Torah, she wrote

More women are writing Torah scrolls, mezuzot, and ketubot, despite facing challenges from Jewish law.

Nava Levine Coren scroll (photo credit: Courtesy of Nava Levine-Coren)
Nava Levine Coren scroll
(photo credit: Courtesy of Nava Levine-Coren)
When Jen Taylor Friedman began working in her field, she had no colleagues, contemporaries or competition – basically, she had a monopoly. Today, the number of people following in her footsteps is growing, and she couldn’t be happier.
In 2007, Taylor Friedman, now 32, was believed to have become the first known soferet, or female ritual scribe, to complete a Torah scroll in modern times. Today she is working on her fourth, and estimates by various people of the number of other women working as sofrot range from nine to 50. But acceptance of the practice is still confined to a small community.
Shoshana Gugenheim, a soferet and artist who lives outside Jerusalem, says she spent a long time not telling people what she did for a living.
“I was afraid of the repercussions... I just didn’t want people to know,” she says. “I heard about another scribe in Jerusalem, who I very peripherally know, who cried when he found out that women were becoming scribes because it was so painful to him that women were doing it.”
But she also encounters the opposite reaction, of people purposely seeking out women to write their Torah scrolls to support their work. To that end, Gugenheim was the lead scribe on a Torah scroll completed in 2010 by six female scribes, called The Women’s Torah Project, for the Kadima Reconstructionist synagogue in Seattle, Washington.
When Gugenheim, the lead scribe on the Torah project, was asked to work on the scroll, “it was important to me that there would be other women scribes. As they showed up and if they were appropriate we would bring them into the project, and over the course of five years we brought five other women in, who wrote varying amounts, and that was really the fulfillment of my dream and their dream.”
And while Gugenheim appreciates those who look to only use female scribes, “obviously we want to be judged on the quality of our writing and not the fact that we’re women.” Or, as Taylor Friedman put it, “it’s not about what you’ve got in your pants, it’s about Torah.”
But it is precisely the gender of the scribes that that has drawn so much attention. In 2011, Julie Seltzer – who also worked on The Women’s Torah Project, completed a year and a half as the focal point of an exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, writing a Torah scroll from start to finish. Since then, Seltzer, who was taught mostly by Taylor Friedman, has written another Torah scroll, for the Reform Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego, which she completed in August.
In 2003, a woman named Avielah Barclay was thought to become the first certified female scribe in modern history. While she has written several megilot Esther and worked on repairing existing Torah scrolls, it is unclear if she ever completed work on a Torah scroll, and did not respond to repeated interview requests.
FOR HUNDREDS of years, the world of Jewish ritual scribes has been dominated by the Orthodox community – which still categorically rejects the idea of a soferet. In 2007, Taylor Friedman wrote an article defending the practice from a halachic perspective in Meorot, the online journal of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, an open modern Orthodox rabbinical school in New York City. The school’s dean, Rabbi Dov Linzer, countered with his own responsum, declaring a Torah scroll written by a woman to be invalid.
Linzer, who has attracted attention for his support of female spiritual leaders of synagogues and a more gender-balanced wedding ceremony, told The Jerusalem Post that the arguments Taylor Friedman put forth “were really pretty weak,” and he struggled with the decision to print it.
“Do you print the article and write the rejoinder because you don’t want to silence voices and silence discussion?” he said, “or do you feel that it is inappropriate to print because the argument is not made strongly enough and printing it gives it more weight than it deserves?”
Ultimately, Linzer said, he and the school made the decision that “it’s better to have an open discussion about this and put out the issues and make the argument.”
While the journal has engaged on controversial issues in the past, in this case, “all the sources are very clear: A woman can’t write a sefer Torah,” he said. Specifically, the Talmud quotes a rabbi that says a Torah, mezuza or tefillin “written by a heretic, an informer, a heathen, a slave, a woman, a minor, a Cuthean and an irreligious Jew are disqualified.” Maimonides – a 12th century rabbinic scholar – and the Shulhan Aruch, a 16th century halachic work, rule in accordance with that position.
