Episode 28: The Torah at Her Fingertips (Transcript)
Batya Sperling Milner: Hi, I’m Batya Sperling Milner and I live in Washington, DC and it was recently my bat mitzvah, so now I’m 12. I like to read and I sometimes like to write and I also like to tandem bike.
Nahanni Rous: Welcome to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. I’m Nahanni Rous. In this episode... the groundbreaking bat mitzvah of Batya Sperling Milner.
[Theme music fades]
Batya: One of the highlights of my bat mitzvah was when I got up there with the Torah and I was like Sh’ma Yisrael! And that was great because I was super loud and it was very dramatic.
Nahanni: I couldn’t record the bat mitzvah itself. It was on Shabbat in an Orthodox Synagogue. But I did record Batya rehearsing a couple of days before. She’s with her dad Josh Milner and some friends.
Josh Milner: Bat.
Josh: Blast it.
Batya, singing: Sh’ma Yisrael… Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad.
Chorus: Sh’ma yisrael.. Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad.
Batya: I couldn’t see anything, I could just see the fabric of the Torah, and I felt like my words kind of bounced off of it and around. And it felt really special cause I couldn’t see anything but that fabric of the case of the Torah… so it was really cool.
Nahanni: It was really cool. Batya is one of my daughter’s closest friends. They’ve been in school together since Kindergarten, and we go to the same synagogue: Ohev Sholom in Washington, DC.
Nahanni: The morning of Batya’s bat mitzvah, the shul was packed with three hundred and fifty people. Batya leyned, or chanted, the entire Torah portion... all 106 verses. She chanted her Haftarah and led Shacharit, the morning prayers. She also gave an insightful and entertaining D’var Torah, or sermon.
[Rehearsal singing fades]
Nahanni: But Batya’s bat mitzvah was exceptional for other reasons, too. Batya is blind, and in order for her to read Torah for an Orthodox Jewish congregation, a few unprecedented things had to happen.
Nahanni: In this episode of Can We Talk?, we’ll hear from Batya’s mother, Aliza Sperling, about her pioneering scholarship on blind people reading Torah. We’ll talk about a new braille notation system that was created for Batya. And we’ll talk to Batya about her love of Torah, her commitment to Jewish law, and her desire to be recognized for who she is, rather than defined by a disability. Some of you might also be wondering how a girl could read Torah in an Orthodox synagogue in the first place... Ohev Sholom is one of a handful of Modern Orthodox synagogues where bat mitzvah girls read Torah… and we’ll touch on that, too.
[Ambient noise and talking: dog barking, laughter]
Nahanni: I’m at the Sperling Milners’ house on the outskirts of Washington, DC. It’s January, a week after Batya’s bat mitzvah.
[Ambient noise fades]
Batya: I love Torah… I try to use Torah to guide me in decision-making, if I can remember to, and if it works. And it’s interesting to think in alternative ways about it and to hear different interpretations because everyone interprets it differently.
[Sound of fingers skimming paper]
Batya: Ok, Parshat Bo.
[Sound of page turning, fingers skimming]
Nahanni: Batya is showing me the Torah portion she read at her bat mitzvah. Her fingers skim her braille chumash… the book form of the Torah. She learned to read Hebrew braille when she was 7 years old.
[Sound of fingers skimming paper, leyning]
TRAX: Under Batya’s fingertips, in tiny raised white dots, an epic drama is playing out. God is engaged in a battle of wills with Pharoah… with Moses as proxy. Each time Pharoah refuses to let the Hebrew slaves leave Egypt, God rains down another plague. The penultimate plague is darkness, which comes just before the slaying of the firstborn.
… sound of fingers skimming.
Nahanni: Batya talked about her Torah portion in her bat mitzvah speech. Here’s how she started:
Batya: First I said, Shabbat Shalom. And then I was like, “Out of all the parshiyot in the entire Torah on which my Bat Mitzvah could have fallen, I got Bo, the only parsha in the entire Torah that deals with none other than DARKNESS. It must be a sign from Hashem.”
