The Problem of Jehosheba: Reading One Biblical Character in Two Different Feminist Ways by Jill Hammer

Tucked away in II Kings 11 is the story of a mother-daughter feud that is personal, political, and ultimately fatal. Jehu, a charismatic military commander, is anointed by Elisha as the next king of the northern kingdom of Israel. Jehu kills the previous king of Israel, Jehoram, and also Jehoram’s mother Jezebel (yes, that Jezebel—the famous/infamous queen). As part of his violent rise to power, Jehu also kills Ahaziah, king of the southern kingdom of Judah. Ahaziah’s death should mean that Athaliah (Atalya), who is queen mother of Judah as well as the daughter of Jezebel, cedes power to a new king and a new queen mother. Instead, according to the Book of Kings, Athaliah has the rest of the king’s sons and grandsons murdered, and seizes the throne for herself. 

All seems lost for the Judean line, except that Jehosheba (Yehosheva), wife of the high priest Jehoiada and sister of the murdered King Ahaziah, saves one of Ahaziah’s sons, along with the child’s wetnurse, and hides them both in the Temple. Jehosehba keeps the boy, Joash, and his nurse in the Temple until he is six years old. At that time, Jehosheba’s husband, the high priest, anoints Joash king, stages a coup, and executes Athaliah as a usurper. Jehosheba’s action saves the Davidic line. The collection of Jewish legends known as Otzar Midrashim lists Jehosheba as one of the righteous women of the Jewish people.

Continue reading “The Problem of Jehosheba: Reading One Biblical Character in Two Different Feminist Ways by Jill Hammer”

The Daughters of Zelophehad and the Five Feminine Powers of the Kabbalah by Rabbi Jill Hammer

Jill anointing her daughter. photo by Shoshana Jedwab

This summer, I visited Iceland, a beautiful and magical land.  While I was there, I saw the Kerid Crater, which is a caldera: a volcanic crater with a lake inside.  My family and I hiked around the edge of the crater and then down close to the lake.  The perfect roundness of the crater-lake gave the impression of a circular container—a jewel-box shaped by some immense hand— or else a massive eye looking up from the earth.  My daughter and I sat by the lake’s waters and anointed one another, having the sense we were in a sacred place.

Later that summer, I grappled with a story that reminded me of the crater. In Numbers 27, five sisters—the daughters of a man named Tzelafchad—approach Moses with a question.  Their father had daughters, not sons, and it seems this means his family will receive no land allotment in Canaan.  The daughters ask that they be given land allotments: “Let our father’s name not be lost to his clan just because he had no son!” (Numbers 27:4).  Moses takes their complaint to God and brings back an answer: the daughters have spoken rightly, and will receive a land allotment as they request.  However, they must marry men of their own tribe so that the tribal land is not lost— if the women married men of another tribe, their heirs would belong to that other tribe and so the land would change its tribal designation.  Thus, patriarchy is mitigated but not ultimately contradicted—the women become heirs to their father, but primarily for their father’s sake, not their own. 

Continue reading “The Daughters of Zelophehad and the Five Feminine Powers of the Kabbalah by Rabbi Jill Hammer”

Iron Mothers: Iron as Embodiment of the Biblical Matriarchs in Jewish Folklore by Jill Hammer

Jewish amuletic objects come in many forms: salt, the hamsa or hand, the bowl, the scroll with verses, even sword-shaped amulets. These items are meant to provide spiritual protection from malevolent forces such as demons and the evil eye and vary across different times and places.  One protective item from Jewish folklore is iron. In medieval Germany, for example, pregnant Jewish women carried an iron object to repel malevolent forces.  This was part of a wider cultural norm: across Western Europe, iron was understood to repel fairies and spirits of all kinds, and was sewed into babies’ clothing, hung above cradles and doorways, etc.  According to one Jewish legend, when the waters of Egypt turned to blood during the first plague, water in metal vessels was 34245 the only water to remain unchanged. Pieces of iron were placed on all vessels containing water during the solstices and equinoxes—considered to be a time when spirits were roving the world—to protect them from contamination.

Continue reading “Iron Mothers: Iron as Embodiment of the Biblical Matriarchs in Jewish Folklore by Jill Hammer”

Calling All Biblical Wise Women by Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD

The meeting of David and Abigail by Peter Paul Rubens circa 1630

In these days when so many are afraid and aching for the people of Ukraine, and concerned about the lasting impacts of this war around the world, I cannot help thinking of the wise women of ancient Israel. These wise women, unafraid of confronting dangerous men, used their intelligence and storytelling skill to defuse violent situations between powerful adversaries and restore peace. May their wisdom be felt in the world now. 

The institution of “wise woman” appears several times in the Bible. In the Book of Samuel, a wise woman (chachamah in Hebrew, from chochmah, wisdom) steps in when there is a war, or political conflict, to promote peace. In II Samuel 14, after King David’s son Amnon rapes David’s daughter, Tamar, the king does nothing. Tamar’s full brother Absalom takes matters into his own hands and kills Amnon, then flees to another country.  David grieves for Absalom but won’t send for him. The wise woman of Tekoa appears before King David, pretending to be a woman whose sons fought, and one killed the other. The story she tells helps to reconcile King David with his son Absalom, at least temporarily.  

