My beloved student Julie has been writing a Torah in San Francisco at the Contemporary Jewish Museum for the past year, and once she’d finished writing (yay) it came time to sew it together and have a bit of an Event.

So I went out there to help with the sewing and to be part of the Event, because your student doesn’t finish her first sefer Torah every day. I mean wow, seriously.

And I learned…that sewing a Torah together is a lot more fun when there’s two of you doing it. (Here’s a description of sewing a Torah.) It’s pretty fun anyway, but it’s even better when shared.

First we took awls and punched holes down the edges.

Then we took burnishers and folded over one edge.

Then we sorted all the sheets into order.

Then we each took part of the pile

laid two sheets right sides together (this is Sewing 101)

checked that they were the CORRECT two sheets (this is Sewing 101 section 1.1.1)

cut lengths of gid

threaded needles

tied knots




knotted off the threads

cut them

smoothed the seams

and rolled the new sheet up

and continued

and the rolls grew and grew and grew!

until there was a whole Torah

just sitting there

where before there had been a pile of sheets of parchment.

Pretty magical eh?

The museum isn’t a shul. It doesn’t have Torah readings. But don’t you think it’s awfully sad to write a whole Torah and then not have it read from? Julie did, and so did the museum. So they arranged for the Torah to visit Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, and on Shabbat we read from it.

Now, the funny thing is, that you write a Torah, and everyone involved is all, whoop-de-hey! amazingcakes! spiffettydoo!, but once you’re reading from it, it’s just like any other Torah. Kind of like pouring water into a lake. The water you’re pouring may be terribly special to you, but once you pour it into the lake, it’s part of the lake, and it doesn’t matter that once it was your special water. It becomes essentially anonymous, just part of the greater body.

No-one would know, to look at it, unless you told them that it was your special Torah. It acquires a life of its own, independent of you (it’s not a mixed metaphor if you start a new paragraph, right?). It’s rather beautiful, in a funny sort of way.

Julie looking slightly surprised, rather relieved, and altogether joyful to have written a Torah.

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Tuesday night, I was teaching at my scribe school, as is my wont on Tuesday nights.

Three-quarters of the room was speaking Yiddish.

Now, I posted recently about the surreal experience of being at a party of young, egal-type Jews where three-quarters of the room was speaking Yiddish. That was strange, yes. But having three-quarters of my scribe school chatting on in Yiddish, well, my brain felt as though it was being turned inside out. I think this is what cognitive dissonance feels like.

That is – if I tell you that here’s a sofer class mostly speaking Yiddish, what do you expect? I expect a lot of black clothing, a lot of peyes, a complete lack of women, a lot of right-wing Orthodoxy and a lot of nineteenth-century Europe ambience. (Yes, my YU friends, this doesn’t describe you. I know. But you know the stereotype I’m carrying in my head, don’t you.)

So here’s a sofer class mostly speaking Yiddish, but it’s taking place in a women’s yeshiva,* there’s no right-wing Orthodoxy in sight,** it’s midtown Manhattan, it’s all women,*** there are no peyes, no Yentl, but it’s certainly a sofer class, and they’re certainly speaking a lot of Yiddish, and dear goodness cognitive dissonance on a grand scale makes it hard to teach a class, you can’t say anything for gaping wordlessly as your cognitive abilities try to catch up.

Possibly a good thing. As they say, aider me zogt arois s’vort, iz men a har; dernoch iz men a nar.****

* Not on principle, more because Drisha are nice and give us a classroom.
** Also not on principle. Orthodoxim are welcome, we just don’t have any Orthodoxim this semester.
*** Also not on principle, we just don’t have any men this semester.
**** Google, and only because I don’t know enough Yiddish to come up with a proper witty punchline.

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Been meaning to write about this since 2009…one of my colleagues in Israel asked the Masorti movement for their official position on lady scribes. Their response is here.

It’s in Hebrew, so I’m posting a summary of the main points:

* The Gemara and many major halakhic decisors say it’s a problem for women to write sifrei Torah, tefillin, and mezuzot.

* The Tur, the Rif, and the Rosh all say it’s a problem for women to write tefillin.
* But they don’t explicitly say it’s a problem for women to write Torahs.
* Neither does Masechet Sofrim.
* In fact Masechet Sofrim says if you may read Torah for the congregation, you may write.
* And our women may read.
* Therefore they may write Torahs.


