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Priestly Caste

There’s a growing movement of women who practice their Judaism through feminist, earth-based rituals

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A ceremony at Kohenet, the Hebrew Priestess Institute, last summer. (Kohenet Archive)

This month, 12 students were initiated into a class of women studying to become kohanot, or Hebrew priestesses, at a retreat center in rural Connecticut. The ordination process they’ll go through—loosely modeled on the threefold anointing of priests described in Leviticus and invoking the Shekhinah—came to Holly Shere, a folklorist, in a “dream vision” that she shared with Rabbi Jill Hammer, her co-director at Kohenet, the Hebrew Priestess Institute, which was founded in 2006.

Kohenet is part of a growing, grassroots Jewish movement to reclaim the divine feminine—female aspects of God represented in Jewish texts—and reintroduce earth-based traditions to Jewish spiritual seekers. In recent years, for example, some women have elevated Rosh Chodesh, the marking of the new moon that was celebrated as a festival in biblical times, into an important feminist holiday. And Birkat Hachama, the blessing over the sun that the Talmud instructs Jews to recite every 28 years, saw record levels of observance in April 2009, the last time it was invoked. While some earth-based ideas have seeped into the mainstream, Kohenet sees itself as part of a fringe of Judaism that “includes shamans, kabbalists, wilderness Jews, environmentalist Jews, priestesses of Shekhinah, Jewitches, [and] practitioners of Israeli nature spirituality,” according to its website.

Other groups are also reinventing traditions that they say once had a place in Judaism, from the shamanistic Walking Stick Foundation in southern California and the New Mexico-based Center for Devotional Energy and Ecstatic Practice, to the Oakland-based organization Wilderness Torah. “We teach ancient rites such as how we used to bow in prayer to the four winds,” explains Rabbi Gershon Winkler, the former ultra-Orthodox rabbi behind Walking Stick, who argues that Judaism was originally closer to Native American Shamanism than to Christianity. Rabbi Shefa Gold, who leads chanting workshops at the Center for Devotional Energy, speaks of preparing a “healing the earth ritual” for a session at a retreat center for Jewish Renewal, the new-Hasidic movement, in Boulder, Colorado. “Through the earth and fire, air and water we access the power of purification,” she says.

Kohenet too, relies on the elements for many of its rituals. Though critics assume that Kohenet is an extension of Jewish Renewal, it is also rooted in the feminine, earth-based Reclaiming tradition founded in the 1970s by Miriam Simos—a Jewish-born anarchist and self-described witch who goes by Starhawk. Her website describes the Reclaiming tradition as “an activist branch of modern Pagan religion.”

Back when Jewish Renewal and Starhawk were struggling to get off the ground, the notion of Jewish paganism was unimaginable because it defied the monotheistic core of Judaism. In recent years, though, Kohenet and other earth-based Jewish groups are challenging that monotheistic essence; in their view, Judaism and paganism can coexist. As Hammer and Shere write in an unpublished manuscript about Hebrew priestesses, Kohenet holds “a soft position with regard to monotheism.” While their work “conceives of God/dess as a unity,” they “welcome women who experience the divine as a multiplicity.” But unlike Starhawk and other Jews who became pagans, today’s earth-based Jews ground their theology explicitly in Jewish traditions and texts. “What’s new here isn’t that Jews are doing paganism,” says Jay Michaelson, a columnist for The Forward and an expert on Jewish spirituality who confesses that he has become more “pagany” over the last few years. “It’s that they’re staying Jews.”

“I don’t see how Kohenet, to judge from its website, is compatible with Jewish belief and practice,” says Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s rabbinical school, where Hammer received her ordination. From its inception, he notes, Judaism has sought to move people “away from paganism, magic, and the worship of nature.” Earth-based or pagan Jews, adds Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a dean of the seminary at Yeshiva University, are “perverts” and should be ignored. “Pagan worship by those of Jewish birth destroyed our temples and sent us into galut,” or exile, he explains.

Hammer rejects these criticisms. “Early kabbalists like the Baal Shem Tov also saw ways of finding God in the forest and fields, and they too used the language of Shekhinah,” she says. “Fear of paganism, which supposedly deifies the body and the earth in ‘bad’ ways, is fear of the body. And often, it’s fear of the female body.” She responds to questions about whether worshiping the earth is idolatry by pointing out that the word “idolaters” has been used by Jews, Christians, and Muslims throughout history to delegitimize people they don’t know much about. “Many of the customs the Bible calls ‘foreign idolatry’ are ancient Israelite customs that were abandoned by later generations,” she says.

Most women involved with Kohenet do not self-identify as pagan, according to Stephanie Melmed, a therapist based in Washington, D.C., who expects to be ordained as a kohenet next summer. Instead, they prefer neutral terms such as “earth-based.” To Melmed, who prays to El Shaddai and Eilat, names that call to mind powerful female goddesses, in addition to Shekhinah, Kohenet offers, “an earth-based, feminist reinterpretation or renarrativing of Judaism.”

