On Friday, July 24, 2015, the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute gave smicha, ordination, to nine women at a ceremony at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut. The nine new Kohanot, Hebrew Priestesses, constitute the fourth graduating class since Kohenet started 10 years ago. One of the nine women is Boulder Rabbi Sarah Bracha Gershuny of Congregation Nevei Kodesh. Under the guidance of Kohenet co-founders Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD and Taya Shere, the nine have been trained as ritual leaders in an earth-based, embodied, feminist Jewish paradigm that honors the history of women’s spiritual practices and the sacred feminine. They are from three countries: the US, England and Ireland.The priesthood as presented in the Hebrew Bible is entirely male: the word kohenet, "priestess," does not occur at all. We have no way of knowing, of course, how much about the First-Temple priesthood was suppressed by the Priestly writer and the Deuteronomists; the picture of the priesthood in the book of Ezekiel leads me to infer that quite a bit may have been. But, as far as I know, no positive evidence of Israelite priestesses survives in any of our sources and there may never have been any. The Mishnah does use the term kohenet, but only to refer to the wife or daughter of a male priest. It never means priestess.
Whether these twenty-first-century Hebrew priestesses are a complete innovation is not entirely clear. Several years ago I noted the story of a seventh-century CE Jewish Berber queen who may have also been a priestess, although this is not at all certain and the meaning of the term is ambiguous. In any case, this current effort is the first attempt I know of to establish Jewish priestesses as an institution. The matter is not made less complicated by the lack of a Jewish Temple in which any kind of priest or priestess might serve.
This interview with one of the new priestesses (Rabbi Sarah Bracha Gershuny) reflects on the biblical, rabbinic, and ancient Near Eastern backgrounds of priesthood and how the new institution is intended to fit into the picture: 4 Questions for Boulder’s Newest Hebrew Priestess (Bounder Jewish News).