Even after I was ordained as a rabbi, I longed to be a priestess. The spiritual leadership I wanted most was less about leading traditional Torah study and prayer (though I’d done plenty of that) and more about immersing in the ocean, creating new rituals, reading kabbalistic sources on Shekhinah (the divine feminine mentioned in Talmud and kabbalah), or interpreting legends about women. My deepest desire was for there to be a school for Jewish women on a priestess path.
Ten years ago, my dream came true. In 2005, Taya Shere and I founded the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute to bring to life the traces of the priestesshood we were finding in the Bible, in Near Eastern archaeology, and in Jewish lore and history. In Kohenet sacred space, we explore the women of spirit among our ancestors, resist their erasure, and bring forward the practices that were sacred to them. We discover in these forgotten teachings the mysticism of the material: the understanding that in our lived experience on the earth we are closest to divinity. At Kohenet, we 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 has been a deep and lasting part of our tradition as Jews.
The Kohenet Institute has ordained four classes of women and now meets twice a year for training weeks at the Isabella Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut, and at Ananda Meditation Retreat in Nevada City, CA. We and our students run workshops and services in venues like Limmud UK and the Parliament of World Religions, as well as classes at retreat centers, local synagogues and women’s centers. Days at Kohenet are filled with spiritual exploration: prayer in the feminine in Hebrew and English; ceremony to grant new names or celebrate elders or heal the sick; making incantation bowls in the style of ancient Babylonia; slideshows of ancient priestess and Goddess art from the lands of the Bible; drum circles and labyrinths; stories of witches dueling with Talmudic sages, immersing in the lake before the Sabbath. At Kohenet, we celebrate and embody the sacred feminine, and prepare our students to lead ritual in an earth-based, embodied, feminist way that is rooted in Jewish tradition.
The Kohenet Institute structures the first stage of our curriculum around thirteen netivot, a Hebrew word for pathways. These pathways, sourced from biblical text, archaeology, Jewish lore and mysticism, form the core of our sacred work: shrinekeeper, prophetess, wise woman, mother, guardian/queen, witch/shamaness, maiden, lover, midwife, mourning woman, seeker, and fool.
We engage the Shrinekeeper by reading ancient texts about the tzovot, the women mentioned in the books of Exodus and Samuel as performing service at the door of the Tent of Meeting. We met the kedeishot or holy women who served at altars and local shrines. We honor the Divine Presence, Shekhinah, as keeper of the Temple. On the path of the Shrinekeeper, we learn to make altars and conduct ritual. We study the Mourning Woman by reading texts from Jeremiah and the Talmud on the role of professional women mourners. We learn about funerals and sitting shiva, Jewish traditions of the soul journey, and the power of letting go.
We embody the Shamaness by studying mediumship in the Bible and the Talmud, meditative spirit journey practice, and healing herbs. The Prophetess brings us stories of Miriam and Deborah as well as drum, sacred chant, and dreams. On the path of the Wise Woman, we learn about Lady Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs and the wise women of ancient Israel, and experience initiation into the mysteries.
The second stage of our three-year program is immersion in Jewish life cycle ritual and in the art of sacred ceremony. A recent graduate, Kohenet Rae Abileah, says: “I love that Kohenet is creating new rituals for life changes that don’t exist already in our tradition. Yes, we have language for birth, death, weddings, coming of age. But what about when you’re transitioning out of a relationship, a divorce… or even a housewarming? How do we create rituals around these things in a feminist, earth-connected way?” Another recent graduate, Rabbi and Kohenet Sarah Bracha Gershuny, says: “I think the priestess skill-set is pretty fundamental to what makes for a good ritual leader.”
We ordain our students as kohanot, or Hebrew priestesses, in a ceremony that includes anointing, blessing, and passing the torch to other Kohenet students. Our graduates and students facilitate marriages, funerals, house blessings, healing ceremonies, wilderness pilgrimage, harvest rituals, and more. They write books of poetry, novels, liturgy and commentaries on the Hebrew alphabet. They create artwork, amulets, divination decks, portable altars, Torah pointers, anointing oils, and other sacred art. They teach, study Torah, lead prayer and chant, drum, and devote themselves to scholarship. They are activists for human rights and ecological sustainability. They run workshops on narrative medicine, gender identity, aging, or meeting the divine feminine in Judaism. They train as musicians, guardians of sacred space, herbal healers, rabbis, and midwives. Their sacred tasks are as diverse and powerful as those of their ancestors, the Hebrew priestesses of old, who I often feel smiling on us as we go about our work. Kohenet is not just a school now; it is a movement.
Yes, we can be rabbis, and some of us are, but the Jewish legacy we want to live is not solely defined by rabbinic leadership. At Kohenet, we choose to live out the spiritual leadership legacy of women— a legacy thousands of years old. Our intention is to weave the ancient legacy of the priestesses with Bible, Talmud, kabbalah, and the rest, in ways that bring wholeness.
Recommended Listening– Taya Shere’s Priestess Prayer CDs:
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the co-founder, with Taya Shere, of . She is the co-author, also with Taya Shere, of the newly published The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership, as well as Siddur haKohanot: A Hebrew Priestess Prayerbook. She is the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion, a pluralistic Jewish seminary. Rabbi Hammer is also the author ofSisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women; Sisters at Sinai, and The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, as well as a children’s book, The Garden of Time, and a forthcoming volume of poetry, The Book of Earth and Other Mysteries. Rabbi Hammer was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary and holds a doctorate in social psychology from the University of Connecticut.