More than paganism, though, Kohenet’s philosophy is best captured by the term panentheism—the belief, as Hammer and Shere put it, “in a deity that comprises all things yet is more than the sum of its parts.” It’s a theological outlook supported by Rabbi Arthur Green, rector at the Hebrew College rabbinical school outside of Boston, who writes in his new book Radical Judaism that “the time has arrived for Jewish panentheism to step out of the closet.” Green also sees Kohenet as an important step for Jewish feminism. “Jewish women’s religious creativity was so deeply squashed for so many centuries that it now bursts forth with tremendous vigor,” he wrote in an email. “Should we expect that every form of this outburst would be to my androcentric, neo-traditionalist taste? Hardly! But the release of that creative energy is such a blessing that I’m more than willing to put up with a lot that I can’t immediately embrace.”

The idea of becoming a priestess first came to Hammer in 2001, just before she was ordained. As a rabbinical student, her “fascination with the wild side of feminine deity stayed underground,” she wrote in the essay collection New Jewish Feminism. But she was enthralled by “kabbalists in their secret circles whispering the name of Immah Ilaah, the Divine Mother” and loved engaging in new moon rituals, when she would pray to Shekhinah. She was about to become a rabbi, she says, but she felt like a priestess.

Then, in late 2005, Jay Michaelson introduced Hammer to Holly Shere, who had studied priestesses in Brazil as a graduate student and was also interested in training Jewish women “to priestess.” Disillusioned by what she calls “the patriarchy, hierarchy, and the disembodiment” of mainstream Jewish practice, Shere, like Hammer, wanted to build a new kind of Judaism. “It was a thunderbolt when we met,” says Hammer. “Within an hour of speaking on the phone we decided to create this program and to call it Kohenet.” Kohenet held its first session in 2006.

Through Kohenet, Hammer and Shere want to bestow women with roles of spiritual leadership. “Women were important spiritual practitioners in the ancient world, but their roles were marginalized as Judaism became more monolithic,” she says. She cites Miriam, described in Exodus dancing with a timbrel—a popular ritualistic instrument among near eastern priestesses—as perhaps the Biblical character who most resembles a priestess.

Hammer is not sure what role, if any, kohanot will play in Jewish communities, and she prefers to leave it her students to find their place as Jewish clergy. “We’re not as learned as rabbis are in Torah and Talmud—what I call the writings of men,” says Yocheved Landsman, of Boulder, Colorado, who was ordained in Kohenet’s first graduating class last year. On the other hand, she explains, kohanot, like rabbis, lead life cycle rituals; Landsman has officiated at four weddings in Colorado—all of them interfaith—and has also helped out with funerals and baby-namings. Similarly, Ketzirah Lesser, a kohenet in Washington, D.C., offers services ranging from home cleansings to vigils for the dying. In spite of the good works, she and her peers have a way to go to gain a foothold in Jewish communities. When she told congregants at a mainstream synagogue that she was a priestess, one of them responded: “a princess?”

Whether earth-based Judaism will ever become mainstream remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt that “pagany” elements are gradually seeping in, says The Forward’s Jay Michaelson. “I’ve been to mainstream synagogues that are enthusiastically doing that ritual where you beat the willows on the ground on Sukkot,” he says. “If that’s not paganism I don’t know what is. Any pagan would be quite happy doing that.”

Jeremy Gillick is a doctoral student in history at the University of California, Davis. His writing has appeared in The Forward, Moment Magazine, and London’s Jewish Chronicle.

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Jeremy — thanks for presenting such a well-balanced view of Kohenet and how it is received and understood in the Jewish community. Can’t say I’m thrilled to be called a “pervert,” but it’s important to know that people will call us names like that.

One correction — it was a year ago, not this month, that 12 of us were initiated and received smicha as the first class of Kohanot.

I am very impressed. While dogmatic religions that require following a prescribed method of worship are not my style, this is, nonetheless, quite an attractive “mainstreaming” of earth-based belief. ANd how wonderful to see the word “panentheism” used – when I have used this word in the past to explain my belief system, no one understands. I’ve explained it by saying “god is IN, god is ALL, god is MORE” but…

Nicely written, balanced article.

Thank you!

sorry …. I’m picking a bone about another issue here….

As soon as you have to fix a well-known word or expression to accommodate a woman, flags should go down on the play. You get into “cute” and you accent gender. It’s not the real thing (priest), but it’s sort of like it.

Feminine word endings (-ess, -ette, -trix, -ine) specify a person’s sex when it is irrelevant. They also carry a demeaning sense of littleness or triviality (Rush Limbaugh derides women who succeed in traditionally male-dominated professions as “professorettes” and “lawyerettes”).

