Though the phrase “a new kind of Torah” may seem like an oxymoron, a Jewish community in the state of Washington is preparing to receive just such a thing: a Torah penned by a woman.
Kadima, a 27-year-old Jewish congregation in Seattle that had relied on borrowed scrolls, has commissioned Aviel Barclay, the world’s only known, traditionally trained female scribe (soferet, in Hebrew), to produce its first-ever Torah scroll. Barclay’s trailblazing story is fitting at Shavuot; the holiday, the celebration of the gift of Torah at Sinai, is the time the Jews recount a biblical story of brave heroines in the Book of Ruth.
Paving the way for a woman to enter an almost entirely male field has been a natural enough move for Kadima, a longtime pioneer of social issues such as gay and lesbian inclusion, but the figure of the female scribe has not been met with universal approval. As word of Kadima’s intentions has spread, both the congregation and Barclay have heard objections (sometimes vociferous) from those who hold that under Jewish law, only men are qualified to be ritual scribes.
For Barclay, 36, the project is not about implementing a progressive agenda. Tucked into the apartment that she shares with her husband in Vancouver, the Canadian city to Seattle’s north, she is simply doing work that has called to her since youth. Barclay fervently believes there is a place within traditional Judaism for her endeavor. “I’m part of an Orthodox community that tries to wrestle with Halacha,” or rabbinic law, she said. “I wanted to find permission within traditional sources.” This she has done by drawing from Jewish texts and rabbinic commentaries.
However, finding scriptural permission was easier than finding a teacher. Historically, scribal responsibilities for Torah scrolls, as well as the scrolls that are mounted on doorposts in mezuzot and bound to the forehead in tefillin, have been the province of observant Jewish men trained in a system of apprenticeship with a practicing sofer, or male scribe. Many are then accredited by a certifying organization. To date, no woman has entered this field officially, in part because gaining the necessary training entails convincing a practicing sofer that a woman is among those qualified to write scrolls for ritual use.
In Barclay’s case, a teacher found her — sort of. Already a self-taught practitioner of Hebrew calligraphy for artistic and ritual objects such as ketubot, or marriage contracts, Barclay had long wanted to expand her skills. “I was trying to find a sofer to teach me for 18 months. They told me to get married and have babies,” Barclay told the Forward. So when her eventual teacher contacted her through her Web site (now at www.soferet.com), she responded with enthusiasm.
Initially, the Jerusalem-based teacher who reached out to her only offered to help improve her calligraphy, not to teach her to be a scribe. He became her mentor only after Barclay persuaded him that there was room within the Orthodox tradition for a woman scribe. Ultimately, she received training in the calligraphy itself and in the many laws governing the production of ritual texts. Because of the controversial nature of his act, Barclay’s teacher has chosen to remain anonymous.
While Barclay, her teacher and others who support her work are satisfied that they have found justification in rabbinic texts, agreement on the legitimacy of female scribes is far from total. According to Dov Linzer, head of academics at New York’s Chovevei Torah rabbinical seminary, the Talmud clearly states that women are not allowed to write a Torah scroll for ritual use. Linzer pointed to an oft-cited passage (Tractate Gittin 45b) that specifically includes women among those who cannot produce a kosher Torah scroll. Others on the list include children, slaves and irreligious Jews. The Talmud and subsequent commentators on the subject argue that the commandment to write ritual scrolls is linked directly with the specific commandment to don tefillin, which women are not required to do.
Arguing the opposing view are Fern Feldman, a Renewal rabbi in Seattle, and Harry Zeitlin, an Orthodox rabbi, also from the Seattle area. In their view, the traditional rules governing the writing of a Torah scroll fall into two schools of thought. One links the writing of a Torah to the commandment to study Torah. The other does not. By both methods, Feldman and Zeitlin say, source can be identified to support Barclay’s work.
Addressing the first point — that as a group, women’s obligation to learn Torah is not the same as men’s and, therefore, women are not among those who can write a Torah scroll — Zeitlin argued that being free from the obligation to perform a mitzvah is not the same as being prohibited from performing it. He used the commandment to don tefillin as an illustration. “Whether or not a woman can write tefillin comes from the same point of view that if women don’t wear tefillin, they’re not supposed to write them,” he said. “But you have historical examples of Rashi’s daughters wearing tefillin,” suggesting that while women are not required to perform the mitzvah, they are not barred from doing so.
Zeitlin also pointed out that in many cases, a woman’s all-consuming role as mother and wife has evolved since the time when most rabbinic law was codified. “It is a logical step that being excused from something for a cause would mean that when the cause is eliminated, then, if not obligated, at least you should be welcomed in,” he said. Furthermore, Zeitlin argued, it is generally agreed that women do have some obligation to study Torah.
Feldman cites additional sources maintaining that the commandment to write a Torah scroll is separate from the commandment to learn Torah. “When we count 613 [commandments], writing a Torah is counted as its own mitzvah,” she said. She counters the talmudic passage that includes women on the list of those unqualified for ritual scribal work by listing other commentators who do not include women on their lists.
For Barclay, these differences of interpretation aren’t troubling or particularly consequential. “We’re Jews,” she said. “We do things differently.” Her quest isn’t to win the argument but rather to dip quill in ink and write the holy Hebrew letters. Zeitlin concurs. “Eventually it comes down to the kavanah,” or intention, he said. “I don’t think she’s writing the Sefer Torah to make a statement. To be a valid Sefer Torah, one has to write it as a mitzvah lishma — doing it for the sake of performing this mitzvah.”
Unintentional though it may be, Barclay’s act is making a statement. It also may be the first wave of a new era. In New York, another traditionally trained observant woman is studying to be a Torah scribe. She intends not only to produce Torah scrolls but also to teach other women this closely guarded craft, even as the halachic debate wages on.
Alice Lowenstein is a writer living in Boston.