fetal heartbeat, she noted the fact that ova—the actual eggs that will later produce children–are formed in a girl baby before she is born. This means that part of what became me was not only in my biological mother’s womb, but in my grandmother’s womb. This blew my mind. It completely transformed the way I thought about my body and the way I thought about time. It blows my mind even more now to think that if my daughter Raya has children, their earliest origin will have been in me. So for me, the idea of “back to the womb” is not regressive. It’s more of an anchor in time and space, and a reflection of the truth that our bodies and spirits blend; we’re literally not separate from others. This is true on all kinds of levels, but for humans, it’s the womb where this unitive experience is deeply physicalized.

While Shosh and I were visiting Newgrange and Knowth in Ireland, we saw how people five thousand years ago put immense time and resources into building womb-like dark tombs/shrines where the solstice light would fall once a year on the ashes of their dead loved ones. This seems so deeply related to the notion of the earth as the place of the seed, and the idea that the earth-womb (unlike the literal human womb) can bring life from what has died. That’s also the “back to the womb” piece in a non-regressive way.

As far as complexity goes, I don’t see the Goddess in Her most ancient forms as opposed to complexity: Inanna and Isis preside over social contracts, the arts of civilization, kingship, and many things which are hierarchical. The overarching principle seems to be that the Goddess transcends hierarchy, because everything is born and dies, no matter how simple or complex it is. But She doesn’t eliminate development or hierarchy. That would be contrary to Her work, which is creation (and ultimately destruction).

Jay:I didn’t know that about the womb memory – that is pretty amazing. I do think there’s a regressive feature to the idea of “back to the womb,” though, as it is usually taken to mean goingback to pre-differentiation, to infant-like oneness, etc. It’s regressive psychologically, but, as you point out, not ontologically.

I need to learn more about this issue. I see on reading my words that I’m still captive to the monotheistic myth that “paganism = orgiastic, while monotheism = rationalistic.” Clearly that is false. I think a lot of modern Goddess-worshipping people think similarly, though, and construct a fake goddess in the image of anti-rationalism. In this way they do disservice to the actual goddess figures which are trans-rational rather than sub-rational, and play into the mean-spirited critics of the movement.

Jill: Psychologically, at least for me and for many other women whose writing I’ve read, returning to the womb is about experiencing our own creativity and our desire to fulfill our potential– and the potential of the world, which we sense through the unitive mystical uterine experience. The return to the womb is the journey to the underworld, which is a complex and integrative journey acknowledging one’s separateness and one’s merging at once. It’s an engine for increasing emotional, spiritual, intellectual and physical fecundity (not necessarily biological fertility, though that’s part of it for some of us). It’s about entrainment, not about regression. Think of a drum circle. Being in the rhythm doesn’t eliminate “you,” it adds to you and puts you in context. Maybe for the male principle, returning to the womb feels like a regression or an escape, but for women, in my experience, it can be like taking a step into our own creative selves by entraining with the universe.

In Ireland, we went to the cave of Oweynagat, which I was telling you about: it’s a cave that looks like a vaginal canal with a uterus at the end. There is a birthing stone there too. It’s considered the dwelling place of the Morrigan (a death and magic goddess) or Maeve (a sex, fertility, land, and kingship-granting goddess). We sat there in darkness, and even though I am a claustrophobe, I was completely at peace inside Mother Earth. The astonishing thing is that the two women present, after we left the cave, both began bleeding (I haven’t bled in over two years due to being a nursing mother, so this really was wild). That’s what I mean by entrainment. The womb doesn’t eliminate the individual; it re-awakens the fertile potential in the individual.

I want to talk about another subject, though. I’ve spent a lot of time the last few months thinking about the divine masculine and re-integrating that into my self-concept. For me, the divine masculine often corresponds with a sense of being supported, loved, or guided in my specificity (my sense of the divine feminine is much more about embodying and accepting the whole). I’ve also been thinking about the ways the male reproductive process (in which seed has to be given to another separate being) might relate to “masculine” kinds of spirituality that emphasize the letting go of attachment and/or the giving up of control to a higher power. These are just stray thoughts and not at all formed, but I am curious about how a later version of our siddur might open up the question of masculine and feminine energies for the individuals who use it.