Most important, these ending perpetuate the notion that the male is the norm and the female is a subset, a deviation, a secondary classification. A poet is defined as “one who writes poetry” while a poetess is defined as “a female poet”; men are thus “the real thing” and women are sort of like them. The recommended procedure is to use the base word for both sexes (someone on a web site calls herself baketress ,,,

I hope I’ve given you something to think about.

whoops …. (someone on a web site calls herself “baketress” …. now what is that???)

sober lover says:

this, from an objective observer with no interest in one over the other, is just a new dogma, with it’s own rituals and obligations to an unknowable partner in an unknowable ‘place’ expecting more from the improbable fruit of a sentient, self-aware being than the astounding gift already bestowed by the happenstance of many requirements and conditions we’ve no clue as to how we might contrive such a balance that would be found by our own, and surely it is the most obvious comprehension of a miracle, but, still it is subjugated to ‘common’ stature…that a swine may well come to discover life as a miracle is some sort of cause to march in the fearheads, and the kind,fatherly antidote makes for us the lalaland we’d be glad to play angel in…
Are the pitchmen of eternal souls no longer obligated to the likes of impressionable children in their competition to save the greatest number from the delusion that God is Love, no strings attached? Will the overdriven pursuits of a rigid discipline, devoted to learning by rote the ver batum string of unknowable beliefs actually remove the stagnance and imposed identity that they never had a say or choice in. That just really makes a lot of sense, don’t it (sarcasm) you adults just further the notions of ungrateful existence, all for the sake of pulling their strings and enriching your own self-deluded notions of being the creator and owning that implied power…
Just let the kids come in their own time come upon the paradox and contagion of true delusionism, where words are put into the mouth of the almighty out of a spirit made to serve it’s ‘master’s every want and whim, when summoned to reflection and ‘prayer’… The semblance of eternity began at your becoming, and it is a long, long road back to what you initially brought and surrendered, seeking not your own, but to embrace the common crown you were made to part with, though no need was sure and evident, you are made a cripple for your own good. Repent your ignorance.

“There’s a growing movement of women who practice their Judaism through feminist, earth-based rituals.”

I beg to differ. This isn’t Judaism; it’s paganism, plain and simple. Whether they choose to use that word is as irrelevant as whether so-called “Messianic Jews” choose to use the word Christian. A thing doesn’t become its opposite just because you hang a label on it.

It’s a shame that otherwise bright women are choosing idolatry over Judaism.

How many times must God strike the Jewish people for practicing witchcraft and perverting His worship with pagan practices?

Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center is the wonderful place where Kohenet holds their training institutes. We offer a diverse range of programs and training institutes throughout the year, including the much-loved Sukkahfest (at which Rabbi Jill Hammer will teach this year, among a diverse array of rabbis), and the Adamah (young Jewish farmers changing the world one Pickle at a time…). Isabella Freedman serves Farm-to-Table glatt kosher cuisine from our own organic farm, we host a variety of cutting-edge Jewish organizations such as AJWS, Hazon, and Nehirim, and we are proud to support Kohenet.

Look “Isabella Freedman” up online and come up for a retreat soon!
We’re 2 hours north of NYC on the MetroNorth train line.

Thanks for the great journalism!

This is an inspiring example of Judaism’s vital creative soul/spirit/neshoma that continually renews and sustains it through the generations. I’m old enough to have lived through the pre-renewal days, growing up in the literal and metaphorical desert of Southern California 1950s institutional Judaism (my mother was an administrator at a JCC) and played a part in the cultural side of Jewish Renewal in the ’70s as a co-founder of Traveling Jewish Theatre (still going after 32 years as The Jewish Theatre San Francisco). I’ve come to understand that our religion-culture-peoplehood has always been in a state of renewal, whether through the genius of the Talmud’s dialogue structure or the explosion of secular Yiddish culture in the 19th century. Throughout our long history, what one faction labels as heresy or apostasy, has a way of ultimately contributing to the strength, vitality and endurance of the collective Jewish experience.

I’m so tired of coming out of closets. Finally took off the door.

Uno Immoto says:

No. NO. NO!
I am not a Feminist – even IF I were – this is going too far!

Jonathan Silverman says:

Do you think the women behind this movement had mostly gentile sexual partners?

Alitza Ma'ayan says:

‘Kohenet’ is not a feminized version of kohan. It might actually be the other way around. Kohenet is an ancient term whose roots show up in middle eastern hebrew, ugaritic and phoenician languages. It means a woman religious ritual leader, a priestess. it is specifically gender female and it denotes ritual agency, activity, and stature – not belittlement. There are other terms as well to denote the reality of women religious leaders among Jewish Hebrew speaking people,during the time of the Temples in Judaism- we know this from grave markers from the time ( they translate to leaders of the congregation; prayer leader.)
It is true for some women today that modern mainstream Judaism does not offer enough ritual activity and authority to women in the congregation. It is true for some women that the ingrained androcentric veiwpoint of some Jewish religious leaders, and some of our most sacred writings and text, stands as an obstacle in the way of connection to Hashem, to Jewish community and practice. Kohenet offers some of these women a vital way to reconnect with Jewish ancient texts, study, and prayer. We learn to fill in what is missing for us – through creative rituals rooted in our own tradition. We are not pagans because we find something missing in our era. Rather we are, along with Jewish Renewal, revitalizing and turning over the sacred words to find meanings, vestiges from earlier times, that touch us as deeply true, that we can live by and convey to our children. Turn it, turn it, for all things are in it…….one of the beauties of Judaism is its ancient and modern resiliency and ability to embrace and incorporate change.

