Who Scribed Your Torah?
Every Shabbat, Jews all over the world go to synagogue, pray, kibbitz, and, of course, read from the Torah. And while there is plenty of debate among and within the Jewish movements about who wrote the words of the Pentateuch, there is no question that the words got on the parchment thanks to the master skill of the sofer.
But the Torah that will be used this week in Seattle is different. On October 16, the city’s Kadima Reconstructionist Jewish Community will read from a Torah scribed not by a sofer, a male scribe, but by soferot, a group of women scribes. The Kadima Torah is the first commissioned to be written by women, and the first ever to be written by a group of women. The effort, known as the Women’s Torah Project, began in 2000. Its completion marks an important milestone in Jewish women’s history. (Our regular readers will remember that one of the soferot, Julie Seltzer, is also nearing completion on another Torah she is scribing as part of a museum exhibition.)
The Talmud (Gittin 45b) explicitly states that a Torah, mezuzah, or teffilin written by a woman (or anyone else who does not lay teffilin) are illegitimate. However, the Arba'ah Turim (often simply called the Tur), another halakhic source, does not include women among those unqualified to serve as soferim (scribes). Nevertheless, the Talmudic opinion has, until now, dominated Jewish tradition.
The Women’s Torah Project, which involved women of diverse Jewish backgrounds (including Orthodox and observant Jews) paid close attention to halakha, and like generations of Jews before them, deeply engaged with it. (Check out their thoughtful halakhic interpretation of the soferet here.)
These two aspects of the Women’s Torah Project – that it is truly an interdenominational effort and is committed to honoring halakha – are what I personally find most compelling. The participation of women from across the Jewish spectrum in the creation of the Torah ensures that Jews of all backgrounds can view this accomplishment as part of their own legacy. The Project’s genuine engagement of halakha means that it is a vibrant innovation in a rich Jewish tradition, rather than a departure from it.
As more money was raised by the Women’s Torah Project, more women were trained as soferot. Jewish women artists were also recruited to create the other pieces that adorn a Torah—the yad, mantle, breastplate, crowns, and wimple clasp. You can meet the scribes and artists here.
A four-day celebration of the Torah’s completion will begin on October 13 at the University of Washington Hillel. On the 16, scribes, artists, and community members will gather to hear the Kadima Women’s Torah read for the first time. Members of Kadima’scongregation, including Wendy Graff, director of the Women’s Torah Project, will read from the new Torah. For some, including Graff, this service will mark the first time they have ever chanted from the Torah.
I am sure that as community members take their turn reading and becoming part of an ancient tradition, the words of Lech-Lecha will resonate: "And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God to you and to your offspring after you."