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August 22, 2003

First woman to write a Torah

Seattle shul commissions Vancouver's Aviel Barclay to be their soferet.

For the first time that anyone knows, a synagogue has commissioned a woman to write a sefer Torah (Bible scroll). The synagogue is Kadima in Seattle, Wash., and the woman is Vancouver resident Aviel Barclay. To the best of her knowledge, Barclay will be the first woman to be certified in this ancient Jewish vocation.
At this moment, Barclay has yet to start the actual writing of the sefer Torah. In fact, she is in Israel now, completing her process of becoming a certified soferet (female scribe). She began her training five years ago but her interest in sofrut started long before that.

Since she was three years old and saw her first sefer Torah in Fiddler on the Roof, Barclay, now in her early 30s, had always been drawn to the scroll, wanting to be near it. As an adult, the affinity she had for the Torah inspired her to become a soferet. At 22, she began teaching herself the calligraphic process and when she was in her late 20s, she embarked on a mission to find a sofer (male scribe) who would be willing to train her.

She spent 18 months searching, facing countless rejections; people were unwilling to train a woman as a soferet. Barclay, however, did not give up. She continued with her work as an artist, designing and writing ketubot (marriage contracts), and maintained a Web site, posted with pictures of some of her Judaic artwork. It was this determination to continue her work that facilitated her training process. Her mentor, a sofer in Jerusalem who was aware of her search and who had viewed her work on the Web site, contacted her via e-mail and said, "I really like your sense of design, but your calligraphy could use a little work." Thus began the relationship between teacher and student. It has not always been an easy one.

At 29, after studying via correspondence, Barclay made the trip to Israel to continue her sofrut lessons with her mentor in person, while simultaneously attending an Orthodox women's yeshivah (learning institution). Soon, word came back to the heads of the school that Barclay was undergoing training to become a soferet. They were less than pleased, and tried to channel her interests in other directions, since they believed that it is forbidden for a woman to write a sefer Torah. She asked them to show her why it was forbidden; they put her off, suggesting instead that she go find a husband, rather than continuing her training. They went so far as to threaten Barclay, saying, "If you don't deal with your feminist issues, you have to leave the yeshivah." They also demanded to know the name of her mentor, so that he could be threatened as well, but she would not reveal it. It is for his safety that her mentor still remains nameless.

Barclay was eventually asked to leave the yeshivah, and three others in fairly quick succession. She returned to Canada before completing her training and has been waiting several years until she could gather sufficient funds to return to Israel. Now, since Kadima Synagogue has given her this commission, she will finally be able to complete the process.

Woman's Torah Project

Kadima is a progressive, egalitarian community. It makes no differentiation between race, sexual preference or gender. They place a special emphasis on tikkun olam (fixing the world). When the community needed a sefer Torah, several members in the community became interested in the idea of having a woman write one for them. When Rabbi Fern Feldman took her position at the synagogue at the end of last summer, she was approached by several congregants about the idea, and became very excited about it. The Woman's Torah Project was born.

The prospect of using a sefer Torah produced by a woman is one that is in keeping with the synagogue's general philosophy in terms of feminism and egalitarianism.

"Once we realized the magnitude of the issue, that this is really something that has never happened," Feldman said, it became very important to pursue the project, even though acquiring a torah from a male scribe would have been simpler and faster. The project's importance stems from the fact that sofrut "is the last major place in the Jewish world that women haven't gained equality in any movement of Judaism," explained Feldman. Feldman hopes that her synagogue's choice of using a soferet will begin to break down this barrier.

Additionally, Feldman feels that using a Torah that is produced by a woman will open up new avenues for female congregants to relate to the Torah "because the Torah then, in a way, is a product of a woman's body, a woman physically having made it, that gives [women] a physical connection to the Torah that we've never had before," said Feldman, adding that allowing a woman to produce a Torah will create a new role for women to play in Judaism. People will now see "that it's possible to be a woman scribe, it's possible to have that level of intimacy with the Torah." Women will now be able to forge an even stronger bond with their biblical heritage, she said.

Verifying the halachah

Feldman did not jump into the Woman's Torah Project without first checking its acceptability in halachah (Jewish law). Orthodox and Conservative rabbis have been consulted and, for the most part, have been very enthusiastic about the project. Feldman said that when Harry Zeitlan, an Orthodox rabbi in Seattle, was asked whether it was permissible for a female scribe to produce a sefer Torah, he responded in writing that, "the question is not so much 'Is it halachic?' but 'Why hasn't it happened yet?' "

Others, such as Rabbi Ross Singer of Shaarey Tefilah Synagogue in Vancouver, see the project in a "more ambiguous light." He explained that the majority opinion in the Shulchan Aruch (the book of codified halachah accepted by the Orthodox community) is that a woman is not permitted to write a sefer Torah. The Drisha, an Amoraitic commentator, does, however, consider women to be halachically acceptable sofrot. Regarding the uncertainty of the situation, Singer said, "I have serious reservations about the use of a sefer Torah written by a woman for ritual use, however I support the learning of sofrut by anyone who is sincere, and support Aviel's endeavor to write a sefer Torah." While aware of these concerns, Feldman is choosing to rely on the positive halachic feedback she has received from other rabbis, as well as what she describes as significant evidence of the halachic permissibility of the project that she has found through research conducted with primary documents.

To Feldman, the project seems as though it was meant to happen. After being approached by her congregants, she said, "By coincidence or fate or whatever we think it might be, providence, I happened to know Aviel, who as far as we know is the first woman close to being certified as a soferet stam [a scribe qualified to produce Torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzot]." She was asked to write a sefer Torah for Kadima and will now do so, said Feldman.

Investing in holy work

The process is not a simple one. The parchment for the sefer Torah must be sewn with animal sinew; and lines must be scored onto the skin, as pencil marks may not be made on the parchment and then erased. Further complicating matters is the fact that base metal may not be used on any tool that will touch the sefer Torah, as they are symbolic of war. As a result, a sofer or soferet must construct wooden awls, with rose thorns as attachments, to use for scoring the lines and use a quill to write the letters on the parchment. These items are by no means inexpensive. Barclay estimates that, for materials alone, she will pay $7,000 US.

With all the expense of materials (which will be covered by Kadima), with the difficulty involved in the training process of a soferet and with all the religious opposition Barclay, herself Orthodox, has received, one might wonder why she perseveres in her mission to write this sefer Torah. She herself does not wonder. She has studied sources regarding the issue intensely and has found enough opinions supporting her endeavor that she feels confident continuing her work. To those who might question her sincerity, she says, "I hope people, even if they disagree with the process going on here, will give me the benefit of the doubt, that what I'm doing is holy work and that what it's going to do is bring more good into the world and change world Jewish consciousness."

Kadima congregation hopes that the sefer Torah will be ready in time for next year's Simchat Torah, fittingly the Jewish holiday that celebrates the yearly completion and consequent resumption of the reading of the weekly Torah portion from the Chumash (the Five Books of Moses). This year, Kadima has instituted an adult bat mitzvah class. The women who complete it will be the first ones to read from Barclay's completed sefer Torah.

Jordan Rothstein is an English major at Princeton University who enjoys returning home during the summer.