A. Tree says:

Interesting article with attempt to be well-balanced. I realize the writer may not be responsible for the headline, but I must point out that I believe the word, “Caste,” though it has historical meaning in Judaism, is not appropriate to describe the Kohenet, which I understand to be an egalitarian group. Also, Starhawk is an anarchist?????? I think not. And one last thing: “Pagan” should be capitalized, in recognition of its legitimacy as a spiritual/religious path. Not capitalizing undermines the attempt of balance in this article.

Point of clarification: Not every reader will know that the “ritual where you beat the willows on the ground on Sukkot” (specifically on Hoshana Rabbah) is not a new invention but an ancient tradition, practiced in Orthodox synagogues everywhere. So I’m not sure of the logic of describing this as a “‘pagany’ element gradually seeping in”. Although, it’s probably true that more people are practicing this tradition than there used to be, and maybe some of this is not due to the Orthodox resurgence but to a desire to connect with the earth through ritual. Or maybe some of the Orthodox resurgence is about the desire to connect with the earth through ritual! Another case in point: Kiddush Levanah, the traditional monthly blessing of the waxing moon with singing and dancing.

I do you call that “Judaism” I wonder.

Bernie says:

First there was Orthodox Judaism, then Reform, then Conservative, then Reconstructionist, then Renewal,,,my head is spinning! How much splintering can Judaism take!

Actually, Reform predates Orthodox according to most historians…

… and what we call Orthodox is an umbrella term for dozens of different groups and movements with different approaches to theology and practice, some of which consider each other heretical.

To Bernie: what you would call splintering, others might call choice or diversity or heterodoxy. In the past, Jews who weren’t comfortable with “orthodoxy” simply left the jewish fold completely. Now, they can maintain a connection to jewish faith, identity, culture and community. I believe that’s a good thing.

tomthy york says:

you’ve GOT to be kidding me.

Actually, what we might call “Orthodox” Judaism, has been around for almost two thousand years, and a better name for it, might be Rabbinical Judaism, which is the Judaism of Rashi and Rambam, the Baal Shem Tov and the Gra. It certainly predates reform Judaism or any other Judaism we might have today. Certainly what these ladies are doing is not practicing Judaism, in any shape or form, after all God is ONE, this is paganism plain and simple. Lastly, she mentions the Baal Shem Tov finding God in the forests and trees. Yes, he went into the forest to TALK to God, not to find God in the trees. If you want to find an enlightening and uplifting Judaism, contact your local Kiruv Rabbi, and tell him, that you want to incorporate Judaism into your life more.

Calling something Jewish does not make it so. This is exactly the kind of religion that the Torah demands Jews to reject. We are all free to worship as we please, but pick another name please! Judaism is already taken. As someone already noted, this is not all too far from “Messianic Judaism” and it should not be hosted by a Jewish institution such as Isabella Freedman Retreat Center as it is in direct opposition to Jewish teachings since the very beginings of Judaism. To claim otherwise is to fool yourself and others.

Just what makes this a practice of “Judaism” any more than it’s a practice of Catholisim, Islam or Wicca?

It’s essentially a newly created religious observance. They can do what they want, but thsi is false advertising.

If there is a capital J on Jewish there should be a capital P for Pagan. Other than that an interesting article nicely written :)

This is paganism which is “avodah zarah” – what the Torah calls “strange service”…it’s idol worship pure and simple. Stop watering down our religion while maintaining that it is Judaism. There is nothing Jewish about this. Nothing. It is actually the direct opposite of Judqaism. At least be honest about that. This is sad, pathetic and another example of the level of ignorance that some of our people have slipped to.

L’shon hara won’t fix whatever you think is the problem, Pete.

Adam: “Whatever” I think is the problem? As Jews we have a duty to proclaim the unity of G-d. That is our primary purpose on this planet. In fact, we are commanded to allow ourselves to be killed rather than worship idols. That is how serious this is. Is avoiding lashon hara important? Yes. Does that avoidance take the place of educating our fellow Jews about the serious debasement of who we are that the practices embodied in this article express? No way.

Ketzirah says:

Correction on my correction. I misread the opening sentence, and just realized the author was referring to the new class of women who just started the program.

To those accusing us of everything under the sun, it’s really not worth trying to convince you of otherwise. You will choose to believe the worst of us, if you choose to. Or you can choose to see that we are providing roads back into Judaism and deeper into Judaism for many. There is no idol worship, this is not avodah zerah. Judaism is inherently earth-based. It’s just the Enlightenment and 20th century rationalism have stripped much of of it away. Read the works of the BESHT. Read the works of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. What you say about us is what they said about the Hasids when they first appeared on the scene a few hundred years ago.