Continue reading “Calling All Biblical Wise Women by Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD”

Moving to Ursula: Dream Wisdom and the Sacred Feminine by Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD

For the last seven years, I have been conducting research for my book Undertorah: An Earth-Based Kabbalah of Dreams, which is about to appear courtesy of Ayin Press.  On this writing journey, I’ve interviewed seventy dreamers, and have studied pre-modern dreams from texts of ancient Israel and ancient Sumer to dream accounts of women kabbalists and Chasidic masters.  I’ve also sat with my own dreams and their odd truths. Many of the dreams I’ve encountered express powerful visions of the feminine. I find these often odd and eerie visions particularly useful in expressing “the multiplicity of experiences of [the feminine]… rather than an imposed definition of those experiences…”[i]

Continue reading “Moving to Ursula: Dream Wisdom and the Sacred Feminine by Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD”

Facing the Angel:  Samson’s Mother as a Model for Feminist Spiritual Practice by Jill Hammer

Dedicated to Kohenet Andrea Jacobson of blessed memory, a deep practitioner of priestess presence

I have always loved obscure biblical women.  My wife, who was educated in a yeshiva, marvels at the names and tales I mention to her; she’s never heard of them.  Telling their stories, for me, is a form of resistance.  They may be minor to the text, but to me they are main characters.  As a feminist midrashist, I love digging into a text to find out more, to discover a radical take, to imagine a first-person perspective.  As a contemporary spiritual teacher on the trail of the ancient priestesses, I find priestess role models in these hints of story.  As the Jewish holiday season ends and we return to finding the sacred in the mundane, I want to share about a character I love, who doesn’t even have a name, but who, to me, teaches about being present, and meeting the mystery wherever we go. 

“Manoah’s Sacrifice” by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 1641.( Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain, PD-1923)

Judges 13 begins with a traditional biblical scene of annunciation.  The wife of Manoah does not have a child.  An angel appears to her to say that she will bear a son.  He must be a nazir or nazirite and will be a hero, delivering his people from their enemies. A nazir is a kind of self-appointed priest, who has taken a vow not to drink wine or cut one’s hair, and who, like the high priest of the Temple, is forbidden to be near dead human bodies.  Such a person’s hair is holy and, at the end of the nazirite service, will be offered on an altar.  Both men and women could be nazirites; indeed, the nazirite vow seems to be an avenue where women can become holy.  We can see there is patriarchal anxiety about this avenue to priestesshood; Numbers 30 is full of laws about how fathers and husbands can annul the vows of daughters and wives, which likely is partly concerned about women becoming nezirot (sing. nezirah) of their own volition.

Continue reading “Facing the Angel:  Samson’s Mother as a Model for Feminist Spiritual Practice by Jill Hammer”

Becoming the Mother: A Dream Journey to the Sacred Feminine by Jill Hammer

This essay is dedicated to the memory of Carol P. Christ, scholar of the Goddess, who has brought so much wisdom and liberation to our world, and whom I deeply admired. May her memory be a blessing.

The call of the Divine Mother has compelled me for most of my life. I have scoured kabbalistic works for visions of God/dess as Mother, Womb, Protectress, Home of Being. I’ve gone on treasure hunts through museums to find paintings of the Annunciation and statues of birthing goddesses. I’ve written poems to the Mother Goddess of my imagination. Experiencing Deity as creatrix and nurturer moves me. But when I had a daughter of my own, becoming the Mother in an immediate sense proved to be more difficult than revering Her from afar. I couldn’t fully internalize that I had stepped into the sacred role of parent, even after I became one. I know this is true because of my dreams.

Not long after my daughter was born more than a decade ago, I began to have disturbing dreams. In the first of these dreams, I dropped my infant daughter by mistake into water that had flooded the area around my home. She disappeared without a trace into the deep water. I begged for help finding her, but no one would help me. Soon I realized she must be dead. I woke up terrified and sobbing. In another dream, I realized no one was watching my daughter and she must have fallen into the nearby lake. In a third dream, a huge flood came into my house and carried her away.

Continue reading “Becoming the Mother: A Dream Journey to the Sacred Feminine by Jill Hammer”

Fragments of Sinai by Jill Hammer

Every year on Shavuot, the story of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai is read in synagogues around the world. It’s a dramatic story, with thunder and lightning and mysterious ram’s horns blasting, and Moses disappearing into a thick cloud.  It’s a powerful story.  It’s also a problematic story, for me.  As a feminist, ascribing divinity to an ancient text with a vision of women/gender that is very far from my own doesn’t work for me.  And yet, as a scholar and midrashist who often plays with the words of the biblical text, I do meet God/dess and my ancestors there.  I’m moved by the ancient legend that all Jewish souls, of every time and place, were present to receive Torah at Sinai.  How to express this layered and complex relationship with Torah?

The Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute has been holding Shabbat prayer online since the pandemic began, and we gathered on Shavuot morning to pray.  As a community committed to the liberation of all genders, I felt we couldn’t read the Torah portion the way it was—but I also felt we couldn’t not read it.  So I created an aliyah—a Torah reading—composed of fragments of the text.  Three of us read it together; I chanted the Hebrew, and Kohenet Ketzirah Lesser and Kohenet Harriette Wimms and I read the English.  I picked fragments of the text that spoke to me in some way.

