The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership by Jill Hammer and Taya Shere (Ben Yehuda Press 2015), trade paperback, 330 pages.
[The authors are co-founders of Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute. In an email response to my query, Rabbi Hammer explains that the title rav kohenet was given to them both by their students and is based on the ancient Phoenician title rab kehinit, which, translated to English, means high priestess. Except for the bios at the end, this review will refer to the authors as Rav Kohenet Jill and Rav Kohenet Taya, using their first names rather than their patriarchally-determined surnames. Unless otherwise noted, Rav Kohenet Jill is author of all sections of the book with the exception of Rav Kohenet Taya’s Introduction and the practice sections at the end of chapters about the individual priestessing paths.]
The authors’ introductions to The Hebrew Priestess are just the beginning of the treasures in this book. Both introductions tell of the authors’ journeys to the priestess path and their co-founding of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, which now has chapters on both the East and West Coasts of the United States.
Rav Kohenet Jill’s introduction, the longer of the two, begins and ends with symbolic and possibly prophetic dreams, discusses the influence of her childhood, her education, the conflicts in her desire to be a rabbi, and the influence on her of the feminist movement and Jewish women poets, of which she writes:
“To me, what these women were writing could not be defined solely as poetry. It was liturgy. God was mother, lover, bride, queen, even rebel lesbian . . . . I learned the word Shekhinah – divine presence, bride of God – and then heard a respected professor rail against Jewish feminists’ use of the word. . . . Why all the anger? I began to wonder. What is there to be afraid of in a female image of God?”
She also tells of her time in rabbinical school, her writing of midrash (stories interpreting biblical texts), her time studying in Israel, of her building of altars centering around the female divine and earth-based spirituality, and other subjects leading to the founding of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute.
In her introduction, Rav Kohenet Taya writes of her involvement in African-Brazilian spiritual tradition while in graduate school and her time in a “women’s collective house that was a living laboratory of ecofeminist spirituality,” along with her discovery of Goddess. She ends her introduction with questions she suggests readers ask themselves and concludes:
“Know that you are not alone and that you are necessary. The world, Jewish and beyond, is gifted and transformed by your unique expression of spiritual connection and leadership. Your work and play and prayer are powerful. Your dancing and your loving are medicine. Your waking and sleeping dreams are sacred. Your laughter and your tears are holy. Your being is ancient and new and alchemical. We need your priestessing. We need you, priestessing. We need you, priestess.”
In Chapter 1, “A Brief History of The Hebrew Priestess,” Rav Kohenet Jill discusses the relationship of the Hebrew priestess to priestesses of other religions of the ancient Near East, Africa, and Europe, such as Sumerian poet and priestess Enheduanna, best known for her poem/hymn, “Exaltation of Inanna; the Delphic Oracles; priestesses of the Egyptian Goddess Hathor; Demeter’s bee priestesses; Yoruba priestesses; and women who had similar roles in Ireland, Germany, the Americas, and Asia. She elaborates on the names by which Israelites who held the role of priestess were known, prominent biblical priestesses, and the controversy over whether or not certain titles referred to priestesses involved in sacred sex practices. She traces the history of Hebrew priestesses from their prominence to the lessening of their role beginning with the Babylonian exile after the first destruction of the Temple; their presence in the Egyptian Jewish community; and their role or lack thereof in medieval times. The chapter ends with a brief discussion of contemporary Hebrew priestesses. She goes on, in chapter 2, to give “A Brief History of the Hebrew Goddess,” by the various names by which she was known, her relationship with other Middle East deities of the time and their similarity to goddesses of other cultures. Also discussed are the roles of the Goddess in the “portable Tabernacle” in the 11th century BCE, and in the Temple in Jerusalem in 953-586 BCE. Rav Kohenet Jill writes:
“Post-Temple Jewish ritual hints at the Goddess even as it erases Her. The Torah, dressed in finery and then undressed during the Torah service for a ritual of learning and knowing, is an image of a woman.”