I know women – including feminist scholars and rabbis – who are passionate about their Judaism and their feminism, and still take a “hard position” on monotheism. But the article only cites men in opposition, and makes it seem as though the fault line runs along the feminist/androcentric divide, and that the belief in a transcendent, radically unified and absolutely singular God, is a tool of the patriarchy.

Just when you think Galut could do no more harm! Altogether appropriaten to now label anything outside of Orthodoxy, those kind people who endured for two thousand years, vestigial Judaism.

How about Kherem Yiddishkeit?

It could be argued that a woman acting as a kohen during birkhat kohanim is avoda zorah. But who’s arguing?

Any provision for a Mohelette? Or will you just cut it all off? Afterall, the trend is your friend.
How Freudian…Kohenet!

Alitza Ma'ayan says:

When, in Judaism, we have 72 names of G!d, it does not mean we pray to 72 gods. When we touch and kiss a mezuzah, honoring the prayers and intentions within, it does not mean we think the mezuzah is a being or a diety. In Kohenet, when we pray to G!d as Shechinah, Elat, Malkah, and G!dess, as well as to HaShem, El Shaddai, Adonoi, Yah – it is not idolatry. We use the portal of language to open our hearts, and our language includes feminine names for G!d. The many names we use for the One do not mean we worship many gods. When I am in connection with ahava rabba, the great love and Presence all around me, I give thanks in the setting where those feelings arise. That could be in shul but shul is not G!d. That could be in the mountains or at the sea or in the woods, or with my child; but those are not god. G!d is in it all and beyond it, as G!d is in me and beyond me, ineffable, and intimately as close as my breath. This is distinctly my Jewish legacy. One of the spiritual roots of Kohenet is Jewish Renewal, along with Elat Chayyim at Isabella Freedman (and other legacies equally rich.) Our davvening practices may at times look like mergers with other cultures- with movement and breathwork; meditation and mikvah, dance and drumming. All these paths are ways of peace, and for some of us these new ways of davvening and experiencing G!d open the way into deeper text study and learning. This is not another religion. This is Judaism.

Yocheved Landsman says:

To those who are quick to judge and label the Kohenet movement as pagan and/or avoda zora let me ask–why so afraid of earth? Why so afraid of our bodies made up of the same elements? Is Gaia hypothesis pagan? Don’t we as Jews celebrate the New Year of the Trees as Tu B’Shvat? Don’t we pray for rain during Shmini Atzeret? Don’t we revere the Torah as sacred, stand up in its presence and not turn our backs, kiss siddurim that fall on the ground? How is recognizing with gratitude and wonder the gloriousness of our Divine Unity pagan? Don’t we pray the traditional yichud prayer for the unity of the yud he and the vav he? Do we celebrate Sukkot in the winter? Our ancient traditional practices have origins in marking sacred time and space in a cycle of festivals tied to the cycles of the earth, by design. Is this pagan? Perhaps there is some fundamental misunderstanding about the monotheistic G!d of Judaism–Elohim is grammatically plural yet paradoxically One.

The reason to study with Rabbi Jill Hammer is precisely because she understands and honors the connection between Torah, the earth, and Judaism. She also understands Judaism with and without the patriarchal lens, giving her insight into underlying spiritual truths of our faith. The Kohenet movement honors our relationship as spiritual beings to one another, to G!d, and to the earth–with great reason, great love, and great textual support.

Ketzirah wrote: “Read the works of the BESHT. Read the works of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.” I have read those works, they certainly didn’t advocate going against Halacha. Not one iota. Besides the fact that this is called a reinterpretation of Judaism is precisely what makes it a problem. Judaism doesn’t need reinventing, but it does need more people following Halacha.

Ketzirah says:

Dan – believe it or not I’m enjoyinng this dialogue with the people who are civil and interested in more than just saying nasty, judgmental things.

You raised a good point about Halacha. I have a consideration for you. I was raised in a very Reform family and taught NOTHING about Halacha. My Dad thought it was funny to go for brunch after Yom Kippur morning services. Much to my surprise, Kohenet created a desire in me to explore traditional practices. I’m hardly frum these days, but my Eco-kosher eating practice has taken on more traditional kashrut elements. In ohter areas where I choose not to follow Halacha, since I make no claim to be orthodox, I have a better understanding of the traditions and texts behind them.

Judaism has been evolving throughout it’s history. In this era, i think it’s even more important to provide inroads to Jewish practice that don’t require an all or nothing approach.