My current question about balance is: do both men and women need 50%/50%, or does the world need that, while the balance for specific men and women might be different?

Jay: On the question of balance, I think both men and women need to be in touch with some of each, but I would never want to prescribe a ratio. In any case, all of men and women also need 100% of a self-construct not polluted by sexism. For example, Ann Coulter would say that she is very feminine by being a pre-feminist woman. (Notwithstanding the obvious contradiction of saying so as a careerist and ambitious writer.) Yet I would say that, while “pre-feminism” may indeed be a form of femininity, it is a form of femininity that is part of the subjugating process of sexism. So I do actually want to de-legitimize it somewhat, at least in terms of its relationship to an ideal. If Coulter has really gone through the process, done the inner work, broken down all the walls, and come out of it willingly saying “yes, I experience my femininity as wanting to be Taken by a Strong Man,” then baruch hashem. I have met people like that in the queer community. But I suspect her story is somewhat different and if she were drinking ayahuasca, she would be horrified at what she saw.

I want to make another point about balance. I think the many men who kvetch about kohenet not being “open” to them need to chillax, remember their privilege, and be quiet. And I think the work you are doing in kohenet vis-a-vis women is just beginning. Yes, at some point there needs to be a more subtle and more integrated relation to the masculine within the kohenet practice and text. But I think that point can wait awhile. If it organically evolves from the many women doing the work, as part of their process, of course. But at the moment, I’m interested in kohenet-masculinity only to the extent that it informs kohenet-femininity.

I’m afraid I’m a masculine-spirituality essentialist here. I think masculine spirituality is connected with building, doing, big tall buildings, standing on top of the mountain, as well as violence, war, domination, hierarchy, strength, linearity. To me, anything that is about letting go or giving up is about relinquishing control and thus a necessary counterweight to masculinity, rather than an expression of it. Personally, and I think this is true for many men, the reproductive process still seems to end with insemination. That is, of course, completely ridiculous. But I think that for many men, the subsequent nine months of work are rendered almost invisible, so much so that it’s like ejaculation->birth. I mean, whole civilizations refer to children as a man’s “seed”! It pains me that, as a gay man, even if I have children, the invisibility of the birthing process is likely to be even greater.

Jill: This is very powerful, what you’re saying here. This may be related to the way women have a hard time not giving away the store– we’re trained to nurture, so being told that we’re focusing on ourselves too much is triggering. And yet– women have an internalized masculine that we need to deal with, not run away from. We have fathers, brothers, lovers, sons, and male-introjects, and these relationships are part of who we are.

As far as Ann Coulter , I’m reading a book by Sue Monk Kidd, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter(She’s also the author of the Secret Life of Bees). Monk Kidd deals with many of these issues in sophisticated and real ways. One of the things she talks about is the “favored daughter” syndrome– the desire of many women to reject the feminine so the father will approve of them. She sees this in religious women who defend the patriarchal system vehemently, colluding in the oppression of women, all so the father will see them as worthwhile. A mother who is identified with the patriarchy will also raise her daughter in this way, rejecting her female self and trying to make her conform to the patriarchal norms. This is the kind of psychological process than can create a vehement anti-feminist– or, if the daughter’s female self rebels, a powerful feminist.

Monk Kidd suggests this process has to be reversed through (you guessed it) a return to the womb and a re-initiation into the self. I think the role of initiation in becoming a Goddess-connected person is very important; most Goddess-following people I know have an initiation story.

I too experience the Divine masculine as being about building and achieving. I do think that the drive to achieve is connected to the frailty of human life. We build because we want to last, even though we can’t. For me, this feels connected to the male process of emitting seed, which is ephemeral but has the potential to create life. This seems connected to the figure of Christ, who dies to create eternal life, or the ideas of the Buddha, who encourages non-attachment and yet deep engagement in the world.