Nahanni: Hashem is one way to refer to God.
Batya: Most people laughed. I think some people were a bit uncomfortable, but I didn’t really care. It kind of felt a relief to approach it in a comfortable way, in a funny way, in a yeah, that’s me way. Sort of accept that blindness is just part of me. And it wasn’t the main subject or the main thing, but it wasn’t like, hidden, and I didn’t want it to be hidden.
Nahanni: Batya’s sense of humor is also just part of her.
Batya: At first I was like, darkness? I know darkness. Darkness isn’t that bad. But then I thought about it some more, and the Egyptians’ darkness was actually nothing like the darkness that blind people experience. Because the darkness that they had, they couldn’t even move. And they didn’t know when it would end. And they were completely alone. It must have been like really scary for them.
Batya: I feel like that’s how some people react to darkness. But some people are able to say like, there’s more than just light and darkness in the world, there are also other things that you can have or not have.
[Sound of fingers skimming paper]
Batya: So, right now I have the fourth aliya open in the text that I actually used to read from for my bat mitzvah. It has no vowels and no trope marks and no punctuation, and it’s just the letters, like it appears in the Torah.
Nahanni: Trope is a notation system for learning to leyn, or chant from the Torah. The trope marks are tiny dots and lines above and below the Hebrew letters. They’re included in printed books of the Torah, but not in the scroll itself.
Batya: K, here it says… vayomer…
Aliza Sperling: You gotta leyn it girl!
Nahanni: Batya’s mother, Aliza, is a Torah scholar. She’ll soon graduate from Yeshivat Maharat, the only Orthodox Jewish seminary in the United States that currently ordains female clergy. Aliza wanted Batya to learn to leyn for her bat mitzvah, so she would have that skill as she became a Jewish adult.
Aliza: So, we were looking all over the try to find a braille trope for Batya, so that she could learn the cantillation marks in her Torah reading. And we couldn’t find anything.
Nahanni: That’s because there was no braille trope system. Aliza and her husband Josh considered making Batya a recording of her Torah portion.
Aliza: But then she only knows her Torah portion. It’s not like if she has another opportunity to read Torah some other time, she doesn’t have the tools to know how to do that. She’s always reliant on a recording. Part of bat mitzvah is being able to function in the Jewish community as an adult. We wanted her to have those tools so she could be part of the community later on as well.
Nahanni: So they called a friend who’s a computer programmer, and overnight, he created a prototype for braille trope.
Aliza: And so he came over that night and he showed us what he had created and Batya made a few tweaks and told him what worked and what didn’t work and a braille trope system was created.
Nahanni: That braille trope system is the first of its kind, and it is already in demand. The Sperling Milner’s have gotten calls already from other blind people who want to use it.
Nahanni: Batya says learning the braille trope was like decoding, probably no different than it is for sighted people. But in planning for Batya’s bat mitzvah, there were other issues to resolve, and they had nothing to do with Batya’s ability.
Aliza: I know that Batya is capable of doing whatever she wants and doing it fantastically.. because that’s the kind of person she is.
Nahanni: But centuries-old Jewish legal opinions, written before braille was invented, state that a blind person cannot serve as a Torah reader.
Aliza: One main issue is that when you’re reading Torah you need to read from the Torah scroll. If you’re reading from a braille text, that’s not a Torah scroll, and if you’re not reading from the Torah scroll, then have you really fulfilled the obligation of the congregation to read Torah?
Nahanni: In Orthodox communities, fulfilling these obligations is part of the fabric of life and the words of the Torah are considered the words of God, so the laws about reading them publicly are strict. The rules about the Megillah, which is read on Purim, are not as strict. So Aliza’s first idea was that Batya could read Megillah for her bat mitzvah.
Aliza: So I presented this idea, to Batya. I said Batya why don’t you read Megillat Esther for your bat mitzvah and she said no I really want to read Torah. [Laughs]
Nahanni: Batya wouldn’t settle for anything less.
