This is the story of my experiences on the path to sofrut - the art of the Jewish ritual scribe - which I wrote a couple of years ago. First published in the Jewish Western Bulletin.
My first memory of seeing a Sefer Torah and Hebrew writing was as a child of three years old. I can only try to express now as an adult the feelings and thoughts I had then. I was amazed. I was fascinated by the scroll and was so drawn to it that I just wanted to be near a Sefer Torah, all the time. The lettering, too, overwhelmed me. I saw these letters, these shapes that I could not read, that made no sense to me, yet I was so excited about. They just seemed so sacred and their forms looked like fire to me – this thought I had long before I ever learned as an adult that the writing in the Sefer Torah has been likened in our mystical tradition to black fire on white fire.
By the time I was ten years old, I wanted to learn how to shape the letters of the Hebrew alefbet. As I had nobody to teach me, I went to the New Book of Knowledge Encyclopaedia in the bookshelves of my mother’s home office, took the “H” volume down and sat cross-legged on the rug. I spent hours pouring over the pages dedicated to Hebrew, teaching myself how to draw the letters and some basic words. Even then I felt that this learning was in fact a way of approaching something that was so much greater than myself.
After a couple of years, I abandoned interacting with the Hebrew language and Alefbet until into my early twenties. It was then, during rehabilitation from an accident where a car crushed my writing hand, that I became conscious of what I had been pulled towards on a soul-level my whole life: I desired the great privilege of writing a Sefer Torah. I didn’t know whether a woman had ever achieved such a goal, nor even whether mainstream Judaism permitted it, so I spoke to my rabbi.
He answered me quite thoughtfully when we had this conversation, this gentle, knowledgeable rabbi with egalitarian leanings. His response was to encourage me to pursue other ways to express my Judaism in a more artistic context. To produce decorative pieces, such as blessings for the home, ketubot (Jewish wedding contracts), or even Bar and Bat Mitzvah certificates for the synagogue. He praised my artistic talent quite enthusiastically, but thought I would be doing more good to perform “chidur mitzvah” – “beautifying a mitzvah” – by decorating ritual objects. Each time I approached my rabbi with questions about the Halakhot (Jewish Law) of women writing ST”M (Sifrei Torah, Tefilin and Mezuzot), he redirected my attention to the good work I could do elsewhere in Jewish ritual artwork rather than address my direct questions.
The next step I took was to begin calling sofrei ST”M to ask them. I understood that many rabbis don’t have a working knowledge of sofrut outside of spotting when a Sefer Torah is passul (not kosher and consequently unfit for use), so hoped that I would have my questions answered by an expert in the field. I had a number of disappointing experiences. I sent e-mails all over the world after doing a copious amount of research on the Internet, then still in its infancy. All but one of my e-mails went unanswered. This was from a rabbi in Yerushalayim who was also a sofer ST”M. According to him, he would be willing to teach me all the laws of writing ketubot and Megilat (Book of) Esther, but was only willing to teach me about writing Sifrei Torah for the purposes of chinukh - “in theory”. This was a beginning. I was also grateful to the rabbi, Hillel Goelman, who had put me in touch with him. This sofer was concerned about the very strong tradition of women not being allowed to write based on conversations in the Talmud, but not on actual halakhic rulings. He also expressed his fear that, should I ever go to the expense of writing one, that nobody would buy a Sefer Torah written by a woman. He was quite enthusiastic about teaching me how to write “what was appropriate for a woman”. I understood.
I then began phoning sofrim all over the world. I called them in Vancouver, Seattle, Toronto, Los Angeles, New York, Montréal, London…everywhere I could sniff out a sofer ST”M. The reactions to my request were varied. After I explained that I was an observant Jewish woman who had been in love with the Sefer Torah, the holiest object in our very object-less tradition, some sofrim asked me if I was married (I was not yet), saying that I would better serve The Tribe by having children instead. I replied that I wanted to do both – write Sifrei Torah And raise a family. Or they would pretend suddenly to not understand English, or just flat-out refuse. Why? Because, I was told, this is not a job for women.
I was at a loss. My community was quite supportive – the more learned, like Dr Louis Sutker and Lorri Feldman, provided me with pages of Halakhah either photocopied from Jewish books of law or downloaded from the Internet, all in an effort to help me learn. I studied in chevruta passages relevant to sofrut in Mishnah Brurah, Talmud Bavli, Shulchan Aruch…I did at one point hear of a sofer in New York who was willing to teach women in theory, but I did not pursue this lead. Frankly, I was concerned that I would miss something and I did not wish to live there while learning sofrut. All I wanted was to learn the rule and ritual required to produce a kosher Sefer Torah with love, respect, and conscious intention. I didn’t want to change any of the rules; I wanted to follow all the same rules as the men did.