But I hear what you are saying about ejaculation -> birth. It’s so powerful to think about the problem this entails for one’s consciousness of human development (and your personal pain is moving to me too). I suppose this is how Western religion manages to elide the importance of women in making human beings; what women do is seen as secondary, bizarre as that is in the face of biology. In a similar act of forgetting, women’s other creativities– literary, theological, artistic, agricultural, medical, etc.– are rendered invisible.

Jay: That’s why the Kohenet siddur is so powerful—women’s creativity made visible, goddess made visible.

This article originally appeared in Zeek, September 7, 2010.

Priestesses, Bibliomancy, and The Anointing of Miriam

The priestesses of the Ancient Near East were poets, theologians, prophets, ritual experts, political figures and administrators. They were ritual workers who, like male priests, maintained relationships between humans and deity, between this world and the spirit world. Israelite culture arose out of a milieu where, in spite of the growing inequality between men and women, both men and women served as religious workers.

If there is a priestess in the Torah—Miriam must surely be it. WE know she is a Levite by birth because, when her name first appears, in Exodus 15:20, she is described as “sister of Aaron” the high priest. She dances at the Sea of Reeds with a timbrel, one of the traditional ritual implements of Near Eastern priestesses, and leads women in choral song, another priestess role. Some have even noted that “Miriam haneviah” (Miriam the prophetess), the title of Miriam in Exodus 15, may once have read Miriam haleviah, Miriam the Levite. In Numbers 12, she appears by the high priest’s side.

Numbers 12, the incident of Miriam’s rebellion in the wilderness, is also the Torah’s most ringing condemnation of women as ritual leaders. Yet that narrative allows us to hear “Miriam the priestess” into speech.

In Numbers 12, Moses’ sister Miriam joins with her brother Aaron to complain about Moses’ Cushite wife. The two go on to criticize Moses’ failure to share leadership with his two siblings, “for God has also spoken through us.” God chastises Miriam and Aaron for their assumption that they are equal with Moses. Then God turns Miriam’s skin white and scaly with the disease known as tzara’at—often translated as leprosy, though tzara’at is not leprosy but some sort of spiritual impurity that manifests in a physical condition.

Aaron (who is not punished) pleads with Moses to heal Miriam, and Moses prays for her. God contemptuously ordains that Miriam be shut out of camp for seven days— “If her father had spat in her face, would she not hide her face in shame seven days”? Only after this period of seclusion does Miriam return. After this, we never hear from her again—Miriam dies a few chapters later. The girl who watched over Moses in the Nile and danced at the shore of the Sea of Reeds vanishes into ignominy. No mourning rites are recorded for her.

The rabbis and the later commentators say very little about Miriam’s attempt to claim equal power with Moses. They must feel that she is barking up the wrong tree. As God says in the text, “If there is a prophet of God among you, I make myself known to him in a vision or I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses; he is trusted in all my house…” (Numbers 12:7). Miriam cannot hope to equal Moses’ power. Rav Kook, in fact, emphasizes this point by stating that Miriam, by criticizing Moses, criticized the uniqueness and truth of the Torah, Moses’ prophecy (Olat Re’iyah, vol. 1, p.334). Thus the Torah commanded her “sin” be specially remembered (Deut. 24:9). No one is allowed to question the veracity of Moses’ word, and in this story, it is the woman who is specially punished for doing so.

Like other feminist readers, I have always felt the story of Miriam’s expulsion to be a massive power grab on the part of the male Israelite leadership. The tale discredits Miriam, the only woman leader we have seen among many male leaders of the Exodus (Moses, Aaron, Joshua, etc.). Miriam is banned from the camp. Psychologically, this banishment echoes the banishment of women from the priesthood. While women all over the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean serve as priestesses, Israelite women do not do so according to any mainstream text. Though there are a variety of possible priestess candidates—prophetesses; the mysterious ministering women (tzovot) who served at the Tent of Meeting; the medium (ba’alat ov) whom King Saul consults; the women who baked cakes for the Queen of Heaven and wove tapestries for Asherah—none of them appear in a way that allows us to perceive an institution or a lineage. The story of Miriam’s exile establishes the Torah’s limits on women’s spiritual leadership.

