6 minutes reading time (1128 words)

Interview with Rabbi Dr. Jill Hammer: Author of “Biblical Women: Emerging from the Margins through Midrash”


Can you tell us more about the Melton course you wrote, "Biblical Women: Emerging from the Margins through Midrash"?

The course covers 16 biblical heroines, examining their stories and voices through traditional and contemporary Midrashic texts. The word "midrash" means interpretation. It's important to know that it's a genre that continues to this day, and that we can include more experiences in our understanding of these stories. Each lesson includes ancient sources as well as poetry, art, or commentary by contemporary midrashists, including women, queer people, and artists. We show how each generation is speaking from its own perspective and culture. And in doing so we democratize and empower.

The course approaches these women's stories with honesty. What's appealing? What's troubling? What are the contradictions or different understandings present in midrash, and how do they shape our perception of history? For example, should we identify the midwives of the Hebrew women in Egypt, Shifrah and Puah, as the Jewish women Yocheved and Miriam, or are they Egyptians? Commentaries differ, and our entire understanding shifts.

How did you choose the women to highlight? What are some examples of including diverse voices in telling their stories?

One example is Hagar, the mother of Yishmael, legendary founder of Islam. She, like Sarah, was married to Abraham. The Torah states that Abraham banished Hagar and Yishmael because Sarah felt he was a poor influence on her son Isaac. But Syrian-American poet Mohja Kahf reimagines Hagar and Sarah's relationship in a beautiful piece entitled "Hagar Writes a Cathartic as an Exercise Suggested by Her Therapist," which imagines what the two women had in common, and what they could contribute to each other.Hagar suggests leaving Abraham and starting a family business together. It's a different exploration of the story.

Another example is Muriel Rukeyser's mystical poem "Miriam: The Red Sea. "Miriam, Moses' sister, led the Jews in song and dance after the splitting of the Red Sea. The poem imagines Miriam standing on the seashore, embracing multiple realities. In the poem, she is the archetype of the artistic voice, creating new bridges with an everlasting song.

And in the same vein, Elizabeth Aliya Topper writes evocatively in her poem "Call to Gather" about the daughters of Tzelafchad, who waited with "hearts pounding" to find out if Moses would grant them their father's portion in Israel even though they were female.

This embodied midrashic perspective is also found in interpretations of the story of Chana, mother of the prophet Samuel. Chana comes to Shiloh, where the Tabernacle was then located, to ask G-d for a son after years of childlessness. She prays silently, which according to the midrash has never been done before. She speaks to G-d from her heart. The High Priest, Eli, berates her for this strange behavior, and she stands up to him. In midrash, she becomes a prominent, powerful, authority figure who offers wisdom about prayer. We need to see women and marginalized people that way more and more.

Spiritual leadership doesn't look like only one thing, and that's what the class is about.

The course sounds like a fascinating journey. What inspired you to write it?

I've been interested in Midrash, as well as women's practice and folklore, since I was in college, and it was a focus throughout my years as poet and in rabbinical school. I am also an author. My most recent publication is "Return to the Place: The Magic, Meditation, and Mystery of Sefer Yetzirah," a translation of an ancient text about the sacred energies that created the world. So, these topics are my passion.

In 2005, I co-founded the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute with Taya Ma Shere, as a place for the embodied exploration of the spiritual leadership traditions of Israelite and Jewish women, as well as people of other marginalized identities.

Women have always had core roles in Jewish spiritual life, whether as healers (through medicine, prayer and incantation, or other spiritual practices), mourners (wailers at funerals, ritualists at graves), dream interpreters, or much more. These roles are somewhat documented by recent historians but not well integrated into the corpus of Jewish leadership. That's part of what we study. Our perspective is that ritual can be transformative and liberatory. Embodied work that includes a sense of the divine feminine creates informed Jewish leaders who can facilitate beautiful, expansive, and inclusive experiences. Our graduates become chaplains, ritual leaders, sacred artists, rabbis etc.

Your work and the themes of the course are very relevant to modern times. Was that by design?

Absolutely! I've been part of the movement for gender liberation for a long time. It's very dear to my heart. I believe that rather than talking about people, we should hear their voices. We all need to establish a sense of trust in voices that have been marginalized. That's a tenet of the #MeToo movement – that we need to trust voices we weren't always taught to trust. The more we can hear each other's voices and incorporate those voices into the body of Jewish knowledge the closer we are to truth.

I don't agree with the phrase "Women's Studies" – it's people studies, and it's all core Jewish material. It's not just for people who identify as women. This course, and all Torah, is for all identities.

Can we accomplish this through online classes as well as in person?

Yes, definitely. The Kohenet Institute experienced a growth spurt during the pandemic. We began online Shabbat services, Torah studies, and classes, and people showed up again and again to each opportunity. People want to be back in person and we hope to do so soon, but we also will continue our virtual programming. It's a game changer for people with accessibility issues or in parts of the country without many Jewish teachers. I've had awesome, amazing experience taking and teaching classes online and I'm glad Melton is taking advantage of this possibility.

About Rabbi Hammer:

Jill Hammer is an author, educator, midrashist and ritualist. She is the co-founder of the Kohenet Institute and the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion. Rabbi Hammer is the author of Return to the Place: The Magic, Meditation and Mystery of Sefer Yetzirah, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, The Garden of Time and the co-author of The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women's Spiritual Leadership and Siddur HaKohanot: A Hebrew Priestess Prayerbook. Her forthcoming book is called Undertorah: An Earth-Based Kabbalah of Dreams. She holds a doctorate in social psychology from the University of Connecticut and received rabbinical ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She lives in Manhattan with her wife and daughter.

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