In the Jewish calendar, we’re just past the holiday season—the High Holidays, the harvest festival of Sukkot, and the concluding festival of Simchat Torah when the last verses of the Torah are read and the first verses are started again. The Torah readings for these holidays speak often of the offerings once made on the altar in the Tabernacle in celebration of these festivals. Particularly on Yom Kippur, the readings mention the kodesh kodashim: the holy of holies. This enclosed sacred space contained, according to legend: the tablets of the Commandments inside an ark, topped by two cherubim that held up an empty space between them—an empty space understood to be the amplified presence of an invisible God. As I think back over my powerful summer, which was largely spent with Jewish priestesses on various retreats and adventures (in Connecticut, Mississippi, California, Costa Rica, England and Scotland), I am thinking about a unique ritual object we use, and realizing that in its own way, it is a kind of Holy of Holies.
Each student in the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute (founded in 2004 by Taya Shere and myself to train Jewish women in earth-based, embodied, feminist Jewish spiritual leadership) embarks on a priestess project that embodies her/their own particular calling in the world. Years ago, Kohenet Sarah Esther Richards created for our community a new ritual object uniquely designed to fit our ritual space, which was a round yurt on the grounds of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. It was an umbilical cord— not spun by a human body but made of yarn. Sarah Esther had created a circle of spokes that could be hooked to the yurt’s wall supports, with the umbilical cord at the center, so that the braided yarn dangled from the air at the center the yurt onto the center of our altar. The yarn cord was red and blue, echoing the colors of a human umbilical cord.
Sarah Esther had created this cord while she herself was pregnant. The new ritual object arose out of a vision she had while lying in the yurt, in which she could see what the fetus within her womb saw, and felt she herself was inside of a goddess-womb-vessel. The ritual umbilical cord was a physical manifestation of what she had seen on her inner journey.
The effect of the cord on our community was transformative. The altar we used to hold sacred things (as our ancestors did in the book of Genesis and beyond) was no longer mostly flat, but a three-dimensional space. It embodied the world infused with the Divine—and now we could see that infusion happening via mysterious energies that came from the womb of Shekhinah straight to us. People began to go up to the altar during prayer, when they were particularly in need of strength or connection, and hold the end of the umbilical cord. It was clear that Sarah Esther had intuited something our community needed.
Over the years, we’ve used the cord during community discussions—the person who is speaking holds the end of the cord. We’ve used it as a community recovenanting ritual—passing the cord from person to person around our circle. I’ve seen people wrap their arms with the cord in a similar way to the way Jews wrap tefillin (a kind of prayer garment that is like long cords with boxes attached). We’ve even used it as a Torah pointer—the reader holds the end of the cord to the Torah text to show which words are being read. And when we ordain someone, we give them the end of the cord to hold during their ceremony. The cord is infinitely versatile. And sometimes it just hangs there, reminding us that God/dess is nourishing us, mothering us, parenting us, each as we need. The idea of there being a placental relationship between God and mortal beings exists in the Talmud and in kabbalistic sources, and Sarah Esther had manifested these sources in a way we could all experience.
And yet, the cord doesn’t lead to any solid representation of the Divine Mother. We’ve long outgrown the yurt, though Sarah Esther’s original cord still gets hung there when we use it as an auxiliary space. Today, any priestess setting up our altar takes red yarn and weaves an umbilical cord appropriate to the space we are using. Sometimes, when we are in a synagogue or other sacred inside space, the cord starts at the Torah on one side of the room, is thrown over a center ceiling beam, and dangles onto the altar at the center of the room. (At the center of the altar is a copper washing bowl to remind us of the ministering women in Exodus 38:8 who once donated their copper mirrors to make a washing bowl for the shrine, and sometimes the umbilical cord descends into the bowl or curls around it.) Sometimes the end of the cord is hidden in the grape leaves of the grape arbor that surrounds our outdoor prayer space. Sometimes it curls through an outdoor labyrinth, or is strung like a spiderweb just above our heads in a gathering tent. The rule seems to be that the umbilical cord has to come down from above (while the bowl on the altar “wells up” from below). But there is no hard and fast tradition about where the umbilical cord has to be hung from, so long as it comes from Somewhere Else—that is, it cannot begin and end on the altar.
What is so powerful about Sarah Esther’s cord is that it is similar in function to the Holy of Holies. It points toward God/dess, implying Her presence (in the form of a nourishing womb) without directly specifying Her form. So too, the Holy of Holies, with its ark and cherubim, is meant to imply the thickening of divine presence without specifying a form. Like the Holy of Holies, the cord is meant to offer the intensity of a sacred center while still suggesting that Spirit is beyond time and space. In this sense, the cord, while it is a new tradition, is tapping into a very old Jewish/Israelite way of making sacred space.
Recently, a wonderful priestess from a Christian tradition who sometimes comes to be in service to our community humbly asked if it would be appropriate for her to have an umbilical cord on her own altar. I was so profoundly touched by that. It felt like a very special blessing, to be able to gift onward the gift that Sarah Esther gave us.
Ritual objects work because they meet a need—they communicate sacred stories and allow that which is already present to be perceived. Our umbilical cord communicates that we are at the sacred center wherever we are. It says that we are children of Shekhinah, each fed by the flow of spirit. It communicates that life, being itself, is what matters.
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute (www.kohenet.org) and the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion (www.ajrsem.org). She is the author of essays, poems, rituals and stories, and of seven books including Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, The Hebrew Priestess (with Taya Shere, 2015), and the new volume of poetry The Book of Earth and Other Mysteries (2016).