Batya: Reading Torah is big, and it’s amazing. And I don’t think that there are ways to equal that in other things that you can do to have a spiritual experience in a shul. So I don’t think anyone should be denied that.
Aliza: So then it was back to the drawing board and I had to start thinking about how, what kind of research can I do to see if she can actually read Torah for the congregation. And I knew that was going to be hard and it was.
Nahanni: Aliza turned first to modern rabbinic opinions. She didn’t find much, but legal rulings from both the Orthodox and Conservative movements say blind people cannot read Torah for the congregation. There is no prohibition in the Reform Movement, which isn’t concerned with strict adherence to Jewish law. But Jewish law, or halacha, is important to Aliza and Batya and their family.
Aliza: We are committed to living a halachic life. Jewish law is really important to me and I want Batya to be part of that. I don’t want her to have to make a choice and say either I’m part of the community that’s committed to Jewish law, or I can express myself. I want her to be able to put both things together and say I am a halachically committed Jew and I can express my love of Torah in this way.
Nahanni: Aliza spent hundreds of hours pouring through centuries of Talmudic commentaries. She ended up writing a 40 page paper, and giving lectures in America and Israel on why a blind person can read Torah. Part of her argument centers on a third century Talmudic rabbi name Rabbi Yosef, from Babylonia. He was a leading Torah scholar of his time. He also happened to be blind.
Aliza: And so there’s a debate within the commentaries about whether Rabbi Yosef was allowed to recite the words of the written Torah. Imagine this, this is like the Torah scholar of the generation and they’re talking about whether he could actually recite the words of the written Torah. I don’t think it was because they thought blind people weren’t good enough. I think it was because they thought there were certain technical requirements that blind people couldn’t meet.
Nahanni: Blind people couldn’t read the actual scroll, and reciting the Torah from memory was not allowed. In the Middle Ages, about a thousand years after Rabbi Yosef’s time, a set of commentaries called the Tosafot were compiled. From the intricate tangle of rabbinic thought in Tosafot, Aliza teased out the thread of an argument in favor of blind people reading Torah. It’s based on a principle that allows for an override of the law. In an emergency situation a Torah principle can be violated… and these commentators considered Rabbi Yosef’s plight an emergency.
Aliza: And they say, “Ein licha et lasot gadol mi ze.” like, there’s no greater situation of emergency where we have to allow somebody to do something, even if it seems to violate a Torah principle, than this.
Nahanni: The emergency, according to the the commentators, was that blind people were not going to be able to interact with the Torah.
Aliza: The Tosafot couldn’t conceive of a world where people would not be involved in Torah and reciting the words of Torah. And I mean that’s amazing that they said that.
Nahanni: In this medieval Jewish Text, Aliza had found what might be the earliest argument ever made for inclusion.
Aliza: And this mechanism of “et la’asot” of this is an emergency situation so we’re going to violate a Torah principle is not one that’s used easily and yet they felt like they wanted to use it for the case of a blind person.
Nahanni: Of course, other commentators pushed back, saying that only threats to an entire community count as emergencies… not just situations that affect an individual. But Aliza thinks there are never situations that affect only one class of people; an emergency for one is an emergency for all. Our community’s experience during Batya’s bat mitzvah seemed to prove her point.
Aliza: The effects of Batya being able to read Torah reverberated throughout that room. There were 350 people crying at that time and saying they had never experienced holiness like that. And I think that’s one of those basic inclusion lessons that people need to know that when we talk about including others it’s not only about them, it’s about what kind of community you are part of.
[Group singing in rehearsal]
Nahanni: Speaking of the kind of community we are part of… there’s another layer to the story of Batya’s bat mitzvah. In Orthodox synagogues, if girls have a bat mitzvah at all, they rarely read Torah. When Aliza was growing up, she didn’t read Torah at her bat mitzvah… But our congregation at Ohev Sholom has found a way for bat mitzvah girls to read Torah and lead services within a halachic framework.
