Female scribes finish writing historic Torah scroll
SAN FRANCISCO — It took seven years to write and just a few days to sew together, but on Oct. 15 the first Torah scroll written entirely by a group of women was attached to its wooden poles and declared complete.
The ceremony was held at Seattle’s Kadima Reconstructionist Community, which sponsored the project.
“We had the idea 10 years ago, but when we looked around for women scribes, we realized there weren’t any,” said Kadima member Wendy Graff, one of the volunteers who shepherded the project from its inception.
To remedy the dilemma, Kadima supported two women as they trained to be scribes. Four others trained on their own. Ultimately the six female scribes, or sofrot, worked on the scroll in four countries: two in Israel, two in the United States, and one each in Brazil and Canada.
The panels were checked by experts in Jerusalem and New York, who made the minor tikkunim, or corrections, permitted by Jewish law. Major errors require a complete redo of the page.
Last week the panels were flown to Seattle, where another group of women sewed them together. The Torah mantle, including wooden poles, or atzei chayim, and other traditional accoutrements were created by seven local artists.
The scribes were paid, but the others who worked on the project donated their time.
According to Orthodox tradition, women are not permitted to be Torah scribes. Over the last decade, however, a handful of women have trained as scribes.
It’s an exacting process. Torahs must be written by hand on parchment made from the skins of kosher animals, and scribes must state their intentions out loud each time they prepare to write God’s name.
In September 2007, Jen Taylor Friedman of New York completed the first Torah scroll known to have been written by a woman, for the United Hebrew Congregation of St. Louis, Mo.
Friedman advised the Women’s Torah Project and was one of the experts who checked for small errors. She is among a number of women at work on other Torah scrolls, including Julie Seltzer of San Francisco, one of the six scribes on the Seattle project.
On her website, Hasoferet.com, Friedman tells female scribes they need to be upfront about that when they are commissioned to work on a Torah.
“Why is a soferet like a swordfish?” she writes. Swordfish, she says, is not considered kosher by most Orthodox Jews, although Conservative Jews will eat it.
“If I repair a Torah and then let Orthodox congregations use it,” she wrote, it’s “an appalling desecration of trust. If we want respect, as Jews or as human beings, we have to give respect, and part of that is accepting that other Jews’ rule systems are valid despite being different from ours.”