The rabbinic interpretations of this narrative focus on Miriam’s attack on Moses regarding his wife. Reading the text against the grain, these interpreters imagine that Miriam challenges Moses because she believes he is neglecting his wife (cf. Rashi on Numbers 12:1). Apparently Moses’ prophecy is so great that he cannot pause in his relations with the Divine in order to have sex. Miriam objects to this, and therefore she speaks ill of Moses. Although the sages credit Miriam with the best of intentions, they shake their heads at her behavior. They imagine that God lovingly chastises a pious woman, because she spreads rumors about her brother’s sex life. Later commentaries to the verses in Numbers dwell on how important it is not to gossip about others.

One Sabbath several years ago I went to synagogue, and the rabbi gave a sermon on Miriam’s punishment. He spoke with a great deal of nuance— pointing out, for example, how difficult it must be for siblings to accept unequal roles in leadership. Yet his sermon basically replicated the party line: Miriam was not equal to Moses in her prophetic gifts, and she was wrong to think that she was. God struck her with the scaly white skin of tzara’at to teach her this lesson.

I was not feeling well that day and was not at all prepared to cope with sitting politely through yet another sermon that did not recognize the neat way Miriam’s legacy was bundled up and discarded through this story. Though I respected the rabbi, I couldn’t bear to listen to the unintended message of exclusion. I unobtrusively left. When I returned to the sanctuary after meditating in an upstairs hallway, the Torah service had begun and the poised, well-spoken bat mitzvah was chanting the lines about Miriam’s punishment and expulsion.

I had absolutely had it. Why had I come to shul—to hear this abuse hurled upon the one female prophet of the Torah? To remember that no one could be equal to Moses, and therefore no one could ever repair the inherent sexism of this document? At that moment, I felt that if this was all the Torah had to offer me, I was through with Torah. But I couldn’t leave for a second time without feeling like a spectacle, and anyway I was feeling too ill to get up. I sat in my seat and prayed to Goddess to help me cope with this painful story. Then—I don’t know what made me do it— I closed my chumash (my copy of the five books of Moses) and opened it again at random. This is a practice known as bibliomancy—divination by choosing a verse from a sacred text at random. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Romans and Greeks have used bibliomancy since earliest times. I used to do it as a child, and in a moment of spiritual desperation I turned to it again.

The pages parted in two places—one where my finger had gone, and another place as well. I looked at both. The first one described the anointing oil used to sanctify the priests and the sacred vessels. The second—the second was really interesting. It was, I first thought, a description of the priestly ordination. A priest was anointing a man on his right ear, right thumb, and right toe with blood and oil. I assumed this man was about to become a priest. But when I looked more closely, I saw that in fact I was reading a description of the ceremony to bring a leper (a metzora, a person with tzara’at) back into the community—the very ceremony Miriam would have undergone in order to re-enter the camp.

I was thunderstruck. The only two rituals in which this threefold anointing ceremony takes place are the ordination of a priest (Leviticus 8), and the re-entry of a cured metzora into the holy shrine after his or her recovery (Leviticus 14). (Neither the king nor the nazirite receives a similar threefold anointing.) The priest is shut inside the sanctuary for seven days, after which he brings a sin offering, a burnt offering, and a meal offering and is anointed with blood and oil. The metzora too is shut up for seven days, brings a sin offering, a burnt offering, and a meal offering, and then is anointed with blood and oil. (The metzora goes through other rituals as well, many of which have resonance with the Yom Kippur rituals of the high priest.) I later learned that Rashi, the medieval scholar who comments on everything, has no comment on this similarity. Neither does Nachmanides. The tradition is silent. And well it should be, for to expose this sameness would be to expose the anointing of Miriam.

