Netivat Sofrut: diary of a Soferet

Adventures of a female sofer learning to heal the world by doing Holy Work...writing a Sefer Torah

נחזיר את השכינה למקומה בצייון ובתבל כלה

"Let us restore the Divine In-Dwelling to Her Place in Zion & infuse Her spirit throughout the whole inhabited world."

So wherever we are, let us bring the Peace of G@d's Presence.

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Location: Vancouver/London, British Columbia/UK, Canada

SCRIBAL EVANGELIST As the only living certified Soferet (סופרת - female Jewish ritual scribe) & the first woman to practice sofrut (creation of sacred Hebrew texts) in over 200 years, I feel an obligation to blog about my experiences of The Work. I am also currently researching the foundation of a lost tradtion of women practicing this holy craft. For more on the services I provide, please see Soferet.com; Sofrut Nation. I am now available to engage with students, male or female, wishing to enter into the preliminary stage of learning sofrut. You are welcome to join me on this path. "Tzedeq, tzedeq tir'dof - Justice, justice you shall pursue." Devarim/Deuteronomy 16:20.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

RISE! PARTE DEUX

BS"D


Enjoy this update after you read the earlier post:
 
First of all, I believe that minhag can basically "change" Halakhah in many different instances, but it will never be  defined that way.  The rabbis will find some formalistic way to justify that it was indeed Halakhic all along.  For example, regarding this Minhag for women to not say brakhot when they are in niddah, the Magen Avraham suggests that a woman can just say amen to other people's brakhot during that time.  I am sure I do not need to explain to you the stretch of this attempt to justify a practice.  What I respect is that I believe he is doing it to justify the practice of women.  I don't think he is trying to keep women from saying brakhot.  After all, it's just a minhag, not Halakhah.  He is rather trying to smooth out this odd statement of the Rama that reflects an existing minhag . 
 
Regarding the second question of what is Halakhah, that was actually the last research project.  I looked into the idea of multiple truths in halakhah.  Obviously, different people have different ideas, but I will try tro explain a few approaches on one foot.  Rav Moshe Feinstein believed there is one truth that theoretically could be understood in Halakhah (meaning that there is actually one right answer to every question), but that that truth is not accessible to us, so our job is to try to reach the truth through honest intellectual pursuit, and to be consistent, thereby allowing the possibility that we could be working within the "right" framework.  So his explanation of "Eilu Ve-eilu divrei Elokim Hayyim," the famous statement in the Talmud that the words of Hillel and Shammai (and others) are all the words of the living G@d, is only in this limited context. 
 
I don't know if I can quote the other approaches by name, but there are those who believe that every opinion that meets intellectual scrutiny is valid, and that G@d intentionally created a system with multiple truths.  This approach is limited, however, by the idea that if an actual mistake was made, that is retroactively not a valid option.  Rabbi Clapper (I think) from Harvard Hillel (I think) wrote a really interesting article (that I didn't actually read) about this crazy case that I will tell you about.  (I may not get it all exactly right...)  We learn in one place in the Talmud that if the Sanhedrin makes a decision, none of the rabbis there may go back to his town and poskin the opposite.  They may teach another opinion, but as an invalid Halakhic option.  They may also not act against the voted Halakhah, by punishment of death.  Elsewhere in the Talmud we learn that a rabbi who knows the Sanhedrin is mistaken on a point, he must do what he knows is right (perhaps distinguished in the first case by the fact that there there are differences of interpretation, but here he feels confident that there is a true mistake).  As a result, the possibility arises that there could be a case in which if the rabbi opposes the Sanhedrin and behaves against it, he will be killed, but if he goes with them and it turns out that they are all transgressing a punishable by death law, he could be killed for that.  I may not be getting it exactly right, but that is the gist (on one foot). 
 
