The reading of the Torah is central to Jewish religious practice, and the writing of the Torah scroll is a deeply spiritual task, which has remained essentially unchanged for thousands of years. In the last 15 years, however, a momentous shift has occurred: Torah scribes have traditionally been male, but now a small number of women are painstakingly inscribing the Hebrew letters with their feather or reed pens onto sheets of parchment, still made from animal skins that are then stitched together to make the scroll. “It’s the final frontier of inclusion of women into Jewish life,” said Rabbi Jonathan Kligler, head of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation’s Lev Shalem Institute.
Some of the world’s approximately 54 women Torah scribes will be gathering at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation (WJC) for the Third International Conference of Women Torah Scribes, held from October 12 to 14. Members of general public are invited to the Friday night (10/9) and Saturday morning (10/10) Shabbat services, the opening of an exhibit of Judaica artworks by the women Torah scribes on Saturday night, a daylong workshop of Jewish scribal arts on Sunday (10/11) and Jewish scribal arts family school, open to parents and kids, on Tuesday, October 13.
At the Shabbat services, which include a reading of the Torah on October 10, “Some of the scribes will be teaching the meanings of the letters and talk about their work,” said Rabbi Kligler, who after serving as the rabbi of the congregation for many years now oversees the programming at the WJC’s Lev Shalem Institute, which is sponsoring the conference. (The conference and accompanying events reflect the Institute’s commitment to learning, teaching and spiritual growth through retreats and classes in Judaism.) One of the participating scribes is Rachel Reichardt, traveling from Sao Paulo, Brazil, who will talk about how the Hebrew letters make up the world.
The conference came about after Rabbi Kligler spoke to Linda Kaye, a friend of the WJC who is studying to become a Torah scribe, about how the congregation could support the community of women Torah scribes through networking and communicating to the world at large their work and efforts. The participating network of women scribes has a website, www.stamscribes.com, and they are led by Jen Taylor Friedman, of Montreal, a distinguished scholar and scribe who is the first woman on record to have written an entire Torah scroll, in 2007.
The group attending the conference also includes Kaye, who will be traveling to Woodstock from her home in New Zealand; Reichardt, from Brazil; Linda Coppleson, who has completed two Torah scrolls and is based in New Jersey; Rabbi Linda Motzkin of Saratoga Springs, who is founder of the Community Torah Project and has conducted workshops around the world; Rachel Jackson, from Chicago; and Alexandra Casser, based in Dallas. Rabbi Kligler said that several women scribes from Israel will be participating in the conference via Skype.
Writing a Torah scroll is a painstaking exercise in calligraphy that can take from six months to a year to complete, he said. The scroll, which comprises the first five books of the Jewish Bible, consists of the written word of God, to Jewish understanding, and hence must be undertaken with “refined intention,” said Rabbi Kligler. “The scribal tradition is a guild of practitioners passing down this body of lore and knowledge from 2,000 years ago. If you look at a scroll from the tenth century and compare it with one completed a week ago, they’re the same.”
Scribes use a specially formulated ink made of natural materials, write on parchment usually made from a cow or goatskin and sew the sheets together with gut. The Hebrew text does not have punctuation or vowel markings, since in ancient times, when people were on the move and materials like parchment were the result of extensive handmade effort, “space was at a premium.”
“Because there are no vowel markings, you can read the Hebrew words in different ways, based on the way you vocalize them,” said Rabbi Kligler. “The Torah can be interpreted in multiple ways.” At each synagogue, the handwritten Torah scroll is kept in an ark, from which it is removed and a portion read during each Sabbath; the reading of the entire five books is completed each year. The timing for the gathering of women Torah scribes at the WTC is perfect, given that the event marks the new beginning on Shabbat Breishit, when the annual cycle of the Torah readings starts afresh with the words “In the Beginning,” from Genesis. “The idea is that the letters are alive,” said Rabbi Kligler. “When God says, ‘Let there be light,’ the utterance of the word makes it be.” In addition to the reading of the Torah, there will be a teaching by the visiting women scribes and a discussion at the Friday and Saturday Shabbats.
At the opening of the art show, scheduled from 7 to 10 p.m. on Saturday night, several of the scribes will talk about their work. There will also be a crafts fair that will include objects related to the religious calligraphic tradition. The religious services and the art show opening are free and open to all. The Sunday workshop, scheduled from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., requires registration and costs $80 ($40 for members of the WJC), including a catered lunch.
The scribes will host workshops on all aspects of their craft, including a presentation by Rabbi Linda Motzkin on the making of the scroll itself; in her own practice, she procures deerskins from local hunters and scrapes and stretches the hides herself. (WTC member Irwin Rosenthal, who with his wife, Doris Goldberg, is hosting Linda Kaye, the scribe-in-training from New Zealand, ruefully noted that “Some scribes don’t want animals slaughtered for the skins, and so they use roadkill.”) There may also be demonstrations of the slow, laborious process of writing the Hebrew letters. The Jewish Scribal Arts school, for parents and kids, will be held Tuesday from 4 to 8 p.m. and will involve learning and working from the women Torah scribes.
Will every Torah scroll find a home? Most definitely, said Rabbi Kligler. Although they’re expensive, given the amount of labor, new scrolls are in demand as the old ones wear out. “It’s a high privilege to commission a Torah scroll,” he said. If you’d like to support the Conference of Women Jewish Scribes, visit www.gofundme.com/yz3p3zt8.
Jewish Scribal Arts event, Shabbat Services, Friday, October 9, 7:30-9:30 p.m., Saturday, October 10, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.; Havdalah & art opening, Saturday, October 10, 7-9 p.m.; Festival of Jewish Scribal Arts, Sunday, October 11, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., $80 general/$40 members; Jewish Scribal Arts for Kids & Parents, Tuesday, October 13, 4:30-6 p.m., grades 3-6, 6:30-8 p.m., grades 7+; Lev Shalem Institute, Woodstock Jewish Congregation, 1682 Glasco Turnpike, Woodstock.