Continue reading “Fragments of Sinai by Jill Hammer”

Reflections on Miriam’s Cup by Rabbi Jill Hammer

For many years, I’ve had a Miriam’s Cup on my Passover seder table, next to the Cup of Elijah. Our cup of Elijah is a kiddush cup belonging to my great-grandfather Joseph Frankel and inscribed with his name. Our cup of Miriam was created by a ceramic artist and bears the word “Miriam” at its base. The Cup of Elijah, filled with wine, is an old tradition—a cup on the seder table for the prophet Elijah, who according to legend visits every Passover seder. The cup of Miriam, filled with water, is a custom only a few decades old, honoring the prophetess Miriam, who watched over the infant Moses, danced in celebration at the crossing of the Sea, and who according to a famous ancient tale had a well of water that followed her through the wilderness.

According to scholar Annette Boeckler, the custom of the Cup of Miriam began at a Shabbat table in Boston in 1989, made its way to the post-Sabbath Havdalah ceremony, and eventually found its way to the seder table. The custom was intended to honor the prophetess Miriam as well as the contributions of women to the Exodus and to Jewish life. Many of the heroes early in the book of Exodus are women, yet their stories are not part of the seder. The Miriam’s Cup at the seder is a way to give the participants an opportunity to include those stories. Continue reading “Reflections on Miriam’s Cup by Rabbi Jill Hammer”

Was Sefer Yetzirah Written by a Woman? Jill Hammer

This year, I published a book called Return to the Place: The Magic, Meditation, and Mystery of Sefer Yetzirah (available from Ben Yehuda Press,  Sefer Yetzirah, or the Book of Creation, is an ancient Jewish mystical work (written in approximately the sixth century CE, though scholars offer dates from as early as the 1st century CE to as late as the 9th century).  This brief, cryptic, poetic book describes the process by which God creates the universe.  God engraves letters, which are also the elements and fundamental forms of being, into the cosmos.  These engraved letters act like energetic channels between the Creator and the Creation, allowing creative intention to flow from the One to the Many.  The book instructs the mystical practitioner to develop awareness of this creative process and seek to embody it, thus allowing energy to flow back from the Many to the One.

This flowing between One and Many is called retzo vashov, running and returning—the constant ebb and flow between unity and multiplicity.  Sefer Yetzirah says of the elements that “God’s word in them is running and returning.”  This means that the divine intention moves within creation, and the elements shape themselves in response to this intention.  In Sefer Yetzirah, as in most Jewish texts, the Creator takes a male pronoun.  However, the elements—water, air, and fire, since the book has a three-element system rather than the more common four elements— all have female pronouns.  These three elements, often identified with the Hebrew letters Aleph, Mem, and Shin, are sometimes known within the text of the book as the three mothers.  And, God’s breath or spirit, the ruach elohim chayyim or breath of the living God, which gives rise to all the other elements, also take female pronouns.  Not only that, but Wisdom, the feminine entity who is the sum total of all the engraved pathways between God and the world, is also feminine.  We can say with certainty that the text gives the feminine unusual primacy, compared with other Jewish texts of the time.  We also don’t see in this text any of the misogyny that is common in ancient texts of this time period. Continue reading “Was Sefer Yetzirah Written by a Woman? Jill Hammer”

Hagar, the Divine Witness, and the New Year by Jill Hammer

The Torah reading for the first day of Rosh haShanah, the Jewish new year, is not, as one might expect, the creation of the world (Rosh haShanah was Friday night, Saturday and Sunday, 9/18-9/20).  Instead, the set reading is Genesis 21, the story of how Sarah, wife of Abraham, gives birth to Isaac—a joyous occasion indeed, given that she is ninety years old.  But then Sarah becomes anxious that her husband’s other wife, Hagar, also has a son, Ishmael, who could inherit from Abraham, and demands that Hagar and Ishmael be expelled from the household.  This year, reading this tale, I am seeing a story that shows how when we think about success, abundance, and consequences, we include some people in our consideration but not others. In this tale, the Divine includes the perspectives of the unwitnessed even when we do not.

In Genesis 16, it is Sarah (originally called Sarai) who first arranges a sexual relationship between Hagar, an Egyptian woman enslaved to her, and her husband Avraham, who has been called by God to create a new nation.  God has promised her husband Avraham a great posterity, but they do not have even one child.  Sarah gives Hagar to Avraham in order to produce an heir (no consent on Hagar’s part is recorded). When Hagar becomes pregnant, the text suggests that Sarah has become “light” or “diminished” in Hagar’s eyes.  In other words, Hagar no longer treats Sarah as her owner.  Sarah complains to Avraham, and Abraham gives Sarah permission to do whatever she wants with Hagar.  Sarah abuses Hagar, and Hagar runs away. An angel arrives while Hagar is sitting by a well, and directs Hagar to return, for she is to give birth to a child who will give rise to uncountable numbers of offspring.  During this encounter, Hagar gives God a name: El Ro’I, the God who sees me. Continue reading “Hagar, the Divine Witness, and the New Year by Jill Hammer”