The point is that there are some things that are simply wrong.  How are they determined?  Good question.  But for example, perhaps someone didn't have all the information, and we realize that he was missing a critical element of the Halakhah.  In the realm of minhag, there is an idea of "minhag taut"-- a "mistaken minhag."  I can't remember if he exactly uses that phrase, but Rav Ovadiah Yosef basically says that about several customs that originated from this "baraita de Niddah" that got us started on this discussion.  It is not clear in his teshuvot that he is aware that the customs come from this sectarian source (which may be none other than a remnant of the traditions of Beit Shammai), but when he is asked by someone if they have to follow their minhag that when in Niddah a woman has to be in a separate bedroom with separate bedding and clothing for her niddah time, and her family can't benefit from any of her works during that time (ie. she can't cook them dinner, etc.) and on and on and on, he totally rejects this minhag as against Torah (and thus they can stop without an anullment of vows that is required usually to stop a minhag-- this was the question asked of him).
 
Beyond these two examples, I don't know what exactly defines Halakhah.  There is clearly an element of what the community is ready for, but then you have such different communities, and that too ends up being a really fuzzy line.  In the minhag class, the teacher kept asking whether via minhag, the practice of women reading Torah for men could become Halakhah over time.  I never fully understood how, if it could be Halakhic in the future, it isn't now, but clearly there is some sort of element of communal acceptance (it turns out that Rav Henkin raises exactly this point, saying that it may be that in 50 years these Torah readings will be "accepted" and will then be "Halakhic.") .  The question is (phrased in my own terms), if a minhag creates a practice that is then later justified formally through Halakhic language, since the language is that it was truly Halakhic, surely it was Halakhic all along, and we just never knew!  But that's just my own thought. 
 
For me there are two questions about how we approach the search for p'sak.  One is whether or not your understanding is comprehensible to the world of Halakhic authorities.   The other is whether or not you yourself are working within a consistent framework.  Are you yourself trying to get at G@d's truth?  My hevruta is very into saying that we are all just doing what we want anyway, and implying that my choice to wear pants [around women] or to not cover all my hair or whatever is really about my own personal comfort, and not at all about fearing G@d.  But when I am engrossed in the struggle of trying to undersatnd the Halakhah in order to understand how I believe I can dress or whatever, that is when I feel closest to G@d.  That is when I am most living in tension of my own reality and my commitment to behave according to what G@d wants from me.  I think taking the "frummest" approach to dress and everything else can be sort of a cop out, when done in lieu of immersing yoursenf in trying to understand Torah, and that is a loss.
 
What I can articulate best about the Halakhic approach is my own conclusion, which is that I believe the idea is to approach inquiry with rigour, intellectual honesty, and Yirat Shamayim (fear of Heaven).  When I want to, for example, permit something that most believe to be forbidden, I need to be particularly careful in my research that I am really trying to understand the sources and what they are saying and what is behind them, with a consciousness that if I am "fooling" myself through clever readings I need to answer not just to the Halakhic world, but to a G@d who allows for multiple truths , but only for those who are seeking truth. This is also why it is so important, when possible, to have a rabbi (or similarly educated individual) who has a much more solid understanding of the vast Rabbinic literature, as well as someone to keep me in check when I am dealing with questions that are too personal to answer objectively.  The flip side of that is that it has to be a rabbi who you know and trust and who know you, because p'sak Halakhah is not entirely objecitve. 
 
