So as Rabbi Shir mentioned this past weekend I was initiated as a Kohenet in the Hebrew Priestess Institute. And I do feel excited for what that will bring. So I wanted to share with you, or actually, Shir invited me to share with you, and I felt inspired to share with you, what does it mean to me to be a priestess?
By the definition of the Hebrew Priestess Institute, it is a form of Jewish leadership that draws on the real ways of worship undertaken by our ancestors. Those ways that didn't make it into the texts, at least not directly. You see by the early centuries AD there were thought to be about 50 different Jewish sects in Israel. The ones that survived were the ones that assimilated, prospered, and wrote their ways down.
The Kohenet Institute has resurrected the roles of the women who are around in the early years of our tradition. They have scoured the texts for hints of their presence. They have looked to Jewish communities around the world for what has remained of women's ritual. Kohenet seeks to breathe new life into these roles and to uplift women and other marginalized people who once were Judaism.
Yes. Judaism had priestesses. Kohenets are in the text. Before their important roles were wiped out erased or simply lost, there were priestesses who served, channeled, and upheld the energy of the divine feminine. They were the shrine keepers, prophetesses, and wise women. Women who inspired Jewish life who created sacred space; they were guardians of ritual, oracles; those who wove the sacred garments and the curtains of the MISHKAN, those who use the charms and amulets and herbs to heal, to bless, to midwife.
They were women like Devorah who channeled the divine through prophecy, the Witch of Endor, Esther the Queen, and countless, countless others.
In this week's parsha, as we just experienced, we have Rebecca. Most often remembered as the mother of Jacob and Esau. But Rebecca was a priestess as powerfully connected to God as the patriarchs. When she conceived, the text says,
"She went to inquire of the LORD." (Genesis 25:22)
VATEILECH LIDROSH ET ADONAI.
וַתֵּלֶךְ לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת־יְהֹוָה
Rebecca didn't wonder if she could connect with God. She didn't contemplate how to connect with God, nor did she seek out her husband's help. She had her own relationship. She went directly to that Being, that Friend, and asked the great existential question, "if this is so, why do I exist?"
I wonder for how long had she been speaking to God already? How regular was this contact? How normal was this for her, that she didn't even look to find anyone who could interpret for her? She knew where to go and she went and there she spoke with Yah directly. God didn't say, "Rebecca, if you want to talk to me, find a priest, find a rabbi." He didn't say, "Go ask your husband." No, Rebecca had a direct link to God. It was perfectly expected, perfectly normal. And in fact, he gave her the clues to the future of her family, information Isaac didn't even have. He empowered her to use her own intelligence to fulfill the prophecy for the inheritance of generations.
If anyone says to you, there's no such thing as a Hebrew Priestess, tell them to take a class with Rabbi Jill Hammer, and she will enlighten you. She will illuminate their presence all over the texts.
Along with feminine leadership, there was a feminine God whose existence is also hidden in plain sight in Jewish texts. There have been many inscriptions found in near Eastern items referring to Yahweh and his Asherah; oil jars and offering stands inscribed with the words "sanctified to Asherah."
Yet the suppression of the female way created an imbalance in the temples and in spiritual life whose effects are still being felt in every area of life on earth.
As Rabbi Jill Hammer says in her book The Hebrew Priestess,
"Jewish mystics came to believe that embodied divinity, male and female was the substance of the entire world. They interpreted all of Jewish practice as an attempt to bring the masculine God and feminine goddess together and reunite them as one being. Those mystics innovated the custom, prior to the performance of mitzvot, to recite 'for the sake of the unification of the Holy Blessed One and the Shechinah.' This custom persists to this day, thus every mitzvah becomes a symbolic enactment of the sacred marriage."
So what does it mean to be a priestess today? It means to take on the task of bringing back the sacred balance of energies that our own people once maintained and to do so through beauty, love, healing, and light; through song, poetry and magic; through holding each other in times of transition or challenge. It's an important part of a healthy Jewish community. It's a spiritual practice that is not just accomplished through the head, through analysis, but through the heart, through synthesis; not just through speculation, but also through seeing feeling and hearing the sacred presence. Jewish communities need priestesses to revive, enliven, and bring healing to the Jewish path.
And what does it mean to me personally, to have studied and taken initiation in this path? Well, as a young woman, just out of college, I took off from home. I left behind a new job and a budding relationship to find God. I took off in search of spirituality, meaning, and purpose in the place in the world that seemed to have it in an essential, accessible, and intact form. That place was India.
I knew that there I might find people whose lives were dedicated to the cultivation of relationship to God, Goddess, All That Is. And that I might find someone who could help me get there myself. I wanted to see what was possible for human life. What was the goal? What was the meaning?
לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי
LAMA ZEH ANOCHI
"Why do I exist?" (Genesis 25:22)
I felt that if I found someone who is truly dedicated to that pursuit perhaps they could show me the way. In over a decade of searching and pilgrimaging to the far reaches of the planet, after living in caves and sitting at the feet of great teachers, I found many, many things.
Over the past few years, I've written a book about my journey. It is not just a biography or recounting, it is a sacred adventure. Almost every person who has looked at it thus far has said they couldn't put it down. I've written it to pull people in, to capture them into the real life adventure. And I want to make it your adventure.
Perhaps to help you find the meaning that I found. As I've set out to complete it, it has turned now into two books. And perhaps even three. Suffice it to say it was a long journey full of nuance, risk, profound experiences, and integration of incredible teachings. I met fascinating characters and ancient friends and I wove the strands of many traditions into my heart.
And you may be surprised to find that my journey was not just about yoga or meditation or exploring the pantheon of Indian gods. My journey led me, completely apart from my involvement in Kol Hai, and long before I'd ever heard of the Kohenet Institute, to Judaism.
Specifically, I was led to the unearthing of the ancient Hebrew Goddess and to her priestesses. I was also drawn to my hereditary lineage, not just as a curious collector of sacred tools, but as one who felt the beauty of El, of Shechinah, of Yah, of the Asherah, and who had something to return to the altars of time.
For me, this sacred communion is in the music. I first found this in the song circles of Tel Aviv and the Shabbat dinners of friends who were squatting in the hills near Tzfat. I felt the magical sense of peoplehood in a love affair with the Holy One. I came here to sing four years ago, and now I stand with you as Kohenet Renée.
I am your priestess, Kol Hai. I am a goddess-loving woman in a deep love affair with Spirit, and I'm here to sing the hope and meaning I've found in my journey into your lives if you will have me.
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