Stealing Torah: The Dreams of Hebrew Priestesses

In a recent dream, I find myself in Jerusalem at a learning event. A group of women at the event decide to immerse in the mikvah, the ritual bath. I follow them, wanting to immerse, too, and find myself, not at a modern mikvah, but at the entrance to a rough-hewn stone tunnel leading to a flight of stairs: a biblical-era mikvah, of the kind I have seen at archaeological digs. In a sense, this dream is a map of my spiritual journey, which joins contemporary, embodied, feminist spiritual practice with a sense of the ancient power of ritual. The dream is itself a kind of revelation: a reminder of my purpose and an indication that beneath my daily life, depths of wisdom can be reached.

In 2005, Taya Ma Shere and I founded the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, a community and training program in earth-based, embodied, feminist Jewish spiritual leadership. Our goal was to nourish a Judaism informed by the spiritual histories of women and other marginalized Jewish spirit workers, and devoted to feminine and multigendered conceptions of the Divine. We believed, and still believe, that a genuinely egalitarian religious tradition can only exist when we consciously work to include voices that have been excluded, from the ancient world forward. This means paying attention to the truths, not only of sages and rabbis, but of healers and spirit journeyers, women prophets and altar officiants, mourning women and wise women, mediums, dreamworkers, midwives and amulet-makers.

Ritual practice and leadership in ancient Israel and beyond was more diverse than dominant narratives suggest. Consider that na’arot tofefot (drummer-girls) appear in a temple procession in Psalms 68:25, when Leviticus mentions no such sacred women musicians. Bernadette Brooten notes a variety of feminized spiritual titles (such as priestess, elder and head of synagogue) on gravestones in the first to third centuries C.E., though the Talmud never mentions such titled women. We hear about mediums in the Bible and dreamworkers in the Talmud, though we don’t learn much about how such people trained or did their work. What were people outside the “official” priesthood of ancient Israel — and later, outside the “official” rabbinate of the Talmudic sages — doing to connect to spirit? Practitioners on the margins often did not have their work preserved, their practices recorded. How can we integrate their legacy, along with the more well-known and well-documented ways of Jewish practice?

The Kohenet Institute, which now has more than 100 graduates, exists in part to try to answer this question. We at Kohenet have turned to practices of sacred imagination, such as dreamwork, inner journey and deep prayer states induced by music and dance — long-standing imaginal traditions shared by biblical prophets, talmudic-era mystics, kabbalistic visionaries and contemporary meditation practitioners — to meaningfully connect to traditions of revelation beyond the sacred text we have inherited. In this essay, I’ll describe one of the community’s core imaginal practices: sacred dreamwork.

 

Dreamwork as Revelation

Going back as far as Genesis, it’s clear that dreaming is a core spiritual practice. We might even say dreams are the first Torah. Abraham, Jacob and Joseph all have powerful dreams that connect them to God. Yet every year we read the Torah and encounter these dreams, they become texts to be studied; few would suggest we go home and have sacred dreams ourselves. Indeed, Jewish tradition later betrays a considerable ambivalence about dreams, allowing that they are, at most, “one-sixtieth” of prophecy (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 57b). Yet we continue to see Jewish dreamworkers, including women kabbalists of Tzfat, mentioned in the diary of Hayyim Vital, who regarded dreams as prophetic. At Kohenet, we regard dreams as a source of spiritual wisdom — a kind of Torah — and hold regular dream circles as part of our spiritual practice. In this way, we’re connecting to generations of Jewish dreamworkers, documented in the Talmud and later lore, who saw dreams as a personal and spontaneous (if mysterious and imperfect) communication between themselves and the Divine.

