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Women writing Torah

by: Leslie Bunder - Last updated: 2006-11-03

Tefillin Barbie

Tefillin Barbie

The idea of women writing a Torah is something that may not be acceptable to some, but it’s exactly what Jen Taylor Friedman is doing. Friedman is aiming to make it as a Soferet, someone who is trained in the art of writing in Hebrew and being able to inscribe religious books and other material.

Born in Southampton in England, educated in Oxford, moved to Israel and now living in New York, Taylor Friedman has recently generated much interest in her work by offering for sale a customized Barbie doll wearing tefillin which went on sale on eBay.

In an exclusive interview with SomethingJewish, Taylor Friedman explains what she does, why she is doing it and where her first Sefer Torah is going.

In terms of writing the Sefer Torah, as a woman, many orthodox Jews will not recognize the Sefer Torah as being "kosher".

Er, well, yes, obviously. I have written an halakhic justification that would fit into the Orthodox canon, but it's more a matter of sociology, and the social construct that is Orthodoxy isn't ready for that sort of thing. It's conceivable that extreme left-wing Orthodoxy will be okay with it.

So where will your Sefer Torah be going once you finish it?

It's a commission for, a large Reform community in St Louis, Missouri. They are going to use it; it's smaller, lighter, and more legible than their current ones.

What issues do you think will be raised by a woman publically writing one?

The issues have already been raised, because the Women's Torah Project started a Torah a while ago which generated a good deal of comment. That Torah isn't making much progress, and mine is going, God willing, to finish first, but if you Google around a bit, you'll see what issues people are talking about.

As I see it, the main issue can be characterised: "OMG what if it escapes into the non-Reform world?!?!?!!!"

And I answer: While a soferet's Torah is still a novelty, there is little danger of its being used by someone who would not accept its kashrut, since its provenance will be a point of pride, and therefore public. However, in general, there are many, many invisible ways of
making a Sefer Torah pasul, and it is always wise for anyone to investigate the provenance of any Torah he is considering buying; it follows that if Sifrei Torah written by women should escape into the wide world, it's true that an Orthodox person might accidentally buy it and read from it, but one should never buy Sifrei Torah if one does not know the source, so caveat emptor, really.

There are plenty of Sifrei Torah out there written by non-Jews, by non-observant Jews, by incompetent soferim who simply do not know how to avoid making sefarim pasul, &c; the market is already very much in a state of caveat emptor. If my writing Sifrei Torah serves to publicise this, this will in fact benefit Orthodoxy, if in trying to avoid using Sifrei Torah written by women it also manages to avoid using sifrei Torah written by non-Jews and other pasul people.

There is a database which can scan portions of the text and record the unique "fingerprint" of every Torah; it is possible to trace previous owners by this means, to find out if for instance the Torah you are planning to buy has been stolen. That is to say, the mechanisms are already in place to ascertain the provenance of Sifrei Torah, they are just not being used. If these mechanisms become more widely used because of any concerns my (and my colleagues') work generates, again everybody wins; it will no longer be as easy to sell stolen Torahs, for instance.

What do you think you can achieve?

I think I can achieve a Sefer Torah. I am not doing this because I have some kind of grand feminist vision; I'm doing it because it's a job which combines scholarship and craft-skill in a way which suits me excellently. I can do it well and I enjoy doing it; two fine and adequate reasons for doing any job.

Of course I can act as a role-model, etc; I'd like to think that I'd do that wherever I was working. I worked in IT for a while; there aren't many women in IT. I have a degree in mathematics from Oxford; there aren't many women in maths. I learn Talmud, I lay tefillin, etc. I conceivably inspired women to enter those traditionally male fields; I may conceivably inspire women to enter this traditionally male field.

It's not something I think about very often. I do what I do, and I do it as well as I can, and if that inspires anyone, that's fine too.

I do enjoy connecting congregations with Torah by way of the Sefer Torah; it's always a tremendous moment when people come and connect with the Sefer for the first time. But this applies regardless of gender. Male colleagues report the same feeling.

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