The first known poet, Enheduanna, served as a priestess of Inanna in Sumer, and there were priestesses in many cultures throughout the known world. Yet the title of priestess does not appear to exist in the Hebrew Bible, and indeed, the patriarchal authorities who compiled the Bible eliminated most references to women’s spiritual leadership. However, some aspects of women’s spiritual power shine through. From these hints, we can deduce how women participated in the sacred cult of the Israelite nation: as mothers, prophetesses, and even ritual officiants. We know, for example, that women baked cakes for the Queen of Heaven as part of a sacred rite honoring the Divine feminine.
Our later Jewish foremothers did not entirely abandon the priestess role even after it was written out of the tradition. The title “priestess” appears several times on Jewish gravestones during the Roman period. Other titles such as “eldress,” “mother of the synagogue,” and “head of synagogue” on similar gravestones lead one to believe that women served in leadership functions in pre-Talmudic and Talmudic times. However, following this period the title fell entirely out of practice. In the seventeeth and eighteenth centuries, women served as dreamers and diviners in communities of Jewish mystics in Sfat and elsewhere. In their names, we seek to re-establish this sacred tradition.
A Jewish priestess, as we understand the term, is different from a kohen, or male descendant of the Aaronide priesthood. Nor is she the equivalent of a bat kohen (a daughter of a male descendant of the Aaronide priesthood) though a bat kohen may elect to be a priestess. A priestess may act as a rabbi, and a rabbi may act as a priestess (the same with other clergy such as cantors) but the two roles are not the same. We do not intend to supplant either the rabbinate or the hereditary priesthood, but to supplement and complement both.
We seek to serve the Shekhinah through traditional mitzvot like the practice of caring for the mourner and rejoicing with the bride, and also through honoring ages and stages of women’s lives that previously went ignored. We seek to be transmitters of Jewish tradition and practice, and also to evolve Jewish tradition and ritual to acknowledge the emerging needs of Jews, women, and the planet as a whole. We seek to honor traditional images of the Divine, and also to make the Divine feminine a full part of our liturgy, ritual, and lives.
The spiritual gifts of Jewish women cannot be incorporated into Judaism unless women explore the Divine through their own lens. Women taking on the traditional roles of male leadership, such as rabbi, scholar, and prayer leader, is crucial, but not sufficient. This experimental model of spiritual practice and leadership offers an embodied, ecstatic, earth-based approach that is interconnected with all life.