The biblical text clearly regards dreaming as the prerogative of men: There are many male dreamers in the Bible, Israelite and not, but no women dreamers. Yet this may not at all have been how it was in ancient Israel. We hear of women prophets such as Devorah and Miriam, who may well also have been dreamers. In the rabbinic era, people on the margins participate in dreamwork: in Genesis Rabbah 89:8, a woman brings her dreams to rabbis for interpretation, and the Roman poet Juvenal mentions a Jewish woman dreamworker who listened to dreams beneath a tree. In the era of the kabbalists, the diary of Hayyim Vital makes mention of several visionary women dreamers, and Ada Rapoport-Albert notes that the dreams of women prophets were a part of the rise of Sabbetai Zvi. This suggests that even those with relatively little societal power or access to text study could participate in revelation through dreamwork.

Dreams can be allies to those on the margins because they allow for narratives to arise outside of existing normative structures — what I would call sacred imagination. As I write in my recent book Undertorah: An Earth-Based Kabbalah of Dreams: “Dream images, unmoored from linear thought and normative expectation, have the potential to introduce something original into our minds: A seed that can grow an idea, a transformation, even a new way of being. Dreams do not speak from stone tablets in voices of authority. They whisper in fragmented images, like a mosaic. They show us facets, faces, shards of the real. (p. 18f.)

I want to give two examples of dreams from the Kohenet community that have this quality of sacred imagination and that deal with this notion of receiving a personal Torah. Here is the first one, which has the quality of a Hasidic story or a fairy tale:

It is night, I am sneaking through the wet stone streets of an old village somewhere in Europe. I slide into the back door of the shul, behind the ark. It smells like rain and velvet and old wood. I can hear the rabbi chanting. I open the door to the ark from the back — a secret chamber. I lift a Torah from the holder inside and tuck it under my cloak. As I tiptoe away, the rabbi, who is in the middle of leading services, catches my eye, gives a nod of approval, and turns away. I run into the night. I know I am bringing the Torah to a home, to someone who is sick or birthing, and I understand that it has a power far beyond the stories and letters written by men.

This dream, from herbalist and ritualist Kohenet Dori Midnight, boldly spells out the dreamer’s “stealing of Torah” through the back of the ark. The rabbi in the dream gives secret approval, suggesting that the tradition — and perhaps God, too — welcomes this “theft.” While this powerful image can’t be reduced to a single meaning, given Dori’s connection to creative ritual, traditional herbalism and liberation work, we might understand the dream as a claiming of Jewish tradition for use by radical spiritual practitioners. The dreamer herself, as the thief, receives empowerment to use the Torah for healing. The dreamer writes: “When I woke from this dream, I furiously wrote it down — full body chills and heart beating fast. It felt like permission, approval, acknowledgement; like some secret ancient agreement between rabbis and witches that spans time.” Revelation dreams often feel like this — like something powerful has shifted in one’s life.

The dreamer is bringing the Torah to someone who is “sick or birthing.” This dream element is reminiscent of the Jewish folk practice of putting the key of the synagogue under a birthing woman’s pillow, or giving her a string to hold that has been tied to the door of the ark in the synagogue, or even bringing the Torah into the room to assist in the birth (source). And it also suggests that this kind of “stealing Torah” may heal, and may make birth — the creation of new life — possible. That the Torah has a power “far beyond the stories and letters of men” suggests a spiritual authority broader than the text and also reminds us of the assertion of the midrash that the Torah is a cosmic document “written in black fire on white fire.” (Midrash Tanhuma, Bereishit 1) If the Torah, as a mystical document, can transcend space and time, it can also transcend the oppressive structures of its original creators.

When the dreamer shared this dream with the community, there was affirmation and excitement. “In my dream of this dream,” another Kohenet wrote, “you are reclaiming your inheritance and transforming it.” Dreams like this offer a frame for a complex relationship with tradition that feels both spiritually connected and transgressive.

Here’s a piece of a dream from another Kohenet community member, Ari Wartenberg, that engages with the concept of Torah in a similarly surprising way.