In the meantime I began making Judaica, including various blessings, prayers and ketubot. I showcased my work on my own personal website and began a small Jewish art business.
After eighteen months of reaching out for a teacher, I gave up. Not permanently, but I sensed that I had used all my resources to find a guide and that my efforts lead me to a dead end. Either this was not meant to be, or it was not meant to be right now. I was also unwilling to simply keep teaching myself and plough ahead without mentoring. I knew to truly become a soferet ST”M was to earn a semicha (authority), not unlike an ordination of a rabbi or designation of a doctoral degree. Without certification from a sofer, I could never be a soferet. Then, just as I had let go of any hope that a sofer ST”M would open a door for me, G@d opened a window!
I was checking my e-mail one day when I received a message from an address I did not recognize. Thinking it was probably spam, I deleted it. After attending to other business related e-mails, I was about to empty my delete file when my curiosity got the better of me. I went back to this odd e-mail and opened it. It was from a man in Yerushalayim. His e-mail read, “Shalom – I had a look at your website and I really like your sense of design, but I think your calligraphy could use a little work. Do you need a teacher?” Before answering him I checked out his website. I was very impressed with his artwork, but more than that, I read that he was a sofer ST”M! When I responded to his e-mail I asked him if he would be willing to teach me, a Jewish woman, how to write a Sefer Torah. After some negotiation, he agreed to let me bring Halakhic opinions to him to prove my case. He said that if they checked out with his rav, & if I came to Israel so that he & his wife & family could get to know me better, then he might consider it.
We started by his sending me a Hebrew calligraphy course by post so that I could improve my letterforms, spacing and better ground myself in the Alefbet. With each lesson my skill expanded and my excitement grew. Eventually, I was ready to learn from him in person.
I arranged to spend a year in Israel to study in yeshivah (seminary) and learn from my sofer. In the beginning I lived on kibbutz and broadened my knowledge of Hebrew in the ulpan. In my spare time I did all the homework my sofer was still mailing me, completing assignments week by week. When the kibbutzniks asked what I was up to, I told them my story and of my goal of becoming a soferet ST”M. They listened and found it interesting, but also clearly thought I was weird for wanting so badly to learn such complex skills and laws when I would have such enormous opposition. They said I should just make a Sefer Torah however I wanted to and wished me luck.
Once at yeshivah in Har Nof, my notoriety spread. I had mixed reactions from my fellow students and it wasn’t long before the faculty caught wind of my extracurricular pastime. The rabbi in charge of admissions called me into his office. He questioned me about how I spent my time when not in class. Since I had resolved early on to no lie about the path I was pursuing, I was completely honest with this rabbi. I was learning the laws of writing Megilot from an Orthodox sofer ST”M. He demanded to know the name of my sofer, which I refused to give him, as I didn’t want any trouble made for him and his family. He asked where my sofer lived, what his car looked like. I refused to tell him. The rabbi told me to “deal with your feminist issues because you don’t want to make waves”, all the while repeatedly raising his hands and pressing them down as though trying to drown someone -- me. He said that if I didn’t stop my sofrut lessons, that I would have to leave the yeshivah.
About a week later, one of the rebbetzins approached me during lunch. She sat across from me and asked, “Are you the one who thinks she can be a sofer?” I replied that I was learning sofrut from a sofer ST”M. She insisted that it was against Halakhah for a woman to write anything ritually at all, that it was not within the scope of our roles as Jewish women. I asked her where it was written that women were forbidden, that I was of course concerned with living a life guided by halakhah and that I was interested in learning about the arguments against what I was doing. She didn’t answer me. Instead the rebbetzin asked who my sofer was and commented that he couldn’t be Orthodox if he was teaching me. Again I refused to reveal my sofer’s identity and told her that he was, in fact, Orthodox. She then demanded what his Halakhic grounds were for teaching me, so I confessed I did not know. She told me a feminist like me would never find a husband, especially when I was willing to be so immodest as to learn from a man in private. In defense of our learning arrangement I let her know that my sofer’s wife knows that he is teaching me and approves. That when she is out of town we do not meet and when she is in town that he leaves the door open to the studio (a standard practice among very observant adult Jews of the opposite sex to allow anyone who may pass by to see into the room) and that his studio has windows. We were certainly never “in private”. I respectfully asked her to leave me alone.