Judaism has never been an all or nothing approach. And, I am glad to hear that your adventures have led you to keeping something more akin to what is considered acceptable Kashrut. I also didn’t grow up religious, although, we were def not so blatantly anti Jewish, and I certainly had an idea of what Judaism was etc. Its just, when I read this article, that this smacks of something that isn’t Judaism, and is much closer to Wiccan or Paganism, or Earthism etc. Hanging out on the fringes like this, means walking a very fine line, and its easy to fall off on the wrong side. Besides, my assumption would be, and this is only an assumption, if husbands treated their wives like the queens the Torah says they are, and like God’s gift to them that Rabbi Nachman says they are, then most women would feel content at home helping to take care of the most important institution in Judaism, which is the family, they would feel less of a need to do things that have almost always been in the realm of males, like the priesthood, which in Judaism, has always had a different meaning than in most ancient religions, and would feel less need to partake in time bound mitzvahs because they would realize their latent spirituality which has always been, and always will be higher than a man’s.

Jonathan says:

Putting aside the various matters of Avoda Zara for the moment, the first fact to recognize is the inherent absurdity of it.

A cohen is born, not made, a cohenet is also born, not made. It’s like having a man being ordained a woman, it’s inherently absurd and impossible. Religious aspects aside, it simply doesn’t make logical sense.

Now let us repeat the most classic example of Avoda Zara, praying to the sun, moon, and stars. How did that occur? Reasonably people didn’t just start thinking “oh, those must be deities, let me pray to them”. They knew of G-d, and prayed to him first. Then saw how great the sun, moon, and stars were and started praising them as aspects to the glory of G-d, since He created them. Then over time they forgot they were praying to the sun, moon, and stars as an indirect means to praise G-d, and simply started to only pray to the sun, moon, and stars. That was when it became Avoda Zara, and it happened under numerous circumstances. There are specific mentions in Tanach about how the Korbanot (sacrifices) became Avoda Zara under certain circumstances, how Moses’s copper snake from the desert was later used as Avoda Zara, etc. It happened to frequently that the Rabbis ordained a series of “fences” to protect the lay person from persuing what seems like a good and noble act to prasie G-d, that would have the tendency to devolve into Avoda Zara a few years, or generations, later on.

That is what you’re breaking now. You’ll argue that you won’t forget, that you’ll teach your children properly about it, and you’ll actually only be following the Torah – but history shows you will fail, and fail miserably. You are not smarter, stronger, or wiser than all those people who thought the same way, and failed the same way, before you. Don’t make the same mistake by starting on the same path.


Actually cohen was a generic term used for priest in the Torah, and elsewhere, before it became associated with the hereditary priesthood. The easiest example to call-to-mind is Joseph’s father-in-law is a “priest of On.” The word cohen is used for priest there. (Gen 46:20)

I hear your other argument, but choose to be judged by my actions and not the past history of others. The same argument could be made about the way the Torah is treated in many synagogues. It’s dressed up in fancy clothes, given a special home, venerated by standing when it’s raised, and people leap forward to kiss the object. One could say that this could easily lead one down the same road you are concerned I, and my fellow Kohanot are headed down.

I think we have to keep trying, even where others have failed. Maybe I’m not “smarter, stronger, or wiser than all those people who thought the same way,” but maybe this time we can figure out what they missed and how they failed and do it right.

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?” — Just because I may not succeed does not free me from the obligation to try.

Alitza Ma'ayan says:

I too was raised secularly, more aware of Yiddishkeit than religion. When I returned, as an adult, as a mother, to study the rich legacy of my ancestors, to get closer to G!d through Judaism, so much of the tradition upset me, because of what women were not ‘bound’ to do and because of the narrow realm that women were consigned to by some parts of our tradition. I felt alienated. I am a non-traditional women in my life choices. I could not bring ‘all of myself’ to traditional Jewish forums. Programs like Kohenet, and the work and teachings of Jewish Renewal, Conservative and Reconstructionsist and Kohenet Rabbis have led me to study sacred texts, to slowly learn Hebrew, to try and keep a kosher kitchen, to honor Shabbat more and more, to go to mikveh, to mark time through the Jewish holidays, to study Torah, to lead Torah study and prayer services in my community….Their work has opened me to the remarkable legacy and richness of Jewish Orthodoxy and Chasidic practice and study. It is so beautiful. I appreciate those practices but I am who I am, and that is still a non-traditional woman. I would not be welcome without hiding who I was, leaving much of myself outside the door. Kohenet welcomes every bit of me. It invites me in, it invites me to learn more, it opens doors of study to me. I am not a women who can be content or fulfilled by staying at home, in the ways that Dan talks about. I will not get confused about idolatry in the ways that Jonathan talks about. I am a monotheist, the idea of panentheism ‘works’ for me, and being a Kohenet allows me to share my Jewish learning and wrestling-with- text with other Jews who can benefit from my teaching- teaching I in turn learned from my teachers. This helps brings people home.

Jonathan Hagler says:

Yes, “cohen” was a term used to regard a number of assorted priests in other religions. But in Judaism, such as in the manner you’re trying to use, it only refers to those of clear Aharonic descent. Using an earlier (chronologically) reference to another religion is hardly going to promote your explanation to use it for Judaism after a defintion within Judaism became codified.

Bamidbar (Numbers)18:1 “And the L-RD said unto Aaron: ‘Thou and thy sons with thee shall bear the iniquity of your priesthood.”

