RNS looks at 'new' Jewish Institute for women priests -- but not closely enough

I get it -- we've all been there, all of us newspaper religion writers. Holidays come up, and our editor demands something besides the "same old same old." So we reach for the new and bizarre.

So it's understandable when the Religion News Service used Yom Kippur, which Jews observed on Wednesday, for a look at the Hebrew Priestess Institute, even though the institute is a decade old.

Still, why simply hand the mike to its boosters?

The institute is about as non-traditional as they come, as the article quickly establishes: dancing, beating a drum, sitting in a circle, placing women's pictures on the altar, praying to the "divine feminine." And, of course, ordaining women as priests -- something that would arch many Jewish eyebrows. But RNS offers only the slightest hint that not everyone buys into this approach.

That approach gets a loud, clear hearing in the article. Rabbi Jill Hammer, co-founder of the institute, wants to "re-imagine the role of a holy woman, an intermediary between the human and the divine who is part prophet, liturgist, shaman":

For inspiration, this Jewish priestess movement looks to biblical women such as Miriam, Moses’ sister, who drums and sings, and Deborah, the judge who held court beneath a palm tree.
It also embraces those ancient Israelite women who worshipped fertility goddesses condemned by the prophets, as well as modern teachings from various Earth-based religions with their healers and ritualists.
This Yom Kippur, as Jews crowd synagogues for the Day of Atonement, some women will gather in a circle for a mix of prayers, chants, songs and meditations — all of which incorporate references to the divine feminine – sometimes known in the Jewish mystical tradition as the Shekhinah.

Institute students are introduced to 13 women’s "archetypes" of leaders, including prophetess, witch and fool. Some participants refer not to God but the Goddess.  And Jill Hammer and cofounder Taya Shere use artifacts like stones and divination cards in worship.

After all, they say, "Israelite and Near Eastern texts are rife with examples of women serving as priestess, whether formally, in non-Israelite societies, or informally in proto-Jewish circles."

In short, little about the Hebrew Priestess Institute is terribly new -- not for anyone who remembers the '80s-era splicing of east and west known as the new age. That movement, too, borrowed Asian, pagan and tribal motifs and sought to spell out a deity in non-masculine terms. But RNS doesn't mention that.

Now, none of that makes it wrong to report on the Hebrew Priestess Institute. Different viewpoints help us see different facets, not only of diamonds but ideas. But it's a mistake to portray something as an innovation when it's more of a retread.

RNS does add an admiring quote from a female Jewish Renewal rabbi. She says the Institute is well within the Judaic tradition of drawing out different "spiritual possibilities" from ancient texts. But the story doesn't add that Jewish Renewal groups themselves indulge in eclectic worship, and that the movement is about five decades old.

At least the RNS article checks in with Professor Jodi Magness, at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Speaking on her expertise in archaeology and professor of early Judaism, she casts doubt on the notion that ancient Israelites looked up to priestesses:

While the Hebrew Bible makes references to devotees of Asherath, which some scholars believe was a female consort to the God of Israel, it does not seem likely a female priesthood conducted that cult, since men would have worshipped her, too.
"Could it be that there existed some worship of female deities and women had a greater roles in ancient societies than we have evidence for?" asked Magness.
"It’s possible," she said. "But this idea of female-driven society with female goddess and female priestesses serving them, I don’t know of anybody who thinks that’s the case."

Magness' contribution is valuable, but it's not enough. Why didn’t RNS ask feedback from female Jewish leaders? RNS says Rinah Rachel Galper, a priest of the institute, studied with a "Hasidic storyteller" in New York. Who was that? What does he/she think of Galper's direction now?

One of the Institute's students says the training has helped her assist her rabbi in creating rituals at her synagogue. What does the rabbi say about it? We're not told.

What of mainstream female rabbis? As RNS acknowledges, there are lots of them in America now -- ever since the ordination of the first, Sally Priesand, in 1972.  And of the 32 names on The Forward's "Most Inspiring Rabbis" list for 2016, women account for 11 of them.

Nor do the prospects stop with rabbis. I've met female synagogue teachers and cantors and directors. I've seen female leaders at organizations like the Union for Reform Judaism and the Jewish Museum of Florida - FIU. And this year, a record 30 women were sworn into the Knesset, the Israeli legislature.

Women leaders, then, are already sown throughout Jewry, here and abroad. They've often fought the same battles in patriarchal leadership, yet they've stayed in the mainstream. Two or three of them should have been in this article.

Would such feedback hurt the Hebrew Priestess Institute? Doubtful. I'm sure they’ve already heard it all. Besides, debate can be healthy. Certainly better than the same old, same old.


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