Hammer, Jill and Taya Shere. “The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership”, Ben Yehuda Press, 2015.
Welcoming the Women to Judaism
Traditionally, women have had a very small role in the Jewish religion as spiritual leaders. “The Hebrew Priestess” goes back in history and brings together anything related to the Jewish priestess and then brings everything together and celebrates the spirituality of women and reclaims “the lost Divine Feminine”. Many will find several surprises here and what a wonderful thing it is to try appreciate and celebrate the role of women in our religion. I love that instead of looking at women as abandoned in Judaism, Jill Hammer and Taya Shere see her as forgotten as spiritual leader during the times before women were ordained as rabbis in the 1970s. This is a book I read with my eyes thoroughly wide open and ready to learn something new and I was never disappointed. Each sentence has something new to offer. The title alone hints at how much there is be learned here.
Beginning with the past, we see some uniquely feminine forms of leadership and we are made aware of how this has come forward to the present. This may come of something of a surprise for some who have lived with the ideas that women actually little if any role in the creation of the Jewish religion as we know it today. I am sure that many of us can name the Jewish women that were important but unfortunately that does not mean that they know much about them. Female talents as religious leaders had been going on long before the Exodus from Egypt and when Deborah sat under a tree.
The authors offer up uniquely feminine forms of spiritual leadership for our time. There women were more than just the mothers of the patriarchs and they share a part in the early days of the religion and people hood. I find it difficult to think of Abraham without Sarah. If Abraham is to be regarded as the father of the Jewish people, should Sarah also be regarded as the mother? We all need to be aware that the place and roles of women were downplayed, hidden or even erased by the rabbinic editors of our holy books and sometimes it is necessary to read between the lines and deeply to find out about the women of the times.
From before the days of Miriam the Prophetess and Deborah the Judge, Jewish women have offered their talents as religious leaders. The Hebrew Priestess tells their stories, often reading between the lines of the Bible and Talmud to rediscover the women that rabbinic editors downplayed and perhaps even tried to erase. The research done to bring the women back to where they belong is intensive and well done and it will probably shock some males that there was female divinity with the Jews. Judaism during Biblical times was nothing like we know it today (aside from the sacrifices, of course).
After the amazing introduction that in itself has a lot to say, we are given a brief history of the Hebrew priestess and this is followed by other brief histories of women in their various roles. Those roles are thirteen in number—prophetess, weaver, drummer, shrine keeper, midwife, mother, maiden, witch, queen, wise woman, mourning woman, seeker and fool). The authors then show how each model of women’s leadership was manifest in ancient times and throughout Jewish history, and how women in today are following that path. Ultimately, it shows how each model can be incorporated into one’s own spiritual life.
There will be those that ask if this is something fairly new and the answer is that there were hints at the lives of these women in the Bible, in texts and in folk traditions. Hammer and Shaya tell us that we can truly understand the history of the Jewish people without being aware of the priestesses and the Divine Presence that they represent. Among the priestesses we see Ruth, Deborah, and Miriam while the Divine Presence comes as Lady Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs, in hidden spaces of the temple and in Eve who is the mother of all life. (If you are having a hard time in accepting this, that is totally understandable because of the way Judaism has been practiced for so long. We have not been taught to know the priestesses of the Bible but that does not mean that we cannot know them. We have to look for them in myths, texts and tradition or you can make it easier by reading this wonderful book. Before I leave you let me just define the word priestess as it is defined here— “A priestess, like a priest, is a facilitator between worlds. She tends the relationship between human and divine. She may do this through ritual, through the maintenance of a sanctuary, through trance and prophecy, through creation of sacred words and objects, or through music and dance. She is a medial person in the Jungian sense— though mystery she offers, she allows others to open the realms of spirit and the depths of human experience”. Now if that not make you curious about this book, than nothing will. I think the biggest danger I find here in writing this review is that I cannot seem to stop writing because there is so much here. But I am stopping and hoping that my words will bring you to this book. You will be glad if they did.
“Rabbi Jill Hammer brings vast erudition to this book as well as unique personal experience. She is co-founder, with co-author Taya Shere, of the Kohenet Institute, which trains Jewish women as Hebrew priestesses. Hammer and Shere believe that the spiritual gifts of Jewish women will only be incorporated into Judaism when women explore the Divine through their own lens. The Kohenet Institute offers an embodied, ecstatic, earth-based approach to Jewish spiritual practice and leadership.
“The Hebrew Priestess weaves a careful examination of historical antecedents of these new priestesses with the personal experiences of women who embarked on this new path of Jewish priestesshood”.