A member of the scribes

Meet Hanna Klebansky, the first woman in Israel to write an entire Sefer Torah.

Hanna Klebansky (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Hanna Klebansky
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Rabbi Hanna Klebansky is in the process of putting together a unique product. She is the first woman in this country to be writing a Torah scroll. There are only a handful of female Torah scribes anywhere in the world – almost exclusively in the United States – so this is clearly quite a milestone endeavor.
Fortysomething mother-of-five Klebansky hails from the former Soviet Union and says it is high time there was a female-produced Torah scroll in this part of the world.
“The verse says that ‘the Torah will come out of Zion,’” but since the Torah has no gender it is not fair that women are often excluded from religious ritual, she says.
Even though she is an ordained Conservative rabbi, Klebansky says she had not considered writing a Torah scroll when she was undergoing her rabbinical training.
“This came about, like all good things, by chance. I attended the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies [in Jerusalem], where I was doing rabbinical studies, and someone told me there was an opportunity to learn calligraphy with a Torah scribe. I thought it would be good to have the ability to check a Torah and to know when a scroll should be declared unusable, because of a problem with the lettering.”
But as the 10-session course progressed Klebansky found herself drawn ever deeper into the intricacies of the craft.
“I was absolutely enchanted with it,” she recalls. “I had absolutely no previous experience of graphics, or anything like that, but I did have a lot of patience.”
Considering there are around 305,000 letters in the Torah, that latter attribute came in handy.
Naturally, you can’t just decide to have a go at writing a Torah scroll and merrily set off.
“You have to learn all the rules governing the techniques involved,” notes Klebansky.
And it is not just a matter of setting quill to parchment.
“You have to learn how to focus on a single letter,” she continues. “There is a halacha [law] that says that if you are not fully focused on the letter you are writing, it is not kosher. You have to erase it and start all over again.”
That requires the utmost honesty and integrity from the scribe.
“If you looked at a letter I wrote without the proper intent you would not be able to discern that by its shape. But I would know, and the One Above would also know,” she says.
No human being might be able to sense with the naked eye if a letter has been approached with the wrong mind-set but, Klebansky muses, these days that is something that is almost scientifically qualifiable.
“That halacha was written many years ago, but it is only now that we are in the era of quantum physics, which talks about substances that absorb energies. That is fascinating. It is as if the letter in the Torah scroll absorbs the energy of the writer’s thoughts. It is possible that the energy is then transmitted to anyone who reads from the Torah scroll. I can’t prove that, but I would like to believe that’s true.”
Klebansky also surmises that fact that the creator of her Torah scroll is a woman may also have some bear-ing on the final product.
“You know there is a difference between male energy and female energy, so maybe that will also affect how this Torah scroll comes out. I don’t know for sure.”
The self-disciplinary demands of the craft mean that Klebansky can’t devote her entire day to writing the scroll, even if she didn’t have a daytime job and a large family.
“You get into a sort of very deep meditative state when you do the writing,” she states. “Because of the state of consciousness and focus you have to attain it is very tiring, not from a technical point of view, but from a mental standpoint.”
Still, there are plenty of technical and logistical elements to be addressed.
“It takes around a year to learn how to do the lettering, although people learn it at their own pace, and some people can achieve the focus they need more quickly than other,” continues Klebansky. “Each letter has its own area and space, and no letter must encroach on another letter’s space. For instance, if there is a ‘final Chaf’ [which has a long stem that continues below its row], and I have a ‘Lamed’ (which has a high stem that protrudes above its row), I have to be careful that the two letters don’t merge.”
Besides being enamored with the writing, Klebansky relates to each letter in a singular way.
“Each one has its own personality,” she declares, “and there are letters with a crown and letters with a serif.”
Klebansky has an entertaining tale to relate on this.
“There is a legend about how Moses went up Mount Sinai and found God playing around with Hebrew letters with crowns and serifs, and when he asked God what he was doing, God replied that sometime in the future there will be someone called Rabbi Akiva who will interpret the Torah according to the crowns and serifs.”
IN ADDITION to technique, and intent, Klebansky notes that various customs come into play too.
“There is the Ashkenazi style, and several permutations on that style, and Sephardi styles. We are not talking about significant discrepancies here, but there are things like where you start the letter from, but anyway, every Torah scroll has to undergo two checks before it can be authorized for use.”
One of the checkers of Klebansky’s work is a rabbi from Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neighborhood who taught her the craft.
“I won’t mention his name because he is haredi and, you know, that could be a problem for him, with regard to how the rest of the community might react,” says Klebansky. “The Torah scribes are all haredim or, at least, national religious, and they don’t accept women. He is a wonderful man, and a wonderful teacher, and he has taught all the women Torah scribes in the world.”
Klebansky says her teacher was fully aware of the risks he was running when he took her on as a student.
“I once asked if he wasn’t scared that, one day, someone would knock on his door and take him to task, and he said he believes that day will eventually come, but that he believes that what he is doing is right.”
Even so, that same teacher, says Klebansky, would not use her scroll.
“For him, a Torah scroll written by a woman is not kosher, but he has no problem with me writing it.
He said he would not read from my scroll, but that he respects others’ wishes to recognize my scroll as kosher. I think that is so refreshing and heartwarming.”
Klebansky got her first experience in the field in the States.
“Around three years ago I participated in the writing of a Torah scroll, in a Reconstructionist community in Seattle. I wrote part of the scroll and I enjoyed it so much.
It was such a pleasure to get into the state of concentration and awareness you need to do the writing, and to be aware that the letters I write will serve other people in moments of holiness. That is fantastic.”
Klebansky also likes the idea of leaving a meaningful legacy behind her.
“I know I won’t be around when the scroll is read many years from now, but there will be something of me there. Maybe it comes from my wish for some deep, existential experience. It is such a pleasure to write with the awareness that you are going to provide other people with special moments in their life.”
She fully admits to being hooked on her Torah scroll-writing activity.
“I try to write every day during the week, either early in the morning, or late at night when everyone has gone to bed. I shut myself up in my corner and get down to the work. It is such a meditative activity, and you really cleanse your mind when you write. I love it.”
When she’s not busy getting on with her Torah scroll writing, she earns a living training volunteers to work with Russianspeaking senior citizens.
Klebansky is also at the forefront of the struggle to achieve greater pluralism in Judaism, and that includes making it possible for women to take on roles traditionally filled by men only. Last year she established the Women’s Torah in Israel project which, she says, is designed to “support the struggle for women’s involvement in the public sphere, and I decided that the most important contribution I could offer is to write the first Torah written by a woman in Israel.”
Writing a Torah scroll is an expensive pastime, and Klebansky is looking for financial support for her work.
She expects the work to take a few more months after which, presumably, she will have to come up with something else to fill the spiritual and meditational void.
“I’ll find something,” she says with a smile.