The first soferet

Just in time for Simhat Torah, an Oxford graduate delivers the Torah she wrote to a Reform congregation.

October 2, 2007 07:03
The first soferet

Tefillin Barbie 224.88. (photo credit: Courtesy )


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About a year ago, Jen Taylor Friedman came out of a lecture to find a message on her phone: "We're looking for someone to write us a new sefer Torah, and found you on Google. Are you interested?" Until then, Friedman's work as a scribe had been limited to a few Scrolls of Esther, mezuzot and ketubot (marriage contracts). "How could I not be interested?" she asks. Last month the New Yorker became the first woman known to have completed a Torah scroll. The voicemail came from the United Hebrew Congregation, a Reform synagogue in St. Louis, Missouri - "the first congregation west of the Mississippi" - which commissioned Friedman to write a Torah as part of its Torah Alive! project. "By hiring a female scribe, our congregation is making a statement about Judaism, and a statement to ourselves about what we are about," says Rabbi Howard Kaplansky. For the past year congregants, under the supervision of Neil Yerman, a professional scribe, have been writing the first section of the Torah. When Friedman delivers her completed scroll, the first part will be replaced with the section worked on by congregants. "We wanted the scroll to be something we are all part of," said Kaplansky. Friedman delivered the scroll on October 1, just in time for Simhat Torah. But Friedman, who grew up in England, has already made a name for herself. In 2006, she marketed a Tefillin Barbie, complete with the long denim skirt associated with observant girls, tallit and tefillin. For a few extra dollars, a mini-siddur and volume of Talmud were included. When the first Tefillin Barbie hit eBay, the doll was featured in a slew of blogs and newspapers, including Jewschool and Jewlicious, the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, Lilith magazine, the London Jewish Chronicle, the Forward and the Jewish Week. Responses ranged from "seriously disturbing - like watching a car accident... disgusting" to "Finally Barbie has done something I can be proud of!" Her latest project will most likely also raise eyebrows. Friedman, who is observant but does not identify with a specific denomination, first learned about sofrut (scribal art) through a combination of "happy circumstances" and skill. While at Oxford University, she got interested in both Jewish law and rigorous mathematics. "Another chance combination of happy circumstances introduced me to Mordechai Pinchas [a scribe] and the concept of the ritual scribe," Friedman explains on her Web site. "I realized that here is a job which combines a lot of theory with a lot of craftsmanship, and is incidentally a glorious combination of ancient and modern. This is something I could be very good at." But the journey has been long, and often grueling. Friedman has one key factor working against her - she is a woman. The Talmud places women among a list of people - including informers, slaves and star-worshipers - considered unfit to write a Torah scroll. The reasoning is the halachic principle that one who is not directed to perform a commandment cannot significantly help others perform that commandment. Since women are not obligated to put on tefillin, they are forbidden to write the passages placed inside tefillin, for example. But Friedman found her own way out of that halachic problem: five years ago, she began to put on tefillin. And so by extension, she entered the forbidden field of sofrut. Though the quest for gender equality is not what motivated her, she has been reminded of being a woman every step of the way. "Even buying the necessary materials - kulmus [quill], klaf [parchment], giddin [animal sinew], and dyo [ink] - can be tricky. If it's me buying, they won't sell it to me," said Friedman. "I have a faithful spy network, and send people to buy it for me." But Friedman is used to the challenges that are part and parcel of entering traditionally male-dominated arenas. After all, she has a degree in math, one Oxford department with very few women. Still, she is adamant that feminism is not what inspired her. "I'm working in a field that uses my talents in a meaningful way to do something inspiring for a lot of people," said Friedman. "Using the Torah to make feminist statements is a bit icky; the Torah is beyond that. Saying I want to write a Torah because no woman has done it is not what I'm about. I do it because it's lovely." Typically someone interested in becoming a scribe apprentices for an established scribe to learn the profession, which includes an incredible attention to detail and a great deal of halachic knowledge. Part of the training includes being able to determine what renders a letter invalid, such as if, in an alef, the yud part is not joined to the slanting stroke. "Little hairline cracks can be problems; if a leg is too long, a yud too big, a vav too little," says Friedman. Because the field is still largely closed to women, Friedman has had to teach herself much by reading books; she has studied with a few professional scribes, but none would consent to be called her teacher. It is hard to say officially when Friedman became a soferet. "There isn't a clear starting point." Landmarks can include completion of a scroll of the Book of Esther, the first time a respectable authority gives a nod of approval, or the first time a congregation uses your work. Friedman had achieved all this by 2004; by early 2006, sofrut had become her main source of income. But one tradition says you are only a true scribe after you complete your first Torah scroll, which Friedman did on September 9. All along, Friedman has been looking for halachic loopholes that would make her work acceptable even to the Orthodox. On her Web site she includes this note: "I personally am in favor of enabling women to extend their spheres of activity within the halachic system. However, whenever one wishes to alter the status quo, he must be aware of the objections which may be raised against him; no one can make a convincing argument against the status quo unless he is aware of all the reasons for maintaining it." Friedman goes on to give a lengthy discussion of halachic issues at hand. "Legitimacy is gained by a combination of reasoned justification and widespread acceptance of the law in practice," Friedman explains. "Reasoned justification I have; I hope widespread acceptance will follow." She is closer today than she has ever been. Her article "Women's Eligibility to Write Sifrei Torah," was recently accepted for publication at Meorot, a respected forum for modern Orthodox discourse. The article offers an Orthodox perspective on how an Orthodox congregation might approach a female scribe; Friedman demonstrates that there is a halachic perspective that makes it possible to compare a Torah scroll to a scroll of Esther, and there is no prohibition against women writing a scroll of Esther. It is this kind of scholarship that distinguishes the current generation of sofrot from those who came before. Friedman contends that there have been sofrot who worked because their fathers or husbands were scribes. But "we aim to be legitimized within the tradition," she writes. Until then, the Reform Movement is keeping Friedman busy. She has already received a second commission from Reform Congregation Shir Tikvah in Michigan, which will likely also take a year to complete.

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