18:9 “This shall be thine of the most holy things…for thee and for thy sons.”

18:20 “And the L-RD said unto Aaron: … I am thy portion and thine inheritance among the children of Israel.”

For context, Bamidbar 16-17 are about Korath who tried to usurp the title of Cohen and was swallowed by the earth for his actions, and his supporters were burned by divine fire. Which is no doubt why the Torah repeatedly emphasizes immediately afterwards that a Cohen is defined as a descendant of Aharon.

A sefer Torah is the revealed word of G-d to mankind, it contains the laws G-d mandates Jews to follow and relates the history of our people. How could you not treat is with appropriate respect? But yes, if at some point people began worshipping it on its own (by forgetting how to understand Hebrew, the rest of Judaism, or its position within Judaism) then we would be obligated to burn it to ash and cast the ashes into the sea so that benefit could be derived from Avoda Zara.

Meanwhile, *repeated* historical examples exist of people making your same exact error under numerous circumstances. Devarim 12 mentions the worship of mountains, hills, and trees – asherah was a type of tree worshipping that was mentioned commonly across Tanach as being abhored. Nature worship is a clear antipathy to Judaism.

You ended in a quote, so I shall end in one too:
“As soon as one departs from the words of the Torah, it is as though he attached himself to the worship of idols”

Jonathan Hagler says:

Alitza, I’m sorry you misunderstand the nature of Judaism due to however it was poorly taught to you. If nothing else, please be aware Judaism is a 3+ millenia old tradition, it doesn’t conform to what you want it to be. If you choose to practice something else in a syncratic merge with Judaism that is your choice, but be polite to actual observers of Judaism who you insult by describing yourself as following Judaism.

Christianity is a 2 millenia old syncretic merger between Judaism and Paganism. For the first few centuries they called themselves Jews too, until they were finally forced to accept that they were never going to be accepted as Jews due to not following Judaism – and they currently also worship Avoda Zara despite their ardent claim that they are monotheists.

Just another point I feel I must explain for your benefit. A requirement to have to routinely perform commandments was based on the premise that if men didn’t they would fail to remain religious in the majority. Since women are not obligated for many commandments the clear implication is that they do not need constant reminders to be religious due to an inherently greater spirituality. I don’t know how that seems negative to you. Furthermore, how you feel limited to remain at home is something that’s lost on me. Judaism by no means limits your ability outside the home or in any field, certain aspects of Jewish law explained in the Talmud are by women due to their greater learning than their male counterparts.

I feel it appropriate to end with the same quote as last time:

“As soon as one departs from the words of the Torah, it is as though he attached himself to the worship of idols”. So you may not be ‘bringing people home’ as you think, you may in fact be doing the precise opposite.

Alitza Ma'ayan says:

Jonathan- Thank you for the dialogue. Are you of the opinion that what other later Jewish denominations (non- orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, etc) practice as Judaism is not true Judaism, and may even be Avodah Zara?

Jonathan Hagler says:

Yes, they are not true Judaism. The very names should be evidence enough for that. To “reform” something means to change it, to introduce alterations, it therefore cannot be considered to be like what came before it. Judaism in its current form existed by itself from millenia, any branches broke off and became lost; Hellenistic Jews, Sabbateans, etc. “Orthodox” means someone who follows the precepts of a religion, so it’s relatively clear by the use of names that non-orthodox groups are non-orthodox, i.e. non-followers of the religion. Conservative Judaism is a bit of a aberration name-wise, it’s the result of Reform Jews realizing that too many of their followers were assimilating and being lost for good, so in order to prevent becoming another lost branch they began returning to Judaism – they are conservative compared to reform, but not compared to actual Judaism.

There’s a well published analysis of how many of one’s descendants will actualy be Jewish based on starting with 100 reform, conservative, and orthodox Jews each, and projecting based on a variety of statistics. The results are as follows:

Orthodox – starting with 100, 2nd generation is 163, third generation is 266, and forth generation is 434.
Conservative – 100 for the 1st, 66 for the 2nd, 44 for the 3rd, 29 for the 4th.
Reform – 100 for the 1st, 46 for the 2nd, 21 for the third, 10 for the 4th.

To say that not following the Torah is equivalent to being Avoda Zara would be a bit of an exaggeration, though for the time period that quote is from Avoda Zara would essentially be the only alternative to Judaism. That isn’t to say that some non-followers aren’t similarly followers of Avoda Zara. “Avoda Zara” means “strange/foreign worship”, not “idolatry” as usually translated. There are a number of legitimate forms of worship non-Jews may use that aren’t Avoda Zara, but to call something Judaism when it is not would be the definition of a foreign or strange form of worship for Jews.

Alitza Ma'ayan says:

5 generations ago, before leaving Europe and before the wars, my father’s ancestor was the region Rabbi in the Ukraine………my father’s father was a merchant…..I am the first person to ‘come back’ to Judaism in all those generations……and the only one of my generation……. It makes me sad that that you cannot rejoice in my process of embracing a more Jewish life. We must agree to disagree. I wish you and yours a healthy, happy yomtov.