* People who are exempt from laying tefillin are invalid to write tefillin.
* Women are exempt from tefillin because it’s connected to talmud Torah.
* From which most people say women are exempt.
* But there are opinions saying otherwise, and also in our day, in Israel, we have ruled that women are not exempt from talmud Torah. The world has changed.
* So they are not exempt from laying tefillin either.

* And therefore they are totally kosher to write anything. QED.

I don’t buy this entirely.

Part of the halakhic philosophy of the Masorti movement is that if there’s a minority opinion, you can go with it, even if that opinion was ultimately rejected by Judaism as it developed. It’s totes fine to resurrect an opinion if it says something you want it to say. Another philosophical point is that “times have changed” is an absolutely valid reason for discarding something you don’t like. Once you have those two points on board, the above is sound reasoning and the answer unexceptionable – but getting those points on board takes a bit of work, and I don’t find them wholly convincing as I understand them. (I could also be missing the nuances. Feel free to explain in comments, if so.)

“Times have changed” is also part of contemporary Orthodoxy’s philosophy, but you have to work harder at using it as a justification for anything. “It’s not completely unprecedented, even though the majority eventually went against it,” likewise – if you can show that someone sometime did this thing, you’re much more justified in wanting to do it yourself, but that of itself isn’t an argument because you still have to deal with your inheritance – all the people who did something different subsequently. You can’t just write them off. This is why the above is desperately inadequate from an Orthodox perspective, and echoes in some form my own discomfort with it.

So if I don’t buy the above, but nonetheless I write sta”m – how do I justify it? I hear you asking, and I’m ‘fraid I’m not going to answer right now. I’m not so into the piece-by-piece incorporation of women into Jewish ritual life just at the moment. I could spend ages and ages coming up with contorted justifications for everything, but it’s an activity I find distasteful at present, so you’ll have to figure it out yourselves from the stuff on my site. Oh, and anyway, this was just a post about the Masorti thing, not a presentation of Jen’s Philosophy of Halakah. So yes – this is what the Masorti position in Israel is. Jolly jolly.

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Mazal tovs to the Women’s Torah Project on finishing their Torah!

“The first Torah written and embellished by an international community of women,” as they say. I’ve written three Torahs at this point, so I know well how nice it feels to finish writing a Torah.

The Women’s Torah Project started about ten years ago when a Reconstructionist congregation in Seattle decided it wanted a new Torah-scroll, and moreover, one written by a Woman. With commendable energy, they set about creating a suitable Woman, underwriting training for a soferet, and then set about creating a suitable Torah.

This was about the same time as I was learning, to give you an idea.

Their project encountered stormy waters, poor things, and they hove to just about the time I started writing my first Torah. I was fortunately-placed in smooth waters with calm winds, and made steady progress with writing my own Torah as they were trying to get back on course.

This would have been of no consequence, except that there was a prize in sight; the unclaimed territory of Torah Written By Woman. As with much unclaimed territory, it had (almost certainly) been occupied some centuries before by other ladies, but history didn’t write their names down, so as with indigenous occupants, they go more or less unregarded, poor dears. So I reached my goal of writing a Torah, and incidentally set foot on the land of Torah Written By Woman – and the Women’s Torah Project, having announced its intention of capturing this territory in a blaze of publicity some years earlier, was becalmed – I’d taken the wind out of their sails, as it were, by completing a Torah first.


So I felt kind of sorry for them, and I was glad for them when they found a new goal. They redefined themselves as a project envisioned by Shoshana Gugenheim some years before, a project in which a team of women collectively write the Torah, as a sort of symbolically feminine endeavour.

This is Not My Sort Of Thing at all, so I didn’t participate, although they most graciously invited me. Anyway, I had another Torah commission by that time. And then another. But I sent them a couple of my students who I thought would benefit from being part of the project, and over the years I’ve given them quite a lot of general advice and mentoring born of experience; it’s nice to be able to do that.

Raised glasses in particular to the project’s organisers, who thought they were undertaking a two-year project, and gamely kept fundraising and organising for the best part of a decade. Takes a particular kind of dogged fortitude, that.

Other news in the world of Women’s Torahs – my superstar student Julie Seltzer, who did a bit of work for the Women’s Torah Project, but is now employed by the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco, writing a Torah for them as part of an exhibit; this Torah is also approaching completion, and I’m jolly pleased about that too.

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February 2017

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