Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute aims to increase women’s presence in Judaism

Lori Wynters (photo by Violet Snow)

Psychologist and educator Lori Wynters, recently ordained by the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, described how Rabbi Jill Hammer was inspired to found the institute. At a Friday night service, Hammer was listening to the story of how Miriam and Aaron, the sister and brother of Moses, were complaining to God. As Wynters tells it, “Aaron said, ‘Moses isn’t such a good leader,’ and God said, ‘You shouldn’t talk like that about your brother.’ Miriam said, ‘And he’s not taking good care of his wife,’ and she was zapped with leprosy and kicked out of the tribe for seven days. When Jill hears this story, she decides she can’t be a rabbi any more.”

Miriam is never identified in the Torah as a priestess, but her other actions, such as leading the children of Israel across a sea of reeds to escape the Egyptians, make it clear that she had a vital spiritual role. Like many other remarkable women in the Bible — Ruth, Naomi, Dina, for instance — she gets little recognition, and Hammer set out to correct this imbalance.

Her next act was a divination — opening the Torah at random and asking God for guidance. Her finger came down on a passage about anointing lepers when they are ready to return to the community after quarantine. Hammer noticed the same anointing was performed for high priests. “She decided the only way she could continue as a rabbi,” said Wynters, “was to say Miriam was kicked out not because she was impure but because she was coming back as a priestess.”

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The Kohenet Institute, founded in 2005 by Hammer and musician and folklorist Taya Shere, has been training Hebrew priestesses, reclaiming the voices and traditions of women from biblical antiquity. Wynters has completed a three-year low-residency program that included Torah study, training in the rituals that accompany the cycles of the seasons, esoteric Kabbalistic readings, and a series of retreats at a center in Connecticut.

Wynters, who lives in New Paltz, has a BA in philosophy, a Masters in counseling, and an MFA in performance. She has danced professionally, teaches at the Goddard Institute, and is a professor of education and psychology at SUNY New Paltz. For years, she gravitated toward the Jewish Renewal movement, a major influence at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation, where equality of the sexes is respected. But she felt a need to go even farther in making the feminine central to her spiritual practice.

Kohenet training, said Wynters, “respects a maternal ethic of care, which men can have, and they should eventually be part of Kohenet, but for now we need to self-segregate to feel safe and share our own experience, without men unintentionally taking over. There are some women who came from Orthodox backgrounds and had a much more oppressive experience because of their gender. We’re bringing balance to this amazing wisdom tradition I happened to be born into. We’re helping it evolve.”

The training also included examination of social issues, combining intellectual conversation with textual studies, critical thinking, and artistic expression. “There was space for difference and strong conversation around race, class, gender. It was a difficult part of the training,” she said. “We were looking at positions of power and privilege within the community, in a Jewish context.”

Ritual was emphasized as a transformative process, which Wynters looks forward to using in creative ways. She gave the example of Havdalah, the service and ritual that closes the Sabbath on Saturday evening. “Havdalah means separation,” she explained. “As we separate from the Sabbath, we sing, say a blessing on the wine and the aromatic spices that remind us of the natural world and the abundance of food and medicine. We hold our fingers in front of the special Havdalah candle, establishing the relationship of light and skin. We are beings of light, and what if we treat each other that way all week? What if we also take this ritual and use it when we have other separations — divorce, moving from one home to another. How can it help us close the door on something? These rituals are sorely lacking in contemporary culture.”

She admits there is a danger, in these innovations, of alienation from other Jews. “Many women in the program had felt there was no synagogue that felt right to them and had gone to Buddhism, yoga, paganism. Then they found that these contemplative, earth-based practices live in the Jewish tradition already. But it’s risky. When does it stop being Jewish and become something else?”

Nevertheless, as the mother of a 14-year-old girl, she feels it’s important to give women a stronger presence in her religion. “I’m interested in the qualities of maternal care. How can we use it for connection, peace, community-building, doing power differently than how we do it?”

Some graduates of the program have gone on to become rabbis, but Wynters does not yet know what use she will make of her status as an ordained priestess. Part of her training has been a chaplaincy at Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie, and she finds meaning in the interaction with people in crisis. This spring, she took a step in the direction of leadership when she was frustrated by the Passover seders she attended. She put out a call for a pop-up priestess seder. Ten women came, some Jewish, some not. “We looked at the story of Moses being wrapped up and sent down the river by a sister, getting rescued by the pharaoh’s daughter. What about Moses’ mother, why isn’t she in this story, except as a wet-nurse later on? I’m noticing how mother’s work is hidden in this culture. I’m a teacher. I want to provide a space to explore the text of the tradition through the lens of girls’ and women’s narratives.”

When asked if she thinks giving women a stronger voice can change society, Wynters replied, “I don’t know. I think it can change the people who are invested in exploring. It’s a wrestling, in the same way that Abraham and Jacob wrestled with God. There’s wrestling that has to happen.”

For more information on Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, see http://www.kohenet.com.

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