Jonathan Hagler says:

Alitza, there’s a Jewish life and a life in stark contrast with Judaism while having Jewish elements.

Ever hear about “Messianic Jews”? They’re people who believe that Jesus, Paul, Mary, the concept of “original sin”, a tripartite deity, etc. are not in contrast with Judaism. They wear tzitzus, yalmulkes, teffilin, observe Shabbos, fast on Yom Kippur, eat Matza and no bread on Pesach, study Gemmara, and so forth – but they’re clearly not following Judaism despite all the many many Jewish acts they’ve incorporated into their version of Christianity.

Some consider themselves to have “come back” to Judaism, but it’s clear they have not. They argue quite ardently that they are religious Jews, while clearly they are not. You are acting like that. I’m sorry you don’t recognize that, nor understand how wrong you are, nor how insulting you are to people practicing Judaism by calling your actions Jewish.

Alitza Ma'ayan says:

From what you have shared, I, being a Kohenet, am no more practicing Avoda Zara than my Renewal, Reconstructionis and Reformed family. To you, we are all the fringe, way out there, and not quite good-enough to merit inclusion as Jews. I will live with that.

Jonathan Hagler says:

Then kindly do not claim to be practicing Judaism.

And it isn’t that you are “not good enough”, it’s that you’re simply not practicing Judaism. “Torah” means “Law”, it’s very specific and unyielding in many circumstances. Either the law is being followed or it is not, and in your case it is not. If the speed limit is 30mph, you’ve still broken the law if you’re driving 35mph or 135mph, perhaps one is less of a violation, but it’s still a violation, and you cannot claim to be a law abiding citizen. That is what Judaism is, being a law abiding citizen, the law being the Torah.

Alitza, nobody is saying that you are not Jewish. I do not believe Jonathan once typed those words. He said what you are practicing is not Judaism, but one need not practice Judaism to be a Jew. To be Jewish is to be eternal, to forever be the son or daughter of the King, to be a Prince if you will. And as princes’ and princesses, we must act in a certain manner befitting our status as such. That is why God gave us the Torah, so that we would be able to walk in his ways. As he commands us, “You shall be Holy for Holy am I, Hashem your God.” Vayikra 19:2 That is what it means to be Jewish, it means to walk the path of Holiness, even when it is not easy, or fun. While you might think you are walking that path, it is only your evil inclination that is telling you so, for the Jew is only immortal, when he follows the immortal Torah, which is the immortal word of God. Alitza, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are coming up, it is not to late to do Teshuva. May Hashem bless your continued return to Him.

Jonathan Hagler writes:
“There’s a well published analysis of how many of one’s descendants will actualy be Jewish based on starting with 100 reform, conservative, and orthodox Jews each, and projecting based on a variety of statistics. The results are as follows:

Orthodox – starting with 100, 2nd generation is 163, third generation is 266, and forth generation is 434.
Conservative – 100 for the 1st, 66 for the 2nd, 44 for the 3rd, 29 for the 4th.
Reform – 100 for the 1st, 46 for the 2nd, 21 for the third, 10 for the 4th. ”


This well-known analysis has been repeatedly debunked. It’s not based on “a variety of statistics”; it’s based on two statistics: birth rate and intermarriage rate. It assumes that these rates are constant in every generation (notice that the ratios between every pair of consecutive generations is the same), assumes that no children of intermarriages remain Jewish, assumes that no one converts in, and assumes that there is no mobility between denominations.

The simple proof that these assumptions are flawed is that the ratio of the Orthodox to the Reform population is not 43 times what it was three generations ago!

I am so sick of this new-age nonsense. Now it’s invading Judaism. Ugghhh…Can’t we be satisfied with the rich cultural heritage we already have, and not go looking elsewhere?

@BZ, I know you want to debunk the study, because Orthodox Jews aren’t 43x reform Jews, but the study only came out about 20 years ago I believe, give it time to prove itself right or wrong, since it was just a projection based on those numbers.

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Blessings to you and to all the other women who follow their understanding of Judaism and how it relates to women and the cycles of life. We need more, more, more women boldly going forward to reclaim our rightful place as leaders of the Jewish people. Much of what is uncovered in feminist spirituality offends orthodox men. What else is new (nu)? There is more than one way to be Jewish. Forge ahead. Know that there are women (and men) cheering you on.

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Rabbi Martin Goodman says:

The beating of the willows is a symbolic practice to aid in prayer. Torah/Biblical Judaism rejects paganism and only accepts one deity as the decision maker, whom is neither male nor female.

Great article, very interesting. Delighted to know more about the revival of earth-based practices in Judaism. I have been following the work of the Kohenet Institute with interest since its foundation.

We usually spell Paganism with a capital P. You wouldn’t spell Judaism with a small j, would you? Spelling Paganism with a small p is something that Christians do to be dismissive.


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