Author Archives: Rabbi Jill Hammer

Rabbi Jill Hammer

About Rabbi Jill Hammer

Rabbi Jill Hammer, Ph.D., is an author, educator, midrashist and ritualist. She is the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion, a pluralistic Jewish seminary, and the co-founder of the Kohenet Institute, a program in Jewish women's spiritual leadership. She is the author of "Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women," "The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons" and "The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women." She lives in Manhattan with her spouse and daughter.

Parashat Chukkat: Clean/Unclean

Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. This week, Rabbi Jill Hammer considers the connections between impurities, power, and the roles of Moses’ sister Miriam.



The biblical categories tahor and tamei, usually translated “pure” and “impure,” mean something like insider/outsider. One who is tahor can enter the sanctuary, the dwelling-place of God’s presence and the heart of Israelite ritual. One who is tamei cannot. Tum’ah, impurity, can be contracted by a variety of circumstances including contact with dead bodies, menstruation, ejaculation, and childbirth. There are many theories about the nature of these categories — Mary Douglas, for example, who believes that things are impure or taboo because they cross boundaries in an uncanny way, or the ancient philosopher Philo who believed the system of tahor / tamei symbolically imparted ethical concepts. My own current sense, influenced by Avivah Zornberg’s book The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, is that things or entities become tamei when biblical society wants to repress them. (more…)

Parashiyot Vayakhel and Pekudei: The Power of Embodied Love

Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Rabbi Jill Hammer sees in the construction of the mishkan a model for a community where everyone, including and especially LGBT Jews, can contribute their own gifts.

Creative Common/David Burton

Creative Common/David Burton

In the traditional Jewish community, queer people are often asked “What is your justification for being a queer Jew?” as if queer Jews are a controversial idea rather than a life form. This question may in part stem from an internalization of the model of Sinai, in which ideas are set forth or decried based on covenantal aims. Yet in the parshiyot of Vayakhel-Pekudei, we find a different model for what it means to be a sacred community, one radically different than the model we see at Sinai, and one that tends toward acknowledging people as bodies as well as ideas.

Parashat Vayechi: Uncovering Joseph’s Bones

Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Rabbi Jill Hammer takes comfort in the promise of eventual redemption in Joseph’s bones.


Joseph's Bones. Creative Commons/Dan Diffendale

Creative Commons/Dan Diffendale

Joseph is a popular biblical character to “queer” — because rabbinic midrash claims he curls his hair, paints his eyes, and is as beautiful as his mother, Rachel (Genesis Rabbah 24), and also because he is one of the rare biblical men known for not sleeping with a woman (the lovely wife of Potiphar, who attempts to seduce him). But it’s not the living Joseph I want to queer — it’s the dead Joseph. Joseph’s bones, to be exact.

At the end of Parashat Vayechi, the very end of Genesis, Joseph lies dying. He has moved his entire family to Egypt to save them from famine, and he has rescued the whole land from hunger. Though his father, Jacob, was buried in Canaan, Joseph will be buried in Egypt. He is, after all, an Egyptian vizier. However, Joseph commands his family to take his bones with them when they eventually leave Egypt and return to the land of Israel: “When God has remembered you, you shall raise up my bones from this place.” (Gen. 50:25) (more…)

Lilith, Lady Flying in Darkness

“Half of me is beautiful

but you were never sure which half.”

            Ruth Feldman, “Lilith”

Lilith is the most notorious demon in Jewish tradition. In some sources, she is conceived of as the original woman, created even before Eve, and she is often presented as a thief of newborn infants. Lilith means “the night,” and she embodies the emotional and spiritual aspects of darkness: terror, sensuality, and unbridled freedom. More recently, she has come to represent the freedom of feminist women who no longer want to be “good girls.”

Biblical and Talmudic Tales of Lilith

The story of Lilith originated in the ancient Near East,where a wilderness spirit known as the “dark maid” appears in the Sumerian myth “The descent of Inanna” (circa 3000 BCE). Another reference appears in a tablet from the seventh century BCE found at Arslan Tash, Syria which contains the inscription: “O flyer in a dark chamber, go away at once, O Lili!”

Lilith later made her way into Israelite tradition, possibly even into the Bible. Isaiah 34:14, describing an inhospitable wilderness, tells us: “There goat-demons shall greet each other, and there the lilit shall find rest.” Some believe this word “lilit” is a reference to a night owl, and others say it is indeed a reference to the demon Lilith. A magical bowl from the first century CE, written in Hebrew, reads:” Designated is this bowl for the sealing of the house of this Geyonai bar Mamai, that there flee from him the evil Lilith…” Ancient images of Lilith which show her hands bound appear to be a form of visual magic for containing her.

In the Talmud, Lilith becomes not only a spirit of darkness,but also a figure of uncontrolled sexuality. The Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat151a) says: “It is forbidden for a man to sleep alone in a house, lest Lilith get hold of him.” Lilith is said to fertilize herself with male sperm to give birth to other demons.

Lilith as Escaped Wife

In Genesis Rabbah, we encounter a brief midrash that claims that Adam had a first wife before Eve. This interpretation arises from the two creation stories of Genesis: in Genesis 1, man and woman are created at the same time, while in Genesis 2 Adam precedes Eve. The rabbinic tale suggests that the first creation story is a different creation, in which Adam has a wife made, like him, from the earth. For some reason this marriage doesn’t work out,and so God makes Adam a second wife, Eve.

Jewish Childbirth Protection

Reprinted with the author’s permission from Magic & Superstition in the Jewish Tradition (Spertus Institute of JudaicStudies).

Until very recent times many women and children died inchildbirth or shortly thereafter. The existent medical treatment was erraticand often caused greater damage than the illness. It is understandable,therefore, that people turned to magical sources for comfort. The charms andremedies developed were most often against the evils of Lilith and her cohorts.