Eve, Revisited by Jill Hammer

About six months ago I was hired to write a curriculum for a Jewish organization on biblical women in ancient and contemporary midrash.  Midrash—the ancient process of creative interpretation of sacred text that began two thousand years ago and continues to this day—has been one of my fields of expertise, and women in midrash is a particular specialty.  I knew the first lesson I wrote would be on Eve (Chava in Hebrew), the first woman of Genesis.  Yet as I began to write lessons, I started with Sarah and Hagar, then proceeded to Rebekah and Lot’s wife, Rachel and Leah, even Asnat (Joseph’s wife) and Naamah (Noah’s wife).  It became clear over the months that I was avoiding Eve.  Whenever I began to think about beginning “her” lesson, I grew anxious and immediately began to think of something else. Only when I had already written six of my ten lessons did I finally, reluctantly, begin to research ancient legends and modern feminist poems on the first foremother of the Bible.

Why was I avoiding Eve?  In part, because she seemed like such a huge topic.  Generations of Jews (and, of course, Christians) have had a great deal to say about Eve, her creation, the fruit of knowledge, the serpent, Eve’s relationship with Adam, and more.  How would I encapsulate it all?   And then there was Lilith, Eve’s alter ego, and all of the legends about her.  Choosing a handful of midrashim out of this vast corpus seemed impossible.  Plus, there was a whole literature about the relationship between Eve and ancient Near Eastern myth I wanted to allude to—Eve as a kind of human version of the Goddess with her Tree.  How to choose what to put in and what to leave out? Continue reading “Eve, Revisited by Jill Hammer”

Ruth the Priestess: Redemption and the Returning Grain by Jill Hammer

I spend a lot of time on Zoom these days and my current life in New York City is not tremendously familiar to me.  Home schooling, uncertainty about work, and concern for relatives are all part of my world right now. So I’ve been keeping myself sane, between the various kinds of curve balls thrown by social distancing, by walking in the park.  I now know when everything comes into season. I’ve watched the cherry blossoms bloom and the wisteria flower and the magnolia petals fall.  In this time, I’ve become more in tune with the piece of land I live on and its cycles.  And that helps me tune in to the mysteries of the Book of Ruth.

The Jewish holiday of Shavuot, first fruits festival and season of the giving of Torah, begins this Thursday night.  It is a custom that during this holiday, Jews read the story of the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.  And, there is also another story read: the book of Ruth.  The book of Ruth tells of a family who finds support and shelter at the time of the grain harvest, and Shavuot is a grain harvest festival.  The book of Ruth also describes the journey of Ruth to join the Israelite people, and so it is often understood as a conversion story.  The reason I love to read the Book of Ruth at this time is because I understand this story to have undercurrents out of Near Eastern myth—the joining of a priestess and a king, and the return from death to life.  While Ruth is usually seen as a devoted daughter-in-law, a feminist analysis might see her as the engine for redemption. Continue reading “Ruth the Priestess: Redemption and the Returning Grain by Jill Hammer”

A Jewish Amulet against Plague by Jill Hammer

image of amulet originally by Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum (1759-1841)
originally by Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum (1759-1841)

 I begin with prayers and wishes for all who are suffering because of the COVID-19 epidemic: those who are ill, those who are mourning people who have died, those who face economic hardship, and all who are afraid.  May we find ways to support and comfort one another.

This 19th century printed amulet against cholera, which was widely disseminated through the Jewish community at the time, was written by Moshe Teitelbaum.  Part of it has become a common “house blessing” in Jewish homes Several friends, including Rabbi Jay Michaelson and Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, posted the amulet on Facebook when the coronavirus epidemic began to take hold in the US.  I immediately recognized it because I had been to Paris with my family and gone to a wonderful amulet exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Art and History, and this amulet was prominently displayed.  In a time of 21st century plague, as we seek shelter, protection, and mutual care, the amulet seems newly and profoundly relevant. Continue reading “A Jewish Amulet against Plague by Jill Hammer”

The Kreismesser: Women and Magic Swords in Jewish Tradition by Jill Hammer

I have always had a particular fascination with women warriors—particularly ancient and medieval ones.  Joan of Arc was a favorite, as was Artemis, Greek goddess of the hunt. My father had a sword from Spain hanging on his wall in his study and I used to stare at it with curiosity and longing—and once even took it off the wall when a babysitter’s boyfriend scared me. Later on, I learned about the women warriors of Dahomey in West Africa, Mu Lan Hua of China, and the Scythian women who were the real-life inspiration for the legend of the Amazon.  The story of Durga, the warrior goddess of India who combats demonic forces and destroys illusion, also compelled me. I think, having felt under siege from relatives and schoolmates early in my life, the image of the woman warrior made me feel safer, even if in real life, my college karate class made me feel uncomfortable.