Aliza: Now we’re in a congregation that’s really trying to bridge that gap of working within the halachic framework to give women opportunities and I think this is an ongoing struggle.
Batya: I do think that a girl, someone who’s blind, anyone who wants to should be able to read from the Torah, because that’s an amazing experience. I want to be like any other bat mitzvah kid who gets to leyn. Because I think I should be able to.
[Group singing in rehearsal]
Nahanni: At the end of Batya’s Torah portion, Pharoah finally frees the Hebrew slaves. On the surface, they seem to play a passive role in their own liberation. But in Batya’s sermon, she talked about the ways they did participate. It was important, Batya said, that they didn't just have their freedom handed to them.
Batya: There’s value in earning things and not just having things given to you, because when you earn something first of all you feel like you are part of the reason you have it, and you deserve it, and it also makes you more responsible because you are the one who who’s directing your life. It helps you become your own person with your own identity, make your own choices.
Nahanni: Batya has been thinking a lot about her own identity, and how other people see her.
Batya: I don’t like when people make a big deal out of the fact that I’m blind… and make that that whole thing, “she’s amazing cause she’s blind” and “she’s doing so great and everything.” The fact that I’m blind should not be the first thing that people think of me when they think of my name.
Nahanni: Batya says her bat mitzvah helped her define herself in a way she really felt proud of. I’m proud of her too... and inspired. She brought her whole being to this rite of passage: her skill, her thoughtfulness, her deep spirituality, her sense of humor. Aliza inspires me, too: her devotion to Torah, to teaching, and to her daughter. On the day of Batya’s bat mitzvah, Aliza says she felt a mystical presence in the sanctuary.
Aliza: I felt God’s loving kindness coming through, breaking through barriers that people thought had been there. Like “oh she can’t read Torah because blind people can’t read Torah” or “she can’t read Torah because there’s no braille trope” or until 1940s there was no Hebrew braille. And it was just this amazing feeling of love in that room, like love that’s powerful that breaks things because that love is so powerful.
Nahanni: The power in the room transcended Batya’s skill with leyning and even her fluency with Torah. It was the power of a love that breaks things, and builds things, and won’t take no for an answer.
Batya, singing: Shochen Ad Marom v’kadosh sh’mo…
Nahanni: Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. This episode of Can We Talk? was sponsored in part by the Jewish Braille Institute, in honor of Batya Sperling Milner. JBI offers books of Jewish interest to people of all ages and backgrounds who are visually impaired and blind. JBI's library includes fiction, history, biographies, periodicals, liturgical materials, concerts, lectures and more, in Audio, Large Print, and braille, free of charge and delivered to your doorstep. Call 800-433-1531 or visit jbilibrary.org. We also had support from the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project, a partnership between CJP and the Ruderman Family Foundation. The project aims to help synagogues create communities where people of all abilities are valued equally and participate fully. You can read the executive summary of Aliza Sperling’s 40-page article on blind people reading Torah online at Matan, the Women’s Institute for Torah Studies.
Nahanni: Judith Rosenbaum directs the Jewish Women’s Archive, Becky Long is our production assistant, and Ibby Caputo edits our scripts. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. Visit Can We Talk? online at jwa.org/canwetalk. You can also find Can We Talk? just about anywhere you get your podcasts.
Nahanni: I’m Nahanni Rous. We’ll be back with a new episode soon.
[Theme music fades]
Batya: I think I’m still in the transition phase because I’m not really a Jewish kid and I’m not really a Jewish adult. It hasn’t totally dawned on me that I’m a bat mitzvah yet. When are you really an adult? I mean, I feel like it’s different for different people. Do you consider yourself an adult?
Batya: Yes, you.
Batya: Not a teenager, or a kid.
Nahanni: Sadly, no.
Batya: [Laughs] Yeah.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 28: The Torah at Her Fingertips (Transcript)." (Viewed on July 3, 2020) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-28-the-torah-at-her-fingertips/transcript>.