According to Jewish legend, Lilith was created as Adam’sequal:

"And God created man in His image, in the image of Godhe created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said tothem: Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fishof the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on theearth (Genesis 1:27-28)."

Lilith on the Prowl

She demanded equality, but her plea was denied. Shetherefore pronounced a magical incantation of the name of God and removedherself from Adam’s presence. Three angels, Sanvei, Sansenvei, and Semangelof,were sent to retrieve her, but she refused to return. Eve was then created tobe a helpmate for Adam (Genesis 2:21-22), and Lilith vowed to become a predatorof pregnant women and infants (the children of Eve). The legends continue andreveal that Lilith consorted with demons and took on various demonic,serpentlike, and humanoid forms.

As it developed, the legend of Lilith revealed borrowingsfrom many sources and different periods of time. She is depicted as an amalgamof a succubus, a child-stealing witch, and a temptress. She derives in partfrom Lilatu (an Assyrian female nightspirit),  Lamassu (the Babylonian child-stealer), and the Lamiae and Strigae of Greece and Rome.

These various types eventually merged into Lilith, whoappears all over the world in different disguises, by day or night, as witch oryoung woman. The charms against Lilith are as varied as her appearances, thoughthere is usually some reference to the three protectors of mother and child.

Rising from the Ritual Bath

Excerpt reprinted with permission of author and Ritualwell.

As a young Orthodox woman, Rachel Adler wrote a seminal article re-envisioning tumah and taharah, ritual purity and impurity, as a positive experience for women (Adler, Rachel. “Tumah and Taharah: Endings and Beginnings.” The Jewish Woman: New Perspectives. Ed. Elizabeth Koltun. Schocken Books, 1976). Like many modern Jewish women, Adler sought to reclaim Jewish traditions about women by reinterpreting them in a positive way. Adler spoke eloquently of how women, through their menses, embody the cosmic cycle of life, death, and rebirth, of darkness and light. She imagined menstruation as symbolic of loss, and mikveh as an expression of hope and life-giving potential. Adler pointed out that in Temple times purity and impurity applied to everyone, not only to women. She suggested that the forces of life and death, expressed through the ancient dichotomy of tumah and taharah, were both ultimately good, and that both menstrual separation and the return to sexual activity were holy phases of a woman’s life. Many women were convinced by Adler’s ideas, and it is now commonplace for Jewish women who write about mikveh to assert what Adler dared to put forward when it was a radical thought: that “impurity” and “purity” are equal parts of a sacred cycle. Adler created a way of looking at mikveh that allowed many women to feel good about mikveh as a spiritual practice.


Rethinking Mikveh

Adler herself, over decades, came to believe that she had been wrong in her thinking. The women who met her at conferences and praised her for her ideas saddened and embarrassed her. Finally, twenty-five years later as a Reform theologian, she wrote a second article (“In Your Blood, Live: Re-visions of a Theology of Purity,” in Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life, ed. Debra Orenstein and Jane Rachel Litman, Jewish Lights, 1997) in which she rejected her former philosophy. In this second article, Adler asserted that her first theory of mikveh had been a “slave theology” that purported to sanctify women while enabling their oppression. Adler pointed out that while she claimed that impurity applied to women and men, in actual Jewish life it only applied to women, thus associating women with death. She also re-analyzed biblical texts and indicated that while she imagined niddah (menstrual impurity) as a morally neutral term, the Bible used it as a word for corruption and filth (Lamentations 1:8,17). Adler indicated that her experience of Orthodox practice was that women were labeled as impure and were shut out from reading Torah or even from shaking hands with men because of this designation. She feared that her theology had provided an apologia for misogynistic practices, and wished to replace it with a theology in which purity and bodily reality can co-exist.

Harmful & Helpful Gossip

Gossip is “masked” speech–it is defined as gossip only if the individual who is the subject of one’s words cannot hear what is being said. The Bible says “Do not go up and down as a talebearer among your people” (Leviticus 19:16).Yet the word “gossip” comes from the old English word “God-sib”–a close relative bound by ritual ties, a beloved intimate. Some feminist commentaries suggest that, particularly for women, gossip is not as one-sided as patriarchal tradition would have us believe.

Some gossip is simply malicious, but networks of “informal communication” can also work for the benefit of individuals and relationships. I know that my own private talks with loved ones–rants, reflections, and ad hoc psychological analyses–are vital to my mental health. Yet some of my words would be labeled by the sages of Jewish tradition as lashon hara (slander), the deadly “evil tongue”–and as I’ve researched this article I’ve become much more aware of the harm gossip does. What would a Talmud written by women say concerning gossip? Is it bad, or good, or does it depend on context? Here are five rounds of text, countertext, and commentary to help you form your own opinions about gossip and tale-bearing.


“Rabbi Ishmael said: ‘One who engages in gossip is guilty of a sin equal to the three prohibitions for which a Jew must accept death–idolatry, adultery, and murder'” (Arakin 15b).


“At one extreme, gossip manifests itself as distilled malice…. Often it serves serious (possibly unconscious) purposes for the gossipers, whose manipulations of reputation can further political or social ambitions… gratify envy and rage…. and generate an immensely satisfying sense of power, although the talkers acknowledge no such intent” (Spacks, Patricia Meyer. Gossip. Alfred A. Knopf, 1985, p. 4).


Here, text and countertext agree that gossip can be a hurtful activity. The Talmud’s extreme formulation–gossip is equal to the worst sins–reminds us that the loss of one’s reputation can ruin one’s life. In some places in the world, a woman who loses her “good name” can lose her potential for marriage, her economic security, and even her life. Spacks lets us know that the intent of gossip can be to consolidate one’s own power without extending any power to the other–a deeply anti-feminist motivation.