There is an old Jewish custom to use a red thread, tied around a bedpost or a child’s wrist, to keep away demons. In particular, the red thread is said to keep away Lilith, the female demon who steals children. Women still give away red threads at the Western Wall in Jerusalem as a segulah, or protection amulet. Feminist poet Alicia Ostriker reclaims this symbol as a reminder of the umbilical cord, the connection between a human childbearer and a child, and an intimation of the cosmic interconnectedness of all things. She writes:
the disturbing red thread
invisible yet warm
travels between earth and heaven,
vibrates through starless void…
does it carry the pulse
of our prayers
like a bulge in a snake
dozing, like a stream
of hungry, bloody hope, do all
the red threads join
form a web
Alicia Ostriker, The Volcano Sequence (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002), p.11-12.
The Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, now ten years old, trains women in Jewish spiritual leadership that is embodied, earth-based, and feminist, and that reclaims the history and practices of women as a resource for our time. Kohenet studies the priestesses and prophetesses of antiquity and uses them as an inspiration for effective and meaningful ritual today. The red thread is one of our core symbols. When we create sacred space at our retreats, we weave a red cord and hang it from the ceiling so that it dangles down to the center of our altar. Throughout our ritual and prayer, anyone who wants to make a connection to Goddess/Spirit/Cosmos can go and hold onto the red thread. For us, this symbol does not represent the warding off of the demonic feminine (Lilith) but an intimate relationship to the universe as womb of being.
This summer, the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute was invited to lead a four-day workshop in ancient Hebrew practices for post-moderns at the annual gathering of the Jewish Renewal movement, known as the Aleph Kallah. We met on a college campus in Fort Collins, CO. During the class, which welcomed students of all genders, we highlighted four core Kohenet practices: spirit journey (guided visualization), altar-building (the making of sacred space), dreamwork (exploration of our night visions), and a combination of chant, drumming, and dance. A ball of red yarn sat on the altar at the center of our space, reminding us of our commitment to connect to one another and to our ancestors.
On the Sabbath during the gathering, we were invited to lead a Shabbat service. The Torah portion of the week described the ritual of the ashes of the red heifer (Numbers 19). In this ritual, a priest burns to ash a combination of red thread, hyssop, and cedar, and the hide of a red heifer. This ash potion is then sprinkled on those in a state of tumah (ritual taboo or impurity). People enter a state of tumah via coming into contact with human death, certain kinds of illness, or fertility (menstruation, birth, seminal emission). Once one is sprinkled with the ash potion, one can enter the sacred shrine. Interestingly, one who mixes the ash potion must refrain from entering the shrine until evening. The potion has the properties of a change agent: it can turn outside to inside and inside to outside.
Some ways we have worked with this text at the Kohenet Institute include: looking at how labeling childbearing and menstruation as taboo or impure excludes the traditional realms of women’s ritual from the sancta; considering the state of tumah as a state of high spiritual power; noting that tumah is associated with wildness and wilderness while taharah or purity is associated with center, community, and shrine, and both of these states can be holy.
At this particular Shabbat service, the leaders wanted to convey the ritual via the senses rather than just reading it to the community, and we wanted to emphasize the sacredness of life and death. We also wanted to connect the red heifer and the red thread of the biblical ritual to the sacred feminine with its red thread.
We read three portions from the Torah. Near the Torah scroll was a silver bowl. In the first reading, we heard of the red heifer. Taya Shere, Kohenet co-founder, put on a red leather skin and embodied the red heifer, dancing around the room, bringing the life-death energy to us via movement. She approached the bowl, adding the energy of life and death as the first ingredient of our sacred potion.
Then, kohanot (priestesses), graduates and students of the Kohenet Institute, brought cedar branches, bowls of hyssop, and balls of red thread through the crowd. The red thread was woven through the hands of many people attending the service. Then the remaining ball of red thread, the hyssop, and the cedar were placed in the bowl. Finally, Shoshana Jedwab, a Kohenet Institute faculty member and sacred drummer, embodied the prophetess Miriam. She added the final ingredient of the potion: water. After our Miriam completed the potion, we invited the community to sing a healing prayer, praying for all who needed repair, restoration, or renewal.
The Torah service we led that day was powerful, and many told us so in the hours and weeks afterward. Through our re-enactment of the red heifer ritual, we learned about the sacred plants and tools of our ancestors: the smell and feel of the cedar branches and the windings of the red thread stayed with me a long time. We experienced the red heifer not as an animal sacrifice to achieve purity, but as an embodied spirit of change and healing. To me, our ritual achieved what feminist, earth-based ritual is able to achieve: a new understanding of our ancestors’ practices that makes them and us more visible. This is the red thread: a living and enlivening connection to one another.
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the co-founder, with Taya Shere, of Kohenet: The Hebrew Priestess Institute. 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 also the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion, a pluralistic Jewish seminary. Rabbi Hammer is also the author of Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, and The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, as well as a children’s book, The Garden of Time, and a new 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.