Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Female Torah Scribes = Old News, But Still Good News


When I was certified to write Sifrei Torah back in 2003 after many years of work and study, the client for whom I was to write my first Torah scroll wanted to generate media attention to raise money for their project. Fair enough. This, however, introduced me to The Media Idol, to which so many fame junkies will worship and sacrifice. Very sad.

The Media wanted to bill me as the first soferet in history, the only female Torah scribe of all time. But I couldn't let them. That's a big claim to make, if you can't prove it. Especially when other people's money is involved. So I had to deflate their balloon a little. I had to say, well, I was the first soferet in history as far as I knew. That I might be the only female Torah scribe of all time. It wasn't as tasty a story, but at least it was true.

Sometimes The Media would still make these claims on my behalf, so I began correcting them on my blog, so the public knew I wasn't trying to deceive anyone. After all, a first is something to celebrate because it opens the door for others - it's a position of service. But how could I let the media run with a story which would get so many people excited, only to then have to retract it five, or ten, or forty years later? How embarrassing and irresponsible.

At the end of the day, I had to live with myself, so I kept emphasising the fact that perhaps women came before me whose names and work had been lost or hidden, and that I wasn't willing to take the credit they deserved. Besides, wouldn't it be better if there was some kind of precedent? Wouldn't it be good for all Jewish women - and not just me - if we had the firm foundation of a women's scribal tradition on which to stand?

Well, duh.
Besides, there's nothing wrong with being "the first in a very long time".
It has a ring of renewal to it.

This inspired me to do research on the topic, which eventually lead to the discovery of a few handfuls of women who had indeed written or repaired Torah scrolls through the generations. Yay us. You can read about it more at my old blog. I had great fun discussing these women with other male and female scribes too, as they began cropping up.

The text in Devarim Shebichtav refers to a woman who wrote a Sefer Torah generations ago, so she, or perhaps one of her predecessors whose name we will never know, deserves the credit for being the first woman to write a Torah scroll.

The translation of this excerpt into English by my husband, Mordechai Pinchas Sofer StaM, reads as follows:

[Regarding] a woman WHO WROTE a Sefer Torah, if there is a male or female orphan to marry, it is better that she give it to them than give it to a Synagogue, but this is [only] in the case where the Synagogue [already] has another Sefer Torah to read from. But if it has no other Sefer Torah, then study comes before action [i.e the Synagogue gets the Torah].’

Some of his further notes include:

This single paragraph:

a) accepts that women can write a Sefer Torah

b) that it can be sold to (one assumes other Jews) to provide funds for an orphan to marry, as opposed to being buried or stored away – which would be the case if it was declared pasul and

c) implies that such a Torah would be acceptable for use by a Synagogue

Everyone please remember: Yisra'el ve-Oraita ve-Qudesha Ha-Berikh Hu Chad Hu; Torah Orah, HalleluYah! - "Israel and the Torah and the Holy One are all ONE; Torah is Light, Praise G@D!". We're all on the same team, so we must never attempt to cover the accomplishments of others who came before us with our own claims veneered over theirs. If I had tried to obscure them, our Scribal Foremothers, I would've obscured my Self and a part of the Jewish People for the benefit of my own fragile ego.

Each one of us is on Planet Earth for a particular purpose: our Mitzvah Meyuchedet, the reason for our being that only we can complete. If we all shine with our own unique light, we'll light up Creation, and G@d willing open the way for Moshiach, bimheyra beyamenu. So don't forget Holy Rabbi Zushya, who worried that when he died and G@d would call on him, The Holy One would ask: "Why weren't you more like Avraham? Or Moshe?" when really what the Divine question was: "Why weren't you more like Zushya?"

Copyright © A. Barclay
Cross-posted on Facebook

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