In her article, Taylor Friedman – who describes herself as a post-denominational, halachic-observant egalitarian Jew – points to the other positions cited by the Talmud, which don’t reference women being deemed invalid, leaving room open for that possibility, as well as another talmudic passage, which in one of its printed versions also leaves women off the list of those unable to be a sofer.
Rabbi Simcha Roth, an Israeli Conservative rabbi from Herzliya who was the editor of the first Masorti prayer book, issued a responsum in 2009 stating that a Torah scroll written by a woman is permissible for use in a communal synagogue. Roth, who died earlier this year, wrote in his ruling that since contemporary rabbis today obligate women in the learning of Torah, they should certainly be eligible to write a scroll.
WHATEVER THEIR affiliation, most sofrot understand the narrow acceptability of their work. Hanna Klebansky, a rabbi and scribe based in Jerusalem and affiliated with the Conservative movement, says she makes it clear to anyone who purchases a mezuza from her what its halachic status is.
“It is important that they know that this is a special mezuza written by a woman,” she said, “that can only be used in houses with families that honor the idea of equality between men and women in Halacha and religion. I don’t want it to be used by people who would not accept women writing a mezuza; it would not be kosher for them.”
Klebansky, 40, a native of the former Soviet Union, says she sells 50 to 60 mezuzot a year, and is currently working on her first Torah scroll. Though she, too, participated in the Women’s Torah Project, it is important, she says, to complete a scroll on her own, and in Israel.
“It is not commissioned by any congregation, it is my personal project,” she told the Post, adding that anyone can sponsor a letter in the scroll for 50 agorot. “When I am finished, any congregation, any group of people, can use the Torah with my blessing... I’m not getting any money from it,” she said, but “it’s very important to me that in Israel there will be a Torah scroll written by women so I write a lot... there are so many events against women [in Israel] excluding them from the public domain so I think their voices are very important.”
Taylor Friedman is glad to see more women working as sofrot, and even trains many herself in New York.
“The idea that women are allowed to do stuff that is important has continued to gain momentum,” said the UK native. “It is less of a novelty now, which is lovely. It used to be that when you’d talk to people they’d want to talk about gender and now they mostly want to talk about Torah, which is absolutely the way I’d rather have it.”
This summer, she told the Post, she took on two apprentices, and cites many other colleagues from around the world working on scribal projects.
“It’s awesome. When I started out doing this in 2003, I didn’t have any female colleagues I could hang out with and talk shop with. Now there’s a whole landscape full of lady scribes. I love it,” she said, noting that she wants to form a fellowship of female scribes to swap tips and talk shop with. “I was having a joke with a friend the other day about whether we could have a minyan of sofrot.”
While Taylor Friedman has written on her website that she is “personally no longer interested in habituating non-egalitarian frameworks,” she recognizes that there are those who don’t view her work the same way she does.
“We have a responsibility as female scribes to keep our work out of Orthodox communities,” Taylor Friedman said in a 2011 discussion with Seltzer at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. “I feel that very strongly and I hope I pass that on to my students... it is like if we have a nonkosher kitchen, we wouldn’t feed kosher-keeping people from our non-kosher kitchen because human feeling says that would be a wrong thing to do.”
NAVA LEVINE-COREN aims to balance her own Orthodox views with her desire to work as a religious scribe. The 31-year-old Jerusalem resident works as a soferet and calligrapher – but only on ketubot and megilot Esther, which she sees as permissible for women to write according to Jewish law.
“I really felt a deep desire to write a sefer Torah,” she says, but after studying the sources repeatedly, “it became clear to me that I was not going to find a halachic source that would say that a sefer Torah written by a woman is kosher and I just decided to accept that.” But, she said, “I’m very excited that there are women writing sifrei Torah and I love that it is happening in our world. It’s a personal choice that I made for myself [not to write a Torah scroll] but I’m happy that there’s this movement and that women are writing and that women are connected to the Torah in this way.”
In Orthodox law, women have a halachic obligation equal to that of men to hear Megilat Esther, read on Purim, which leads many rabbis to validate a scroll written by a woman.