In my own tradition, I explored the biblical character of Devorah, the prophetess and tribal leader who directed the Israelites in battle.  Then I discovered the apocryphal Judith, who defended her city of Bethulia by cutting off the enemy general’s head–Judith is celebrated in art in a variety of European paintings and on Chanukah menorahs.  Judith is also celebrated during the North African Jewish holiday ritual of Chag haBanot or Eid Al-Banat—the Festival of the Daughters, a day that honors women and girls.  In addition to these legendary women, I was moved by other, non-legendary women who fought for justice and their people in a variety of ways.   Continue reading “The Kreismesser: Women and Magic Swords in Jewish Tradition by Jill Hammer”

The Holy of Holies and the Umbilical Cord: The Evolution of a Ritual Object by Jill Hammer

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.

Continue reading “The Holy of Holies and the Umbilical Cord: The Evolution of a Ritual Object by Jill Hammer”

The Prophetess: Greta Thunberg, Global Warming, and the Legacy of Prophecy in Our Own Day by Jill Hammer

My community and many others have been watching in awe as Greta Thunberg makes waves around the world—her lone climate change protest in Sweden growing in a single year into a climate strike with millions of demonstrators around the world.  Of course, Greta isn’t asking us to listen to her.  She is asking us to listen to the science that will save us.  And Greta is not alone: there are young indigenous female protesters like performance poet and peace activist Lyla June Johnston of the Dine (Navajo) and Tsetsehestahese (Cheyenne) peoples and water protector Autumn Peltier of the Anishnaabe people, who are speaking before the UN and in other public settings about global warming, and revitalizing our spiritual relationship with Mother Earth. Yet Greta knows that her fame (and her youth) gives her a platform. She is conscientiously using that platform to testify before Congress and the UN, Tweet, post on Facebook, and do whatever else she can do to make an impact.  Recently, I’ve noticed that some people in my home Jewish community, when they post about Greta on social media, have given her a nickname: they call her “the prophetess.”

This appellation has deep history.  The Hebrew word for prophet is navi, and the word for prophetess is neviah. These words come from the root nun-bet-alef which means to announce or proclaim.  At one event I attended, a woman enacting the role of a prophetess announced: “I am God’s microphone,” and that is what a navi or neviah does: amplify the voice of the sacred. Continue reading “The Prophetess: Greta Thunberg, Global Warming, and the Legacy of Prophecy in Our Own Day by Jill Hammer”

Sappho’s Poems as an Ethos for Women’s Ritual by Jill Hammer

Photo by: Zac Jaffe

For by my side you put on

many wreaths of roses

and garlands of flowers

around your soft neck


and with precious and royal perfume

you anointed yourself.


On soft beds you satisfied your passion.


And there was no dance

no holy place

from which we were absent.


–Sappho (trans. Julia Dubnoff)


Sappho, the poet from Lesbos (630-570 BCE), was considered one of the greatest poets of her time—one of her epithets was “the tenth Muse.” I discovered the poems of Sappho in my thirties and was utterly captivated.  I had newly embarked on a relationship with a woman and Sappho’s love poetry (though by no means exclusively lesbian) supported the expression of eros between women.  Yet even more than that, Sappho’s poems supported an erotic relationship between self and world—a relationship that included ritual as a form of intimacy.  I’m not a Greek scholar—I experience Sappho’s poems in translation. Yet the translations I read back then were a revelation: a world in which women lived in circle with one another.

Continue reading “Sappho’s Poems as an Ethos for Women’s Ritual by Jill Hammer”

Spring Blossoming: The Holy Orchard as Goddess by Jill Hammer

Every year when the cherries, pears, plums, and apple trees begin to bloom, I go out walking.  I look for every spot in my vicinity where white and pink blossoms are blooming in exquisite profusion like foam on an ocean. Every year I take photographs, even though I already have so many.  I walk at every hour of the day because, as the light changes, the colors change. I have albums and albums of pictures of my beloveds, the trees.

For me, the apple and cherry trees are a manifestation of Goddess.  Of course, everything is a manifestation of Goddess, but these, for me, have an extra measure of that life-giving beauty and abundance I associate with the indwelling Presence in the cosmos.  My enjoyment of the blossoms is both a sensual appreciation of the gorgeousness of Being and a poignant awareness that they will not last forever.  Sometimes these glories manifest for me as feminine, sometimes as masculine, and sometimes just as Life itself.


Continue reading “Spring Blossoming: The Holy Orchard as Goddess by Jill Hammer”

Tree of Life: The Festival of the Trees in an Age of Treefall by Jill Hammer

Almost every day, I walk in Central Park.  There are certain trees there I’ve come to know: the gnarled cherry trees by the reservoir, the bending willows and tall bald cypress by the pond, the sycamores that drop their bark each summer, the hawthorn not far from Central Park West.  Lately I’ve been taking photos of the trees to try to capture their essence, their posture in the world.  The trees around me feel like friends, which is what an ancient midrash (interpretation/legend) called Genesis Rabbah says about trees: that they are friends to humankind.  To me, they’ve always been a central manifestation of Mother Earth.

Currently, the national parks in the United States have no staff because of the government shutdown. Some people have taken the opportunity to cut down the rare and endangered Joshua trees in the Joshua Tree National Park—just for fun, I guess, or as a trophy of some kind.  Meanwhile, President Bolsonaro of Brazil recently has indicted that he wants to remove protection for the rainforest, in order to allow development.  It appears that my friends the trees have enemies.  Sometimes the enmity is for personal/corporate gain, and sometimes the enmity seems to have no reason at all.