I was sitting next to this person … and they showed me their necklace. The hanging piece of the necklace was a thick copper or gold spiral with many colored jewels placed around the spiral. They then opened the piece up and inside was a being nestled in the center. It flopped out onto their hand and then flew upward. It resembled a few different creatures upon seeing it moment to moment. This person was unconcerned that this creature was so far away and could no longer be seen, and would need to choose to come back of its own will.

I said: “That was in the Torah??!”

And they said: “That is the Torah!!”

The dreamer witnesses a person wearing a spiral necklace with a living being inside, a being that changes from moment to moment. The being can in fact fly away; it can go anywhere it wants. According to the dream, this free, living, flying being is the Torah. Again, we see a Torah that transcends its original form and that takes its own direction. This Torah changes its shape from moment to moment, and its containment in the necklace is provisional: It can free itself and go elsewhere. The colorful jeweled spiral suggests an organic form: growth, motion, life. Elsewhere in the dream, there are references that suggest there is queerness to this living Torah being — so we once again have a Torah that is vibrantly connected and also transgressive. The dreamer’s clear excitement in the dream is a reflection of the dream’s playful liberatory power. Just as midrash revisions the very nature of Torah, so, too, does this dream.

This dream was shared at a Kohenet Passover seder as part of the ritual. Participants in the seder were asked to respond to the dream and offer their vision of its message. This “dream circle” sharing is part of Kohenet dream practice, allowing individuals to articulate the dream’s revelation for them. Here are some of the powerful responses to this dream:

“I am finding myself in the Torah, and the Torah is always changing, and what I find in it is always changing as well.”

“Torah includes the very essence of life’s spiral in all of us.”

‘The Torah is ever-evolving and moving with the future.”

“I dream of embodying that small creature, of letting myself change moment to moment and unleash my queer Torah.”

Through the process of dream circle, not only the dreamer but the whole community can receive wisdom from the dream. In this case, both the process and the content of the dream offer a revisioning of Torah in which Torah itself can be organic, spontaneous and dreamlike. The context of the seder framed the interpretation of this dream as a sacred activity, offering the community a vision of personal, communal and theological liberation. Many contemporary Jewish dreamworkers are tapping into this same powerful vein of meaning.

Conclusion

Like the dream of Jacob’s ladder recounted in Genesis, dreams can offer images that are mysterious, profound and connective. Yet dreams are not definitive; we can choose how we engage with them. Though each dream is particular to an individual with unique memories and experiences, the practice of recounting dreams together and considering their wisdom connects us with one another, with our ancestors, who also engaged in this practice of sacred dreamwork, and with indigenous cultures today that still value the truths in dreams. Even though so much of our ancestors’ wisdom was not recorded — particularly, our queer, female, and marginalized ancestors — through working with our dreams, we can at least share in their ancient practice and experience some of the wonder they might have felt.

Dr. Catherine Shainberg writes that “dreaming is about experiencing.” The Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, by engaging in imaginal practice, is connecting to an ancient lineage of sacred experience that is very much part of Jewish tradition. This kind of experience is not defined by knowledge of the past but rather by willingness to explore an ever-renewed vision. May our dreams continue to guide us deeper into the realm of spirit.

Sources:

Jill Hammer and Taya Shere. The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership (Ben Yehuda Press, 2015).

Jill Hammer. Undertorah: An Earth-Based Kabbalah of Dreams (Ayin Press, 2022).

E.W.G. Masterman. “Jewish Customs of Birth, Marriage, and Death,” in Birth, Marriage, and Death in Palestine, p. 248-257.

Michele Klein, A Time to Be Born: Customs and Folklore of Jewish Birth (Jewish Publication Society, 2000).

Ada Rapoport-Albert. Women and the Messianic Heresy of Sabbatai Zevi, 1666-1816 (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2011).

Catherine Shainberg and Tami Simon, “We Are Always Dreaming.” https://resources.soundstrue.com/transcript/we-are-always-dreaming/

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