She goes on to quote Amichai Lau-Lavi, who has written:
“the ark. . . is separated by a curtain, as it was in the Temple, and behind the curtain is the Torah, wearing a silver crown and velvet dress, always referred to in the feminine. Then we bring her out with great decorum, kiss her, undress her, open her up and commence the ritual of knowledge in the biblical sense.”
I applaud Rav Kohenet Jill for pointing out that “Torah,” is a feminine noun in Hebrew and for having the courage to write of the underlying symbolism of the ritual that precedes its reading in the synagogue. For me, personally, it is wonderful to have confirmed a similar interpretation that came to me in the 1990s as I was writing my book, Goddess Spirituality for the 21st Century: from Kabbalah to Quantum Physics.In the second chapter, I wrote:
“. . .the Torah. . . continued to be perceived by kabbalists as a crowned female wrapped in beautiful garments. And to this day, ‘garments’ cover the Torah scroll. . . . Before the Torah can be read, her crown and garment—usually fringed, embellished, and embroidered velvet or silk—are removed. The two wooden legs of the scroll part as it is unrolled.”(1997 ed., p. 46; 2008 ed., p. 60)
In Chapter 2 of The Hebrew Priestess, Rav Kohenet Jill quotes from the Zohar (an early major kabbalistic text) demonstrating the role of the Shekhinah in medieval Jewish mysticism and goes on to write:
“the modern feminist movement has transformed and reclaimed Shekhinah as a female experience of deity, a way that women may begin to see themselves in the Divine image, and a way that all people may begin to experience God as multigendered.” She then points out that “Modern Jewish feminism, like other types of spiritual feminism, has woven itself with the ecological movement.”
The chapter closes with a look at contemporary views of Goddess in Judaism from several authors and introduces an in-depth look at the role of priestessing today, a focus which continues for the next 13 chapters, each of which is devoted to one of the “thirteen specific priestesshoods documented in the Bible an/or later Jewish tradition. . . . In myth, thirteen is a significant number, representing the moons of the year and the months of a woman’s cycle.” Each of these chapters ends with a “spirit journey,” much like a guided meditation, and with Rav Kohenet Taya’s practice suggestions.
These thirteen priestess paths with which the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute works are: Weaver-Priestess, Prophetess-Priestess, Shrinekeeper-Priestess, Witch-Priestess, Maiden-Priestess, Mother-Priestess, Queen-Priestess, Midwife-Priestess, Wise-Woman-Priestess, Mourning-Woman-Priestess, Seeker-Priestess, Lover-Priestess, Fool-Priestess. Chapter 16 takes another look at all these paths, focusing on their future potential. Chapter 17, an epilogue, tells about the 2009 ritual ordaining the first class of priestesses trained by the Institute.
The back matter of the book contains two appendices:“MotherLine Ritual Materials,” and “Kohenet Biographical Statements” from the priestesses, including the 3 core faculty, and the 43 students who had been ordained by the time the book went to press. There are also 18 pages of endnotes, 12 pages of references, a 14-page index, an Acknowledgments section, and an “About the authors” page.
The Hebrew Priestess brings together an enormous amount of historical material, making a convincing case for the inclusion in Judaism of what we call today the sacred feminine, or the divine embodied as female, or Goddess, as well as the participation of women as priestesses. The book shows how these traditions persisted despite efforts to suppress and deny them, and how Hebrew Goddess priestessing might further be developed today and in the future. It is an extraordinary book – scholarly, inspiring, and, for me, exciting. I recommend it to you with great enthusiasm.
In addition to their continuing leadership at the Hebrew Priestess Institute:
Rabbi Jill Hammer holds a Ph.D in social psychology from the University of Connecticut and received rabbinical ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is director of spiritual education at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, New York, author of 4 previous books and co-author, with Taya Shere, of Siddur haKohenot: A Hebrew Priestess Prayerbook.
Taya Shere teaches at the Starr King School for the Ministry, has recorded several albums of chant, has led a Jewish congregation in the D.C. area of which she is now spiritual leader emeritus, and currently leads a spiritual community in Oakland, California