An example:  Until recently, I didn't know exactly how I felt about the Shira Hadash style minyan (where women read Torah for men).  I knew there was a way to Halakhically justify it, but I also think there are Halakhic ways to justify just about everything, and who is little old me to know if this is really intended.  So I went to an evening at Yedidya, where thay had Rav Henkin and Professor Rabbi Daniel Sperber speak on the topic.  Henkin is against.  Sperber wrote the most authoritative teshuvah for.  I was not so impressed with Rav Henkin's arguments, which are complicated so I won't go into them now, but I can tell you what I thought was impressive about R' Prof. Sperber.  First of all, he is not part of a world that wants these Torah readings.  He is a rabbi of a shul that would never allow for such a thing.  But he read about the issue, and he read Rav Henkin's arguments against, and moved by an intellectual discomfort of what was written, he felt compelled to write a response, because he believes the readings are both Halakhic and potentially valuable in today's world.  The way he read the sources I found so compelling, and I felt that he was showing how the tradition has really important values that have been stifled in our time for a variety of sociological reasons, and that these losses are really bad for the Jewish people today.  For example, he sites a Gemara about how in the days of the Temple, they allowed women to put their hands on the korbanot ("smicha") because, even though it was forbidden to them, it provided them with "Nachat Ruach" ("spiritual comfort).  A later example of this is regarding the minhag of women not entering a shul in niddah.  Those who forbid it actually permit it on high holidays for basically the same reason - that it would be too sad for them to not be able to be there when everyone else is.  As R' Prof. Sperber argues, when they are willing to bend the Halakhah in cases that are clearly forbidden, shouldn't they in cases where there is clear permissiveness in the Talmud? (and to add something that may not be exactly the way he said it, in a world where public ritual participation is quite important to spiritual growth for many modern women in a way it wasn't in the past, all the more so is it impotrant!). 
 
He also brings a proof from showing that in every case in the Talmud (except maybe one, he says), when the Talmud says something is Halakhically permitted but not recommended for some specific reason (as is the case with women reading Torah for men and "K'vod Hatzibbur"), it is not taken as Halakhah, but rather, as a recommended practice for now, with the understanding that there will be different realities in the future.  I believe this is part of the beauty of the nuance of Rabbinic sources.  I was so moved by his speech, not because of his permissiveness in this one issue, but rather, because I know he is extremely knowledgeble, and he has a very compelling understanding of the Halakhic system, intellectually and morally.  He sees the beauty in the system that I know is there but I feel is sometimes hidden in contemporary Halakhah (largely because of a fear of modernity and feminism).  I believe that if 300 years ago a group of women wanted to get together and read from a sefer Torah, it would not have met with the kind of hostility that women's Torah readings met however many decades ago.  It may have just been seen as pious. 
 
What is Halakhah?  Good question.  In our transient and post-Modern world, there is no clear answer to that question. In a world where everyone is out to deligitimize everyone else, we have no choice but to follow our conscience regarding what seems compelling to us - where we feel G@d is.  I personally feel that since most of the Jewish world is confused (I can't speak for the non-Jewish world) as to where is the true word of G@d, there msut be some point to that. So I try very hard to respect that any system may be right, while I go with the one that seems most "right" to me.  All that said, part of what is compelling to me about the Modern Orthodox model of, say, Rabbi Berman et al. (as opposed to, shall we call it, "popular Modern orthodox practice") is the idea of constantly pursuing truth.  I don't see as much meaning in the idea that if there is a kula (leniency) -- go for it.  That's just me personally.  When I researched the idea of multiple truths in the Talmud, I felt very strongly that there is an idea of multiple truths and respect for differing opinions, but always in the context of each rabbi/person pursuing truth.  (ie. in the passages of Eilu v'eilu that I mentioned above, it says they are all the words of the living G@d and the Halakhah is like Hillel, and if you have a tradition like Shammai, you can follow that, but you can't take just the leniencies of both or the stringencies of both (it tells you what you are if you do both, but I can't remember, and I am really trying to get to some kind of conclusion here). 
 
The holiness, for me, is in pursuing truth in the sources, while accepting the approaches that allow me to observe the Torah in both fear and love. 

7 Comments:

Anonymous Jen said...

Rav Levi Cooper at Pardes (who is very orthodox and frum indeed) says something along these lines:

There's a way to justify more or less everything in halacha; if a teshuva doesn't precede the practice of the people, one will follow it (read almost any of the later achronim). Even in cases where there is no way halachically to justify a custom, if enough people are doing it, it will become halacha (this usually applies to humras, obviously, but sometimes to kulas - ba'al keri is an obvious one). This is formalised within the system and usually utilised when the author can't find a valid halachic justification.

Further, we should note that with the globalisation of the Jewish community and the lack of widely-accepted halachic leadership, the traditional model of a rabbi paskening for a community and the community's practice being thus defined is being eroded.

