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She-scribes

10/25/2010
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Ten days ago, the first all-women Torah scroll was finished. A Reconstructionist congregation in Seattle sponsored the project. They supported 2 women through training to become scribes (and by this I assume they put up some cold hard cash). Four other scribes joined the project around the globe. The writing took 7 years, an auspicious number. The panels of lambskin were sown together by women in a few days and wooden poles made by women were attached to the skins. I’ll admit to a clear violation of the 10th    Commandment: coveting.

I wish I had thought of it first: a Torah scroll scribed entirely by women. I wish I had written some of the panels and would cherish a chance to someday read from such a Torah. This is so undeniably cool that I’m fantasizing about training to be a soferet, a (female) Torah scribe. It’s a fantasy that will likely pass, but still… I’ve always had good penmanship, English and Hebrew.

Also, I’m kvelling. It only took a couple thousand years  for the most sacred book in our tradition to be  lovingly  handwritten by women, who – to borrow a  phrase from  the Chinese – hold up half the Jewish sky.  I feel the  same way about the completion of this scroll  as I did  the first time I put on a tallit: I can’t believe  those guys kept this experience all to  themselves for so long. What chutzpah! I felt mightily pissed off and mightily happy at that moment of recognition — akin to what I’m feeling right now.

Just for the record (and to expand a bit on the obvious and glib explanation for such a misstep on the part of generations of gentlemen, i.e., sexism), there are conflicting rulings on whether women can be scribes. The Talmud explicitly states that a Torah, mezuzah, or teffilin written by a woman are illegitimate. On the other hand, the Tur, another respected source of Jewish law, does not include women in the unqualified-to-scribe category. Maimonides excuses women from the obligation of regular Torah study, their time being taken up with children and household and whatnot (a legitimate observation in the 12th century) — but later rabbis expanded this into a prohibition against scribing the Torah itself under the logic of “if you don’t regularly study, you don’t get to write.” Your basic Catch-22 yielded by those who wish to keep things all to themselves.  (If you want to see more about the evolving legal interpretations, see the Women’s Torah Project page here.)

Clearly this equation has changed. In every corner of the Jewish world, women are studying, discussing, engaging with, and wrestling Torah to the ground. We’ve made time for sacred study and full-time work and raising kids and timely undertaking of household chores and creating meaningful relationships and running for public office and building social movements and roller derbying, for God’s sake.

I can’t explain my own deep attraction & devotion to the text. I’ve given up trying to figure it out and just take this strange addiction as a given. That being said, it gives me a special warm feeling to see that other women have the same inescapable attraction. Party on all, party on!

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. 10/25/2010 6:13 pm

    Pretty awesome, isn’t it?

    You might enjoy this post by Jen Taylor Friedman, aka ha-soferet: http://hatam-soferet.dreamwidth.org/580142.html — it looks like she actually wrote the first woman-scribed Torah by herself, and as a result, the Women’s Torah Project wound up rededicating themselves to a slightly different goal, which was being a Torah written by a group of women (so a bunch of women learned sofrut in order to participate.) Relatedly, here’s an interview I did with soferet Shoshana Gugenheim a while back: http://www.zeek.net/706sefer/

    • sue swartz permalink*
      10/25/2010 7:38 pm

      Thanks! I’m going to include this in my next post.

  2. Sarah Rubin permalink
    10/25/2010 10:44 pm

    As usual, well put. It’s wonderful to live in a world where women wrestling Torah is a part of the normative Jewish experience. It is depressing and aggravating to me that there are parts of the world still trying to deny women (and others – including gays and people with disabilities) from the right to carry/read Torah let alone write. But people like you, writing and fighting, help immensely. Thank you!

    • sue swartz permalink*
      10/26/2010 7:35 am

      I’m blushing (again). It is wonderful to live in this world. I started out in the world of “women can’t be rabbis” and now I consider this option ad nauseaum (no offense). A lot has happened in the last 5 decades.

  3. 10/26/2010 4:42 pm

    It’s an exciting time to be a Jew and a woman – at least in America. In Israel, there is still sadly much work that needs to be done and much suffering that the women there still endure. Maybe we, in our freedom and our strength, can reach out to them and add to their own strength as they fight for the rights that we are gaining.

    I’m proud of this project and its completion. We are pulling our own weight in this business of being a God-wrestler, and it’s a wonderful thing.

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