August 22, 2003
First woman to write a Torah
Seattle shul commissions Vancouver's Aviel Barclay to be their
JORDANA ROTHSTEIN SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH BULLETIN
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
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.