Weaver, Prophetess, Shrinekeeper, Witch; Maiden, Mother, Queen, Midwife; Wise-Woman, Mourning-Woman, Seeker, Lover, Fool . . . . Thirteen possibilities for the female self, thirteen aspects of the Goddess, thirteen archetypes for the Hebrew (or any other) Priestess . . . thirteen fact- and dream-filled chapters in Jill Hammer and Taya Shere’s thrilling—and much-needed—new book, The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership.
Nearly fifty years ago, anthropologist Raphael Patai introduced readers to the , documenting the influence of Near Eastern Goddess religions on the practices and beliefs of the ancient Israelites. Since then, feminist scholars of religion, along with poets and novelists, have offered brilliant new interpretations of Torah and Talmud, creating feminist midrash and liturgy that open the ancient patriarchal faith to modern (and perhaps also ancient) notions of female authority and autonomy. At the same time, the increasing presence of women rabbis has transformed the congregational, communal Jewish experience for many women and men.
But what we have not had is a shamanic, visionary form of Jewish practice—“earth-based, embodied, ecstatic, energetic” (9)—that integrates ancient and contemporary Goddess spirituality with Judaism: while we have had female rabbis, we have not had formally trained and recognized Hebrew Priestesses.
Enter Jill Hammer, who in the compelling Introduction to her book recounts with passion and precision her own meandering but steady journey to the Goddess and her establishment, with co-author Taya Shere, of the , a school dedicated to ordaining contemporary Hebrew Priestesses, kohanot. “Kohenet,” although it does not appear in the Bible, is the ancient Hebrew word for “priestess.”
Early in The Hebrew Priestess, Hammer defines priest/priestess: “a facilitator of the connection between the worlds,” someone who “tends the relationship between human and divine,” through ritual, trance, prophecy, art (1). That Hammer is such a figure is abundantly evident throughout this generous, thoroughly researched, inspiring and inspired text—simultaneously history and handbook, connecting readers with “realms of spirit and the depths of human experience” (2).
Fulfilling a childhood ambition, Hammer was ordained as a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2001. Yet another childhood experience—an abiding “sense of the numinous” (3)—along with her involvement in feminist theology and worship, soon led her more fully to embrace what she truly wanted: “to be with people who did not reject the Goddess but saw Her as a face of God,” living and working within “a community that reclaimed the priestesses and priests—the dreamers, shamans, and bards of antiquity—as spiritual role models (10).
In the summer of 2006, along with Taya Shere, Hammer convened the first Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute in upstate New York. Today the Institute operates on both East and West coasts and has already ordained three cohorts of Hebrew Priestesses who have completed three years of training.
The author of five other books—Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women; The Jewish Book of Days—A Conpanion for All Seasons; The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women; The Garden of Time; and Siddur haKohanot: A Hebrew Priestess Prayerbook—Hammer is also the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion, a pluralistic Jewish seminary in Yonkers, NY.
Taya Shere, who wrote the “Practice” sections at the end of each chapter in The Hebrew Priestess, is an earth-based ritual leader who has produced four chant albums: Wild Earth Shehrew, Halleluyah All Night, Torah Tantrika, and This Bliss. In her autobiographical Introduction to The Hebrew Priestess, Shere describes how initiation comes to her through “fire, flood, tornado, and tree”—the four elements. And she invites readers to discover their own “personal priestess paths,” finding what is “most vibrant and juicy” (15).
For me, the “vibrant and juicy” aspects of The Hebrew Priestess—at least on my first reading—were Hammer’s “Spirit Journey” sections at the end of each chapter along with Shere’s ritual practice sections. In each of these sections, Shere offers thoughtful, concrete suggestions on how one might embody various aspects of the Goddess/Priestess: creating personal prayer and sacred space, opening ourselves to dreams, observing menstrual Shabbat, healing our motherlines, being open to transformation, and more.
On my second reading, I found myself more carefully following and appreciating Hammer’s scholarly (and also imaginative) reconstruction of the history of Goddesses and Priestesses within Judaism, drawing on linguistic, archaeological, and textual resources. For what she is really trying to do in this book is to integrate two traditions, “bridging the Jewish faith that the Torah speaks, and the ancient tradition that the tree speaks” (235)—recognizing the historical conflict within Judaism between text and image while also seeking to resolve it, refusing to accept a separation between the path of the Goddess and the path of the Book.
Hammer finds precedents for her vision of the Hebrew Priestess within antiquity as well as in the Middle Ages and later; part of the pleasure of this book is seeing how carefully she has woven—remember the Weaver-Priestess, the first archetype she discusses—the various strands of her research with her own experience and practice. Throughout the book, she recounts her own dreams—surely the dreams of a shaman—and quotes the words of women who have participated in the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute. The result is a richly textured tapestry that is as exquisite as any gold-embroidered Torah cover.
The Hebrew Priestess is dedicated to Hammer’s daughter, Raya Leela, her “beloved little priestess” who “uses the words God and Goddess interchangeably” (13). As I read and re-read the book, I try to imagine what my own growing-up Jewish might have been like had I been welcomed into a community that invited me to see myself as Goddess, to envision the Divine as the Earth itself, to celebrate my own beauty and power. And I am grateful to brave visionaries like Hammer and Shere for creating new possibilities for our daughters, granddaughters, sons, and grandsons.
Joyce Zonana is the author of Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, An Exile’s Journey, a memoir about her life growing up in the U.S. as an Egyptian Jewish woman. After participating in Carol Christ’s Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in 1997, she served for a time as Co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual. She is currently a Professor of English at Borough of Manhattan Community College and a regular contributor to Lilith Magazine and Nola Diaspora.