Consequently, the only mechanism for halachic change is essentially for the people to vote with their feet, as it were. People should, ideally, justify their practice in language consistent with the halachic system, but practice is the definitive factor.

Ad ca'an Rav Cooper.

It follows that halacha is essentially sociology, albeit defined within somewhat more rigid parameters than most societies. And sociology changes (I'm writing from a normative-Orthodox-observant perspective, by the way), therefore halacha changes in its wake. Halacha aims to tell us how to live in God's way; one of its parameters is whether society functions. If a halachic position results in communal discord, that halacha is rejected. We see this throughout halachic history.

Which brings one round to a rather more liberal perspective; that whatever halachic system you (in Orthodoxy, = your community) choose to work under, as long as your society functions in a decent (=humane) fashion, it's probably okay.

Which I find fascinating. That if you take living within the halachic system to its logical conclusion, you become essentially Reconstructionist. Halacha comes full circle.

5:06 PM  
Blogger Soferet said...

BS"D
Umm...what you said ;+>
Thanks a lot for this comment, Jen. Well said! BTW, I haven't forgotten that I owe you an e-mail.

This came up when I was talking to another journalist yesterday (with whom I had a good experience, B"H). He said what he found interesting about my story is not that I might be the first Jewish woman to write a Sefer Torah (very heavy emphasis on the "might", & you can take that however you like), but that I am Orthodox-identified & going ahead with the Sefer because some poskim permit it, even though it is not the minhag of the women in my community to do so.

I acknowledge there is a tension there. My shul, Shaarey Tefilah, was resoundingly supportive of my writing a Megilat Esther for them, & have been quietly supportive of my writing the Sefer. The women in particular have taken great interest in having Halakhic discussions about niddah, levels of obligation, etc., & where they intersect with sofrut. This does not happen for a sofer, so these are unique conversations to be had. & certainly when I travel & teach, I touch on all these subjects. The men in my shul mostly just get their info on me from their wives or the rabbi. The only people who have been obviously not supportive have been those who don't know who I am & what I stand for or men from other shuls who periodically come to Shaarey Tefilah looking for me to ream me out & tell me I'm an apikorus. One of those men wasn't even Jewish. I get hate mail periodically as well, but it's kind of disappointing. What I mean by that is it's unimaginative & uncreative. It's all name-calling & threats & fire & brimstone instead of respectful disagreement.
*yawn*

So when there is room in traditional Halakhah for a particular practice by a particular person, say for example a woman to write a Sefer Torah, & she does so, then many will question whether it is valid for use in public kria (if they don't reject it outright). I hope to inspire true debate in search of haShem by this action lishma. I am not interested in antagonising anybody, just getting Jews to think, maybe open up a little, & not make decisions out of fear.

Maybe a female sofrut tradition will be established within our faith, if not uncovered & resurrected. I suspect the latter is more likely. Then through it being practiced, it will evolve into minhag or perhaps beyond, as we have seen countless times in Judaism before.

With G@d's help.

5:49 PM  
Anonymous Jen said...

Well, quite. We get to be role models, and if most people think we're weird, well, that's their loss. I like being a role model, personally!

By the by, since you mention halachic justification, can you summarise for me what you have by way of halachic sources? I'm plugging through the ahhronim just now, and I think I've got everyone important, but it never hurts to cross-check.

6:28 AM  
Blogger Soferet said...

BS"D
I'm happy to share my sources with you, Jen & I'm very excited to see yours as well. Since this is one of the workshops I giove when I travel & teach, I'll give you names here, publicly, but I'll get into the details with you privately via e-mail. If people want to know without hiring someone like us or Marc to teach them, then they can do all the footwark themselves :) Could you send me yours as well? There's nothing like being thorough :)
Sources I have are:

Sha’agat Aryeh = ARYEH LEIB BEN ASHER GINZBERG (Germany)

Tur (Ba’al HaTurim) = R’ Ya'akov ben Rabbeynu Asher ben Yehiel (the ROSH).