“Somebody that wants to rely on that position [that women may write megilot Esther] is on strong halachic grounds,” said Linzer.
Levine-Coren has written three megilot, one of which is used by her congregation in the Nahlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem every Purim.
“I know that not everyone would read from it but there’s no question in my mind that it’s fine for me to write it,” she says. Though Levine-Coren has come to terms with her role, she finds that discussing her work with others only serves to remind her of her limitations.
“Most people right away say ‘I didn’t know women could write tefillin and mezuzot,’ and they automatically assume I write those things and I tell them that I don’t,” she says. “It’s a little bit challenging because I’m always kind of confronted with my limitations... but it’s OK.”
Levine-Coren said while she has come to terms with the fact that she will never write a Torah scroll by herself, she would still like to participate in a communal project should one arise. And while Orthodoxy would not find such a scroll kosher, it does not forbid the very act of scribing by women.
“There would be no prohibition in writing it,” said Linzer, “the only concern would be about having a nonkosher sefer Torah around – you might come to accidentally use it.”
In addition to working regularly on ketubot, Levine- Coren, who studied studio art in New York, participated in the Women of the Book project, initiated by Gugenheim. The ultimate goal is to create a visual interpretation on parchment of each of the 54 Torah portions by 54 female artists, that will be combined into one scroll to become a traveling exhibit.
Levine-Coren has also began teaching sofrut to others, an experience she describes as “really fun.”
ONE OF THE largest hurdles for women scribes to overcome is access to training. In Israel, the courses and certification process are closed to women, and most traditionally trained sofrim are unwilling to teach them. Taylor Friedman says she is largely self-taught – and is herself teaching many others – but the majority of the women interviewed in this article were trained by one Jerusalem man, whose identity they fiercely protect.
The man, a rabbi and trained sofer from an ultra- Orthodox background, also asks for his name not to be used.
“I look haredi,” he said, but noted, “I have a bit of a complicated identity.” The rabbi says he has trained fewer than 10 women as sofrot, and while his immediate family knows about his work, “the people that I daven [pray] with would be shocked and upset” to learn about his activities.
The scribe said whenever he takes on a student or teaches a group, he explains from the outset what the Orthodox Halacha is on sofrut.
“I have always made clear to everyone what the Orthodox Halacha is specifically regarding women writing,” he said, “and after that point I feel like I’ve done my duty and responsibility. Where a person – man or woman – takes that from there is on their shoulders.”
The rabbi said his students are all aware of his positions on the issue.
“If one of my women students were to write a mezuza I can’t use it,” he said, “because it’s not considered halachically kosher.”
Gugenheim seconds this incongruity.
“He doesn’t accept the work that I do,” she says. “If I were to scribe another sefer Torah he wouldn’t accept that for [reading in a synagogue] because it’s not according to Halacha, but he was really very supportive of my whole process of scribing,” she said, because he knows there is no prohibition against teaching women.
According to the rabbi, when he first encountered a female student who was serious about training as a soferet, he asked some of his contemporaries what he should do.
“At that point it wasn’t clear to me if really from a halachic perspective I should participate in training her to a higher degree... but the people that I asked didn’t discourage me from doing it. One of the justifications I feel for teaching women to write is that there are many halachic authorities who allow a Megilat Esther written by a woman as an absolutely kosher megila... if a woman can write a megila she has to learn how to write first.
“I don’t have to be so representative of the halachic decision that I am the one who decides to allow or disallow someone to gain the skill.”
The rabbi, who continues to work as a scribe in Jerusalem and teach both men and women the ancient calligraphic art, is still supportive of his students’ work.
“If a woman came to me and said, ‘I’ve been offered to write a sefer Torah,’ I would say personally great, it’s a tremendous validation, a wonderful opportunity,” he said. “But according to the Halacha unfortunately this is a place where there is a tremendous dissonance between contemporary culture and traditional Jewish culture.
Contemporary culture is very anxious to embrace women being involved in every aspect of societal life, communal life and religious life, and the Jewish tradition has a different orientation.”