Dreams have fascinated me ever since I was a child; I used to dream of talking animals, and giant shopping malls that one could reach by climbing through a space in the back wall of a closet. As I grew older, I experienced mundane and disorienting dreams – losing my luggage or getting lost on the subway – but there were also wondrous images and encounters: seeds growing in my hands, labyrinths beneath Jerusalem, journeys to castles that hung in the air. These images felt similar to images I found in ancient myths and sacred texts. Over time, I discovered that dreams can have guiding power. To give one potent example, I finally made the decision to go to rabbinical school after I dreamt of meeting God (who was visibly pregnant) at a cocktail party.
I began to write Undertorah: An Earth-Based Kabbalah of Dreams because I wanted to say something about the landscape of dreams. The Zohar, a thirteenth-century kabbalistic text from Spain, says that at the time of sleeping, souls conceal themselves inside the Shekhinah, the aspect of the divine which is closest to material reality. The Zohar imagines that night-wandering souls go within the sacred and travel around inside it. To me, this kabbalistic teaching suggests that a dream is an immersive environment, and that this is part of its power: a dream doesn’t “tell” us something but rather brings us to a place where we can have an experience that changes us.
For example, in another one of my dreams, which begins the book, I am in Jerusalem, exploring a temple. The temple is bustling with humans, but below the ground floor I discover there are caves that lead deep within the earth. I wander the caves and find an underground river. I follow the river, and come to a map that suggests the rivers go further down, to where there are flows of lava and the heart of the earth itself. This dream shows me where I most want to be: connected to the natural world, exploring the heart of being. No matter where I am, no matter what my spiritual tradition, I always have a connection to the earth.
Some, like me, dream of going down into the depths, but for others dreams lead upward into the sky perhaps into the heart of a vast animate tree; or unplumbed depths underwater to the realms of water-breathing beings. These dream images, which dreamers have generously shared with me during the years that I’ve been researching the book, give me a sense of the ways dreams help us find our connection to ourselves, one another, and the cosmos itself. The stark feelings we experience in dreams can help us relate more deeply to our waking lives.
For generations, Jews have understood dreams to hold prophetic inspiration.
My sense that dreams hold wisdom has only grown as I have explored dreaming as a spiritual practice. I’ve interviewed dozens of dreamers from a variety of backgrounds, and I’ve heard stories in which dreamers received food or medicine that healed physical and emotional ailments. I’ve been told of dreams that predicted (and sometimes averted) heart attacks or car crashes; dreams of powerful visits from deceased loved ones; nightmares that turned into personal transformations. And I have seen how even seemingly ordinary dreams can offer us truths that help us grow as people. I have come to understand dreams as an Undertorah: a wild, image-based, constantly unfolding sacred text that we discover nightly. As I write in the book, “The dream is a journey beyond the ordinary bounds of the self…each one brings us back to the profound mystery of the cosmos in which we live.” When we pay attention to our dreams, we tap into a well of hidden truth; when we share dreams, we come to know one another much more deeply.
For generations, Jews have understood dreams to hold prophetic inspiration. In Genesis, dreams are a primary way God communicates with people. The mysterious images in biblical dreams — bowing sheaves of grain, ladders between heaven and earth — capture our imagination to this day. The Talmud claims that dreams hold “one-sixtieth of prophecy,” and suggests a prayer to say when one has a confusing or disturbing dream. In Jewish mystical lore, dreams are a nightly journey during which the soul rises to heavenly realms. These ways of approaching dreams resemble Indigenous practices (such as those of indigenous Mexicans or the Guajiro people of Colombia) in which dreams are shared each morning as a source of knowledge. Many contemporary views of dreams, in which dreams reflect random firings of the brain, or aspects of personal psychology, don’t quite address the mysterious power dreams have to heal and transform us.
So how do we find the messages within our dreams? We can write or imagine dialogues with people, creatures, or landscapes in our dreams. We can meditate on dream images. We can seek out landscapes — rivers, mountains — like the ones we’ve met in our dreams. And we can share our dream images and experiences with others. The Talmud mentions one dreamer who takes a dream to twenty-four dream interpreters. Each one offers a different interpretation, and each interpretation comes true. The truth within dreams, like the truth in a poem, is multiple. Convening a group of dreamers to listen to and “read” one another’s dreams is a powerful way to get a sense of the range of meaning within a dream.
For me, the moment in a dream that I come back to is often a moment of wonder. Recently, I dreamed of walking in a garden where all the leaves of a tree were covered in shining drops of dew. The drops were just barely frozen so they held their shape. As I looked upward, the drops all melted and fell toward me in a magnificent shower, drenching me. Dreams exist for a moment, but their joy, beauty and potential for reckoning have a lasting impact.
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, author, scholar, ritualist, poet, midrashist and dreamworker, is the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion (www.ajrsem.org), and co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute (www.kohenet.org). She is the author of the just-released Undertorah: An Earth-Based Kabbalah of Dreaming (Ayin Press, 2022), Return to the Place: The Magic, Meditation, and Mystery of Sefer Yetzirah, and The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership (with Taya Shere), as well as other books.