In 2009, Sharon Jaffe of Minneapolis graduated with the first class of Hebrew priestesses in over 2,000 years.
Asked to describe what that means-in 25 words or less-she laughed cheerily. “I’ve been struggling with that: Where’s the elevator speech?” Upon reflection, Jaffe continued, “I just turned 57 and realized that 40 years ago, I came out as a lesbian. Coming out as a Kohenet may be just as amazing and differently scary.”
“Priestess” is the English translation of the Hebrew “Kohenet” (the female version of Kohen, or Priest), and Jaffe wrestles with the word. In English, it suggests a hierarchical religious authority-“and we are so not that,” Jaffe said. “We embrace a radical pluralism. While Kohenet invokes the divine feminine, I’m on the fence about deity. I think life itself is sacred. When women-centered language is used, it’s empowering and transformative.”
While being a Kohenet involves being a Jewish feminist ritual leader, she said, this means co-leading, facilitating, assisting: “It’s leading from a sense of listening, trying to become more and more skilled so that women can express what they need to express-whether celebration or grieving.”
A Kohenet, Jaffe continued, embraces “a plurality of ways to bring women’s voices and visions to the center of our Jewish communities. We excavate our ancestors’ clues and weave them with our women-centered perspectives. This work is intentionally personal, communal and political.”
Jaffe’s Kohenet classes met for intensive retreats in Connecticut, augmented by teaching sessions via phone and email over a four-year period. The first phase focused on netivot, women’s spiritual journeys or paths-seeker, midwife, peacemaker, prophet. The second phase focused on life cycles-including birthing, naming, coming of age, commitments, retirement, death-and associated rituals.
As an example of a life-cycle ritual, Jaffe described a woman who was tortured by her first husband. Her ritual was “telling what happened.”
“She hadn’t told anyone outside of therapy this 25- or 30-year-old story,” Jaffe said. While other women listened, “she cried, she yelled, she was held, she was comforted. It was a very simple ritual.”
When we think about ritual, we often think of holidays and trappings-candles, sage, meals, props. “Sometimes ritual is all the high drama and theater,” Jaffe said. “Sometimes it’s very public, and sometimes very private.”
Sometimes it’s being held-and being heard.
While Hebrew priestesses do things women have always done -truth telling, listening, creating sacred space-Jaffe said, “Now in the third or fourth wave of feminism, women are empowered in many different ways.”
The extended family in which she grew up included “many flavors of Jewish practice,” Jaffe said, “and I learned that all forms of Jewish practice are to be respected.” Her family belonged to a synagogue, as does Jaffe today.
“I love listening to the Torah, I love the stories … and I love how women are changing Judaism,” she said.
Three events and images had a huge impact on Jaffe.
At age 8, she attended a summer wedding, and noticed markings on some women’s arms. When Jaffe mentioned this to her mom, she took her daughter aside and said quietly, “I’ll have to tell you about it later.” She learned that their arms bore numbers from Nazi camps.
Two years later, she was deeply affected by the murder of four girls in a Birmingham, Ala., church bombed by white supremacists. The youngest girl, Denise McNair, was just a year older than Jaffe. Later, Jaffe saw the iconic photo of Kim Phuc, a Vietnamese girl severely burned by a napalm bombing, running naked on a road.
“All three of those images really affected how I see the world,” Jaffe said. “So did seeing how the Buddhist monks, Martin Luther King, and others responded … and the tenderness with which my family approached the Shoah (Holocaust) survivors. I learned of cruelty and responsibility.”
In her “day job,” Jaffe is coordinator of service-learning at the Wesley Center for Spirituality, Service and Social Justice at Hamline University (“the longest job title I’ve ever had,” she said, laughing).
“It’s just a different way of doing this sacred work,” she said. “It’s bittersweet-helping young people see injustices, and then being a cheerleader for them” as they explore how they’ll address them. As in:
“You wanna go to New Orleans and repair houses? Fabulous! You wanna start a community garden? Fabulous! You wanna lobby with the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless? Fabulous!”
“Cross-generational social justice,” Jaffe said, “gives me hope.”