In the early 2000s, women interested in scribal arts were forced to procure their equipment through subterfuge.
“The only way for a woman to purchase scribal materials such as kosher parchment and ink was to engage in an act of deception, by either sending a man to make the purchases on her behalf, or misrepresenting herself when making the purchase (i.e. not letting the seller know that he was selling to a soferet),” said Rabbi Linda Motzkin of Temple Sinai in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Slowly, however, female scribes began taking their work out into the open, and this year will mark a decade since the completion of the first sefer Torah credited to a soferet, or female scribe.
Since then, the profession has been putting down roots: Sofrot have continued developing professional networks while the next generation is studying scribal arts (safrut). There are about 10 sofrot who have been involved in writing a Torah, and 30 others who have been involved in Torah repair.
While Sofrot have largely come from Reform and Conservative Judaism, recently the profession is reaching out to Orthodox communities as well.
“One of the things I suffered from, when I was learning to scribe as a craft, was that it was pretty jolly lonely,” said Jen Taylor Friedman, widely considered the first woman to complete writing a Torah scroll, in 2007. “There were not many women around. Men were either terribly busy or not ideologically enthusiastic about talking with me.”
Now, she said, “A whole bunch of women are becoming more engaged.”
“There has been female leadership in many aspects of communities,” Taylor Friedman said. “This aspect was going to happen eventually. Here we are, it’s happening.”
It is happening through networks such as Stam Scribes, whose members include Motzkin and Taylor Friedman. Stam Scribes’ services include Torah repair, Torah projects and educational programming.
“We’re predominantly a network of women,” Taylor Friedman said. “We do admit men. There’s a couple of chaps on board. Also, we’re open to people of non-standard gender.”
There is also the Community Torah Project, led by Motzkin. The project, which recently celebrated the completion of half a Torah scroll, is a collaboration of men and women making the materials for and writing a Torah. (Torah scrolls are written on parchment made from a kosher animal, and penned using a specific type of quill and ink.)
Another way the community of females scribes is growing is through classes that Taylor Friedman teaches to aspiring sofrot online or on Skype.
“Sometimes it’s someone in retirement who was active, and worked very hard, and now she realizes she can write a Torah scroll,” Taylor Friedman said. “My youngest [student] is 16, in high school.”
Far fewer opportunities existed for those who became the first publicly recognized sofrot just over a decade ago.
When Motzkin, who was ordained a rabbi in the Reform movement alongside her husband, took a class in mezuzah writing in August 2003, “it had never occurred to me that I, as a woman, could be a scribe,” she said.
Motzkin had been doing Hebrew calligraphy as an art form for over 25 years.
But “at that time,” she said, “no women had yet become sofrot, no Torah scroll had yet been written by a woman, and the few women in the world who were interested in doing this work all faced the challenges of finding men who would teach them, and finding means of obtaining supplies.”
Perhaps the biggest difficulty was, and is, halachic prohibition. According to Jewish law, a woman is forbidden from penning a Torah scroll.
“A woman can’t write a kosher sefer Torah,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the kosher division of the Orthodox Union. “It’s generated from a passuk [verse]. ‘Those obligated to wear phylacteries are qualified to write phylacteries.’”
‘It had never occurred to me that I, as a woman, could be a scribe’
Authorities cite the Talmud (Menachot 42b) and Shulchan Aruch (Yorah Deyah 281:3), which references Deuteronomy 6:8-9, “And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand… And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house…” as evidence that a woman, who is not commanded to bind phylacteries, is not qualified to write scrolls.
“It can’t be used in shul [synagogue],” Genack said of a scroll written by a soferet.
Be that as it may, in 2006, Motzkin held a meeting in her Saratoga kitchen with colleagues Aviel Barclay, Linda Coppleson and Taylor Friedman “for what we jokingly called ‘The First World Gathering of Sofrot,’” Motzkin said. (There were two others in the world studying scribal arts that she was aware of, Rachel Reichhardt in Brazil and Shoshana Gugenheim in Israel.)
Barclay, who converted to Orthodox Judaism from Christianity, had become, in 2003, the first woman traditionally trained and certified as a soferet.
In 2007, Taylor Friedman became the first woman credited with completing a Torah scroll. She puts this in perspective.
“‘I was the first to write’ — that’s factually incorrect,” she said. “I was the first woman they paid attention to.”
She said there have been “women for sure who wrote Torahs, who repaired Torahs. In [the times the Megillat Esther was written] there was one of the earliest… We don’t like to record. History doesn’t remember names.”