Continue reading “Tree of Life: The Festival of the Trees in an Age of Treefall by Jill Hammer”

Jewish Hair, Witch Hair, and the Problem of Identity by Jill Hammer

This is a time of increased vulnerability for many minority populations in the United States: people of color, immigrants, LGBT people, native peoples. The policies and rhetoric of the current administration have left all these groups exposed to hostility.  Women are also feeling the pressure, as the gender split in voting in the past election suggests. And, Jews also are facing increased visibility.  In addition to the murders in Pittsburgh, anti-Semitic incidents around the country have increased in the last few years.  All this has me thinking about visibility, chosen and unchosen.

My father, an Ashkenazi Jew with curly black hair, green eyes and dark skin, came from an immigrant family that arrived here in the early 20th century from the region of Poland known as Galicia.  His mother in particular valued assimilation into American identity, and prized blond hair as a sign of this identity– she in fact later dyed her black hair blond.  His aunt had blond hair and it was considered a family coup.  (There’s much to say here about developing an assumed American identity of whiteness, as well as the presumption of Christianity.) When I was a little girl, I had blond hair and blue eyes.  My father used to call me his blond-haired, blue-eyed girl.

“No,” I would insist.  “My hair is brown and my eyes are green.” Continue reading “Jewish Hair, Witch Hair, and the Problem of Identity by Jill Hammer”

Challenging Christian Feminists to Re-Imagine the Goddess by Carol P. Christ

From the 1993 Re-Imagining Conference:

Our mother Sophia, we are women in your image:
With the hot blood of our wombs we give form to new life.
With the courage of our convictions we pour out our life blood for justice.
Sophia-God, Creator-God
let your milk and honey pour out,
showering us with your nourishment.

From my reflections on the Re-Imagining Conference presented at Hamline University on Novemeber 1, 2018:

One reason the creative re-imagining of God as female has not taken hold in churches and synagogues is fear of paganism and the Goddess. The creators of the Re-Imagining Sophia ritual took great care to guard against this charge by connecting it to Bible and tradition. Commenting on the reasons for the backlash against the Re-Imaging Conference, Sylvia Thorson-Smith stated:

One was the liturgical use of the biblical image of Sophia – but blown up as evidence of Goddess worship. Second was the milk and honey ritual – an ancient part of early Christianity, but attacked as a pagan substitute for communion.

While I understand her reasons for doing so, “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Continue reading “Challenging Christian Feminists to Re-Imagine the Goddess by Carol P. Christ”

Michal the Priestess: Midrash, Multiplicity, and the Tales of King David by Jill Hammer

When I was in my late teens, I discovered midrash: the Jewish exegetical process by which commentators weave creative and additive interpretations into the sacred text.  Midrash comes from the word “to ask,” “to seek,” or “to divine.” For example, the tale in which a well follows the prophetess Miriam through the wilderness is an ancient midrash. The story in which God stops the angels from singing as the Egyptians drown in the Sea of Reeds is a midrash. Each of these stories derives from a particular close reading of text, whether a Torah text or a verse elsewhere in the Bible.  Each of them allows a new generation to add its own perspectives to the tradition.

Contemporary feminists, and many other contemporary artists, writers, and exegetes, have used a modern form of midrash to add liberatory perspectives to Jewish tradition and to biblical lore.  From Miriam to Vashti, female biblical characters shine in the creative interpretations of feminist midrashists.  Judith Plaskow’s “The Coming of Lilith” made a huge impact on the reading of the story of Eve and the legend of Lilith. Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent changed the conversation on Dinah forever. Alicia Ostriker, Norma Rosen, Veronica Golos, and many others have joined in this creative play which highlights marginalized voices within the text.  Wilda Gafney has made contributions to a Christian and womanist form of midrash.  Voices like Andrew Ramer and Joy Ladin have invited us to see queer and trans themes in the text. And of course many others, from poet Yehuda Amichai to bibliodramatist Peter Pitzele, have added to this rich tapestry.

Continue reading “Michal the Priestess: Midrash, Multiplicity, and the Tales of King David by Jill Hammer”

The Thirteen Attributes of Shekhinah: A Prayer for the High Holidays by Jill Hammer

On Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur (the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement), and on the festivals throughout the year, traditional Jewish liturgy includes the Thirteen Attributes of the Divine. Exodus 34:6-7 is the first to mention these thirteen attributes, or thirteen names really, for God.  This Rosh haShanah, as part of my work as a creative liturgist, I offered a new meditation on these thirteen attributes, dedicated to the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence.

In the biblical story, Moses asks God to show him God’s face, and God’s response is that Moses cannot see God’s face but “I will make all My goodness pass before you.” God hides Moses in the cleft of a rock, passes by the cleft, and recites the following:  YHWH, YHWH, compassionate and gracious, patient, abundant in kindness and truth, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving mistakes, and cleansing…”  The liturgy actually cuts off the rest of the text, which is harsher, in favor of retaining the loving divine attributes. At the new year, when the liturgy invites us to reflect, consider our actions, and acknowledge the brevity of our lives, Jews recite the text as a prayer to invoke God’s mercy.

