One of the boldest—and most controversial—experiments in contemporary Judaism is coming to a close.
After 18 years in operation, the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute (KHPI) ordained its final cohort of priestesses and nonbinary priestexxes this past weekend.
It may surprise you to learn that Hebrew priestesses are among us at all. The role was created—or recreated, as some see it—in 2005 by Kohenet cofounders and “Rav Kohanot” (Head Priestesses) Rabbi Jill Hammer and Taya Mâ Shere. Since then, KHPI has ordained 137 women and nonbinary individuals, and reached many more through their online classes and in-person retreats.
In my Jewish community in the San Francisco Bay Area, kohanot are common to encounter—sometimes working in nontraditional settings such as ancestral healing and herbalism, and sometimes leading prayer in local synagogues and embedded within other institutions. The program has been transformative for many of its participants, even as the movement has faced criticism for condoning some controversial practices, including reverence for Asherah, a Canaanite goddess, and communicating with the dead.
“We could say that Kohenet has been around for 18 years, but we know that kohanot have been around since the beginning of time, although not always named, or recognized, or given the kavod (honor) they deserved,” says Keshira haLev Fife, who was ordained as a Kohenet in 2017 and who worked for the organization until earlier this year. “But whether it’s because of social media, or Zoom, or the democratization of spirituality, or being in a culture of individualism, we’re living in a time when there’s an opening for people to find their way, and be healed by the awareness that there are many ways to do and be Jewish.”
Stay tuned for a longer piece I’m working on exploring the roots of KHPI, its impact over the past 18 years, and the factors that led to its closing down. Its story is intertwined with the larger story of Jewish feminism—and Judaism generally—which has truly flourished over the course of the last 50 years, from the advent of female clergy to the spread of feminist scholarship and midrash to new spins on ancient rituals.
“One of Kohenet’s core assumptions is that we cannot assume that a patriarchal text is the voice of God,” Hammer told me recently. “It may be a version of what God wants, but it may not be the version that includes everybody.”
Ketivah vachatimah tovah—may we all be inscribed and sealed for a good new year!