A matter of intentions
In 2010, the Kadima Reconstructionist Community in Seattle celebrated the completion of the Women’s Torah Project — a collaboration of sofrot to write a Torah, and the first Torah to be commissioned and scribed by women.
Project director Wendy Graff said that when the idea was conceived, in 2000, “none of us ever thought [about] who scribed. It never occurred [to us] a woman hadn’t.”
A coalition of women were involved. Back in Brazil, Reichhardt worked with quills, ink and parchment (“very, very ancient work,” she said) on the Book of Exodus for this Torah. “When I do every letter, I have to have the intention to do every letter,” she said.
“When I’m writing, I have to speak aloud every word, understand what the text means.” And “every letter has a symbol, a form, made in the right sequence. [You] have to copy the text from another book,” Reichhardt said. “[You] can’t be very creative.”
She described the pressure not to make mistakes: “I’m working with a sacred text. If I make a mistake, I’m doing a sacred mistake… If you do a mistake, you have to bury the parchment and begin anew.”
Taylor Friedman served as a checker for the Torah, having completed two of her own by then.
‘When I’m writing, I have to speak aloud every word, understand what the text means’
When it was finished, while director Graff knew the calligraphy was kosher, she was concerned about the scroll’s halachic status.
“We have had Modern Orthodox rabbis who believe reading from the Women’s Torah is perfectly acceptable… Early on, we thought we would put a notation, ‘This was scribed by women,’ in case someone who would not want to read from a women’s Torah would have the opportunity [not to do so],” said project director Graff.
“We talked with rabbinic leaders in our community [and decided] we won’t do that. We don’t know the provenance of 90% of Torahs. We assume they are kosher. We assume the intention. That’s the most important [part] of a scribe, intent.”
She said, “We know this Torah was written with correct intention. If the Orthodox community does not want to read from it, nobody’s forcing them to. I think it will change, I hope it will change.”
Times are already changing. Taylor Friedman’s Orthodox students are testimony to this. In line with Orthodox teaching, they do not write Torah scrolls, but they do write megillot and ketubot. One of them is Boston resident Rachel Jackson, 24, who grew up in a Modern Orthodox family.
“A family friend asked could I write him a megillah,” Jackson recalled. “I said, ‘No, I don’t know how.’ He asked, ‘Why don’t you learn?’ It was flippant, but I thought, ‘You know what, I really should learn.’”
Jackson contacted Taylor Friedman, trading hours of work for lessons.
While Jackson is not yet officially certified, “at some point, [Taylor Friedman] thought I was ready to write a megillah,” she said. “I wrote my first megillah.”
Jackson does not plan on writing a Torah — “not because I believe women shouldn’t write a Torah, but because my community is not there yet,” she said. “It’s important for me to stay within the Orthodox community. I think there are just some conventions [that will take] time to change.
“I hear myself, and I hate it — ‘sit back, wait for change,’” she said. But, she added, “Change comes in different modalities. Before we get to halachic change, we need to create social and cultural change.
“I think, also, what is on my mind is the election result [Hillary Clinton’s failed bid to become the first female US president]. I encountered a lot of sexism within [the] Orthodox community. I think that needs to change.”
However, she said, “I think I can do [scribe work] and remain within the community, writing megillot and talk about what the experience feels like. I personally like the megillah. I enjoy the project, make it part of a daily routine. It’s still enough.”
Another Orthodox soferet, Leana Jelen, finds it harder.
“Many of my teacher’s female-identified students write mezuzot, tefillin, and sifrei Torah, and he guides them and advises them, but still holds that women are not eligible as kosher scribes for these projects,” Jelen said of her classes at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
“Out of respect for my dear teacher, I plan to avoid writing these three projects,” she said. “There is pain in the understanding that I am limited by the mitzvah that animates me most. When I realized this aloud to my teacher one evening, I cried.”
Perhaps, someday, the Orthodox community will become more accepting of a woman writing a Torah scroll.
In the meantime, Stam Scribes will continue offering its services and support, and the Community Torah Project will keep working towards completion. Jackson is scribing her second megillah. Jelen hopes to complete her first by Purim.
For years, throughout most Jewish denominations, women have been able to carry, study, and read from a Torah, “but they were never allowed to write one,” said Graff from Women’s Torah Project.
“It did not make sense. Women have been rabbis, cantors and mohels, in more liberal traditions. Now they’re part of a scribal community, 20, 30, 40 [people]. Women teaching women. Soon, it won’t matter whether you are a woman or not,” Graff predicted.