Thirteen is a somewhat uncommon sacred number in Jewish tradition (seven, ten, and twelve are more common), but it’s a frequent sacred number in my practice.  In my spiritual tradition, at the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, we place at the core of our work thirteen netivot, or paths, of sacred action.  We also call them the “archetypes,” the “priestess paths,” or “the paths of Shekhinah.” Each of these paths—maiden, midwife, prophetess, mother, wise woman, shrinekeeper, lover, weaver, etc.– comes from an ancient way in which women embodied the sacred.  As a community, we use these paths as a guide for how to serve the sacred and one another, and we also understand them as faces of Goddess. Continue reading “The Thirteen Attributes of Shekhinah: A Prayer for the High Holidays by Jill Hammer”

Miriam the Prophetess as Guardian and Healer by Jill Hammer

jill hammer cropped

The biblical traditions of Miriam the prophetess have captured the imaginations of Bible-readers throughout the ages.  Miriam, Moses’ sister, watches over Moses in his cradle (Exodus 2), and leads the Hebrew women in dance at the shore of the Sea of Reeds to celebrate redemption  (Exodus 15).  Rabbinic lore identifies Miriam with Puah, the midwife who saved Hebrew babies from Pharaoh, and depicts her as the herald of Moses’ birth (Exodus Rabbah 1:13; Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 12a). Contemporary Jewish feminists have established traditions of singing to Miriam the prophetess on Saturday night, parallel to the tradition of singing to Elijah the prophet at that time.   It has also become popular among some feminist/egalitarian Jews to place a cup of Miriam on the seder table at the time of Passover.  This cup is usually filled with water in order to recall the ancient legend that a well of water followed Miriam through the wilderness, quenching the thirst of the wandering people (cf: Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 9a).  It was even said that healing herbs grew near this well, so that Miriam’s prophetic power became a source of healing.

The veneration of Miriam is especially deep in Sephardic Jewish traditions—those Jewish traditions stemming from the Spanish Jewish diaspora, which may be found everywhere from North Africa to Holland to Greece and Bulgaria.  Sephardic women used incantations along with various rituals involving salt, herbs, and other substances, as healing for various ailments and troubles; women skilled in these practices were called precanteras or precantadoras.  Some of their healing incantations invoke Miriam as the ancestress of all women healers, as in the following prayer:

Continue reading “Miriam the Prophetess as Guardian and Healer by Jill Hammer”

Meeting Phrike: Feminist Theology and the Experience of Horror by Jill Hammer

Myself, I saw the numb pools amidst the shadows; myself, the wan gods and night in very truth.  My frozen blood stood still and clogged my veins.  Forth leaped a savage cohort… Then grim Erinys (Vengeance) shrieked, and blind Furor (Fury), and Horror (Phrike), and all the forms which spawn and lurk amidst the eternal shades.

Seneca, Oedipus (trans. Frank Justus Miller)

Horror is not a cognitive but a physiological or affective extra-discursive state of being. Not unlike the state of, say, feeling nausea, horror is a state of being, whose manifestation, based on the etymologies of the Greek φρiκη [phrike] and the Latin horror, may be described, as Adriana Cavarero writes, as “a state of paralysis, reinforced by the feeling of growing stiff on the part of someone who is freezing,” and further, through her mythological reference to the prototypical figure of horror, Medusa, as a state of “petrification” …

205. Kiarina Kordela, “Monsters of Biopower: Terror(ism) and Horror in the Era of Affect”, Philosophy Today 60(1), 2016, p. 193-205.

Surging anti-Semitism in the United States, as witnessed by many news reports and also anecdotes related by friends and acquaintances, holds a particular horror for Jews of my generation.  Some of us thought that we were relatively safe from that age-old bigotry.  It’s disorienting to be reminded that we are not.  My wife, whose father (alone of all his relatives) survived Auschwitz, has the skin-crawling sense as she reads the news that somehow we have gone back to that time.  Twenty-eight Jewish community centers have been evacuated in the last two weeks because of bomb threats, and a rabbi in the Midwest has received death threats for protesting neo-Nazi activities. A midwife/rabbi friend in Toronto had her house vandalized with swastikas.  A judge of my acquaintance in the New York area saw a statue of Martin Luther King vandalized with Nazi symbols.  Walking down the street in New York City, I myself heard someone exclaim gleefully: “Trump is going to get rid of the Jews!”  

While I hope that is not anywhere near true, the horror evoked by hearing such words is a real entity: a physiological state of being.  The Greeks personified the feeling of horror as a daimona (spirit) or goddess called Phrike.  The word phrike implies shivers, goosebumps: a physicalized emotion. The Romans called her Horror.  There are no stories about her, but the ancient Greeks used the word phrike when speaking about theater, believing that the pity and terror evoked by a play effected a catharsis for the viewers.  Via their beliefs about theater, the Greeks gifted Phrike to the world.  Lately I feel that Phrike is living in my house.   Continue reading “Meeting Phrike: Feminist Theology and the Experience of Horror by Jill Hammer”

The Book of Earth & Other Mysteries: a book review by Elizabeth Cunningham

book-of-earth-photojpgWhen a poem shows me something in a strange and wonderful light and at the same time awakens some bone-deep knowing of my own, I feel more alive, I feel less alone. My soul is stirred and satisfied. The Book of Earth & Other Mysteries by Rabbi Jill Hammer, author, teacher, midrashist, mystic, poet, essayist, and priestess, is a whole collection of such poems.