Drisha = R’ Yehoshua Falk ben Alexander Katz.

SHACH = R’ Shabbtai ben Meir ha-Cohen (Vilna/Moravia),

Be'er Heytav

& of course, I have all Marc's souces, which I'm sure you have as well.

& I believe sofrut was executed by such women as HaSoferet, Miriam ben Abouyah, Dulcie of Worms, Sarah Oppenheimer, & others...

These are sources I found on my own (with help from various Orthodox rabbis & my sofer), so I'll e-mail you the details & you can send me yours :) I'm looking forward to discussing them/learning with you.

Shabbat Shalom!

10:12 AM  
Blogger Soferet said...

BS"D
I'm happy to share my sources with you, Jen & I'm very excited to see yours as well. Since this is one of the workshops I giove when I travel & teach, I'll give you names here, publicly, but I'll get into the details with you privately via e-mail. If people want to know without hiring someone like us or Marc to teach them, then they can do all the footwark themselves :) Could you send me yours as well? There's nothing like being thorough :)
Sources I have are:

Sha’agat Aryeh = ARYEH LEIB BEN ASHER GINZBERG (Germany)

Tur (Ba’al HaTurim) = R’ Ya'akov ben Rabbeynu Asher ben Yehiel (the ROSH).

Drisha = R’ Yehoshua Falk ben Alexander Katz.

SHACH = R’ Shabbtai ben Meir ha-Cohen (Vilna/Moravia),

Be'er Heytav

& of course, I have all Marc's souces, which I'm sure you have as well.

& I believe sofrut was executed by such women as HaSoferet, Miriam ben Abouyah, Dulcie of Worms, Sarah Oppenheimer, & others...

These are sources I found on my own (with help from various Orthodox rabbis & my sofer), so I'll e-mail you the details & you can send me yours :) I'm looking forward to discussing them/learning with you.

Shabbat Shalom!

10:41 AM  
Blogger ilan said...

About the whole multiple halachic truths and what constitutes halacha and such:
Yeah, it's been an issue that's bothered me ever since my Junior year of high school or so. My thought process was as follows: "I want to do whatever it is that God wants of me, and since He's not about to tell me explicitly, I have 3 possible sources of this information, namely my father and his minhagim, my rebbeim, and the mountains of information we have in the form of published psak. But I can't figure out which to follow, because the question of who to follow is itself a halachic question. That is, in order to find an answer to the question of who to follow, I have to already have the question answered."
Did you follow that?
So I've calmed down since, and I've come to terms with the concept of there being a somewhat more limited set of normative psakot that come about through some interplay between all 3 of these sources, i.e. minhag, past poskim (and precedent) and current poskim.
However, I still struggle with these issues,and I think that they're worth struggling with, even when we don't always reach a firm conclusion. Truthfully, I think there's a sort of creative tension here. One book that I found dealt with these issues intelligently and head-on was Meta-Halakhah, by Moshe Koppel, a religious professor of Computer Science from Bar-Ilan University. Basically, he points out that it is not true that God has a "celestial Shulchan Aruch" which has written in it the answer to any halachic question, but nor is it true that anything we ("we" being any combination of rebbeim, scholars, the masses, etc. you care to choose) come up with is valid. In true Jewish (halachic?) form, he says that these models are both true, but what makes him stand out is that he then goes on to clearly and simply explain his concepts. And to top it all off, he quotes standard (i.e. not obscure) sources and uses them to back himself up with a minimum of textual gymnastics.
I recommend it as a must-read for anyone who really wants to grapple with these issues. Even if you don't agree with him, it's a wonderful starting-off point.

10:20 PM  
Blogger Soferet said...

בס"ד
Thanks for the recommendation, Ilan, I'll look out for that book & add it to my list!
As for multiple Halakhic truths, well, I remember the Midrash which states, "Just as there were 600,000 individual Jewish souls hearing G@d give the Torah with their own ears, so there are 600,000 individual versions of Torah. & they are each valid."

12:14 PM  

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