We are told in the Bible that after seven days in the wilderness, Miriam was brought back into the camp. The final ritual Miriam would have gone through, after her exclusion from the camp, is virtually identical to the ritual her brother and his sons went through in order to become priests. In terms of ritual, it could just as well be her ordination ceremony. Once the connection is made between Miriam’s re-entry and the ritual of bringing in the metzora, the image of Miriam being anointed arises in the mind. It is inevitable that this image should arise; the very image the text is trying to cover up.

What a sacred text represses must return in a hidden form. If one considers the threefold anointing, the story of Miriam’s punishment becomes a repressed narrative about her ordination as a priestess. Why else does the Bible ordain that a ceremony of priestly ordination be carried out for all those stricken with tzara’at? “In the case of a tzara’at-plague, be very careful to do all that the levitical priests shall tell you… remember what God did to Miriam on the journey as you left Egypt.” (Numbers 24:9). By assigning this ceremony to those stricken with tzara’at, the Torah hints to itself that the story of Miriam’s tzara’at is not a story of sin, arrogance or complaints about a foreign wife, but rather the story of a priestess who had to be silenced. In this respect, Miriam represents all the female leaders whom later Israelite sources suppressed and silenced.

This is what I imagine: Miriam in the wilderness, secluded for seven days. Unlike her male counterparts, who go into the womb-like space of the Tabernacle to be consecrated, Miriam wanders in the open spaces—perhaps on visionquest, perhaps to learn from the strangers and outsiders who dwell at the edge of the camp. On the eighth day Miriam returns. At the door of the tent of meeting, she brings a sin offering, a burnt offering, a meal offering. She is anointed with blood in three places: ear, thumb, toe. She is anointed with oil in the same three places. (In fact, according to the full ritual of the metzora she is also anointed on the head, as a king is.) Who anoints her? Her brother Aaron? The Talmud says that it is God, not Aaron, who acts as the high priest to bring Miriam into the camp (Babylonian Talmud, Zevachim 102b). One wonders if this midrash subconsciously recognizes a spiritual equality the text cannot acknowledge.

In a rabbinic midrash on Genesis, which I saw interpreted beautifully by the dancers of the Avodah Dance Ensemble, the shepherdess Rachel suspects her father will not honor his promise to marry her to her beloved Jacob. She gives Jacob signs so that at their wedding, he will know her even though she is veiled. Later, Rachel teaches these signs to her sister Leah, to help Leah masquerade as Rachel. Rachel does this, according to the midrash, so that Leah will not be shamed. These signs are the touching of the ear, thumb, and toe: the same signs used for priestly anointing. The midrash fancifully connects the rituals of the priesthood to the priesthood’s foremother, Leah—and also raises the disquieting notion that these signs were once passed from woman to woman.

The priestly signs themselves seem to imply the ability to listen (the ear), to act (the hand), and to walk the right path (the foot). They are threefold as the stages of life are threefold: youth, maturity, age; maiden, mother, crone. Or perhaps they represent the three realms of the world: the heavens, the great deep, and the earth between. The blood of anointing represents life, while the oil represents sanctity. (The blood is animal, the oil vegetable, comprising the two major forms of life on earth.) While the blood of the biblical ritual came from an animal sacrifice, one wonders if it might hearken back to menstrual blood; the blood of a woman’s life force.

Maybe I’ll always have doubts, but I continue to believe that just as the earliest of the traditions of the ancient Near East had priestesses who served the deity and the people, my tradition did as well. The Torah hints this to us in its undercurrents, in the sediments of its inky letters, in its ritual lists to which no one pays much attention. The priestesses of the Ancient Near East, who were poets, theologians, prophets, ritual experts, political figures and administrators, are part of my history as a woman—and it’s likely that at one time Israelite women filled all these roles as well. In this generation, I look forward to reclaiming their wisdom.

I’ll always be astonished by the results of my bibliomancy. Maybe the Shekhinah does speak, even to me sometimes, even through the Torah that can also be a source of pain. Divination is, after all, a time-honored practice of priestesses. Perhaps a moment of spiritual crisis sometimes elicits help from the universe, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. It’s that last piece that is most comforting.

This article originally appeared in Zeek, November 17, 2009.

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