Collection is not a vivid enough word. The structure of this book is more like a fairy palace, a sandcastle blazoned with shells, a dragon’s lair, a bold work of art in itself.  The book begins with a five part prose piece called “Intentions,” the first four invoking an element and the last one holding open the door for us to enter the world of the poems.  Here are a couple of sentences excerpted from each. Continue reading “The Book of Earth & Other Mysteries: a book review by Elizabeth Cunningham”

Judaism, Feminism, and The Twoness of Creation by Jill Hammer

Rabbi Amorai said: “Where is the garden of Eden:  He answered himself: “In the earth.”

Sefer haBahir, 12th century Provence

For many liberal Jews, the phrase “tikkun olam” has been an important rallying cry.  The phrase is often used as synonymous with “social justice,” but has more esoteric roots.  Tikkun olam, repair of the world, refers to a kabbalistic view of creation.  In this view, the Divine set out to create the world by vacating a space, an empty space within which creation could occur.  The Divine then created vessels, planning to pour divine light into them, in order to form all created things.  But when the divine light was poured into the vessels, the vessels could not hold the effulgence.  They shattered, scattered sparks of light and shards of the vessels everywhere.  Since then, the cosmic job of humanity is to find these sparks of light and free them to rejoin the One.

wisteria-knotIsaac Luria, a Jewish mystic in the city of Sfat, told this tale of creation in the seventeenth century.  It caught the Jewish imagination and has been wildly popular as a Jewish creation myth ever since.  It captures our longing for wholeness and our experience of brokenness.  It also offers a parallel with the Big Bang (a hot seed of light that expands into the universe as we know it) that many find quite compelling.  I have loved this story for a long time.  To me, it is reminiscent of the story of birth: an empty space that becomes full, then leaks out into the world as a new being.  Yet as a feminist who is also committed to sustainability, as more news of our planet’s scorching rolls in, I find this myth is beginning to crack.   Continue reading “Judaism, Feminism, and The Twoness of Creation by Jill Hammer”

The Red Thread, the Red Heifer, and Red Ritual by Jill Hammer

Jill Hammer

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.

Continue reading “The Red Thread, the Red Heifer, and Red Ritual by Jill Hammer”

“Seeking Harbor in Our Histories” – ASWM 2016 Conference

aswmThe Association for the Study of Women & Mythology (ASWM) will be hosting this year’s Conference, “Seeking Harbor in Our Histories: Lights in the Darkness” at the Boston Marriot Burlington Hotel on 1-2 April 2016.

ASWM conferences strive to support the scholarship, artistry, & practice of those who explore and engage the sacred feminine through study and creativity. Offering keynote presentations at this year’s conference are Dr. Elinor Gadon, Dr. Margaret Bruchac, and Dr. Lucia Ciavola Birnbaum.

On Friday night, there will be a plenary session and book-signing moderated by Miriam Robbins Dexter and Vicki Noble and featuring Max Dashu, Starr Goode, Mama Donna Henes, Donna Read, Genevieve Vaughan, Cristina Biaggi, Lydia Ruyle, Miranda Shaw, Elinor Gadon, and Susun Weed. They will be sharing stories from the anthology, Foremothers of the Women’s Spirituality Movement: Elders and Visionaries. FAR contributor Carol P. Christ has a chapter in the book.

FAR is excited to share that three of our contributors are on this year’s conference schedule!

Nancy Vedder-Shults will be joining the “Artists, Activists, & Scientists and the Lineage of the Goddess” panel with her presentation, Science and Divination: The Blurring Lines between the Secular and the Sacred. 

Jill Hammer will present The King and the Priestess: Mythic Motifs and Motives in the Tale of Judah and Tamar as part of the “Male-Female Relationships in the Hebrew Texts: Three Feminist Analyses” panel.

Kate Brunner will be participating in the “Women’s Spirituality, Transformative Scholarship and Personal Quest” panel with Rhiannon, Great Queen of the Mabinogi: Ancient Mythology in Modern Context. She will also be offering her meditative writing workshop, Becoming Branwen the Peaceweaver. 

In addition to the main conference, there will be a Matriarchal Studies Day seminar and celebration, in the same location the day before (31 Mar). Hosted by Vicki Noble and Lydia Ruyle, the program looks to be a great addition to the weekend. Dr. Heide Goettner-Abendroth, founder of Modern Matriarchal Studies will present via Skype. Other presenters will include Max Dashu, Polly Wood, Beverly Little Thunder, and Genevieve Vaughan, exploring woman-centered arts, themes of motherhood, and the gift economy. There will be a keynote presentation by Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, and evening entertainment by folksinger, Julie Felix.

For registration information & more conference details, see the ASWM 2016 Conference blog.

Feminism & Religion Project contributors past, present, & future interested in connecting with FAR at the conference, are encouraged to get in touch with Kate Brunner at If there is enough interest, we may be able to organize meeting up for a meal together some time during the weekend.

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