About a week later this same rebbetzin approached me again and asked, “If a Rav (a deeply respected rabbi of great Torah knowledge who makes authoritative Halakhic decisions for other Jews) told you whether or not you could write ST”M, would you follow his ruling?” This was a double-edged question. Being committed to living within the bounds of Halakhah meant that if I asked a sh’ayla (Halakhic question whose answer is binding) of a Rav, that I would have no choice but to follow his instruction for the rest of my life, whether his answer was to permit me or forbid me from sofrut. This question carried immense potential with it.
“Yes,” I replied to her, “but which Rav?” That piece of information was vital to me.
“Oh, we’ll find one for you and let you know.” It was obvious they were trying to stop me by sending me to a Rav who wouldn’t approve.
I didn’t trust them. I gathered several friends together to brainstorm which rabbeyim in Yerushalayim who were at all sympathetic to women’s issues and progressive enough to have a serious discussion with me. We all knew what was at risk.
In the end, this rebbetzin and the submissions rabbi offered me one Rav to meet with, whom I knew would tell me “no” without even hearing me out. I refused to set up an appointment with him and instead offered a few names of more balanced rabbeyim. They turned me down.
The following week a campaign began amongst the rebbetzins to set me up on shidduchim (blind dates). They reminded me that I wasn’t getting any younger. “Don’t you want to get married? To have children?” They prodded, “What good is a hen for, anyway? A hen is only good for boiling.”
About this same time, the submissions rabbi marched me into his office again and asked if I’d given up on my “crazy ideas”. I said no. He then challenged my Jewishness. He said that I obviously couldn’t really Jewish if I was going to do something so destructive to the Jewish People as to learn sofrut. He demanded that I prove to him that I was halakhically Jewish, otherwise I would have to leave the yeshivah. He outlined the different types of paperwork that I would have to submit for him to check, like my parent’s ketubah (Jewish marriage contract), a naming certificate, bat mitzvah certificate or any conversion paperwork, whichever was applicable. I was eventually able to furnish him with copies of the relevant paperwork so he could make calls regarding the rabbis who signed all the different papers.
A week after this incident, the same rabbi again called me to his office. He asked if I had stopped my foolish feminist activities. I said no. He told me that I was breaking Halakhah by learning ST”M. “Even for the purpose of chinukh?” I enquired. “Yes”, he was quite definite. I asked him about Rashi’s daughters and Michal, King David’s wife, who are said to have laid Tefilin. The Maid of Ludomir, too. He didn’t answer me except to say that women don’t need Tefilin because we have fallopian tubes, which serve the same function as Tefilin. We went a few rounds in this fashion until I finally presented him with a challenge. I said that if he could prove to me 100% with no safeyq, no doubt, that women were never permitted to write a Sefer Torah, that I would accept the Halakhah. He agreed. He offered to get back to me with times we could meet and learn together.
I waited. Weeks went by. He was never available to meet with me, until eventually he called me into his office once again. This rabbi told me straight that if I did not give up on my learning that I would be expelled from the yeshivah. “You can’t stay here forever”, he said. Each time I reminded him of our deal to learn together so he could prove me that I was in the wrong, he simply insisted that I was doing an aveyrah (sin) by continuing. He demanded one last time that I reveal the name, telephone number and address of my sofer, otherwise I had to leave. I packed up and left the yeshivah. I had lived there four months.
In the meantime, I often met with friends for coffee or dinner in the time I had left over after yeshivah and sofrut. Some of these friends who went to men’s yeshivot, sympathized with my predicament. They had respect for the way I wanted to serve the Jewish community and felt that I shouldn’t be harassed over it. In turn each of them offered to ask their rabbis about the Halakhah on women writing sofrut. They each returned with answers: “Rabbi so-and-so said that women can’t write anything ST”M because that isn’t a part of a woman’s role in Judaism.” “My rabbi said that since you would be doing a man’s job by writing a Sefer Torah and you have a female neshamah (soul) that you’d be damaging your neshamah.” “Such-and-such a rabbi told me that women aren’t allowed to write ST”M because they would make mistakes.”
I was at the next yeshivah in Qiriyat Moshe, slightly less black-hat Orthodox than the last, when whispers went around that there was actually a woman who was learning sofrut and boy are we lucky we didn’t have such apikorsut (heresy) in our yeshivah. I asked about this woman. The rumour was that she had just been kicked out of the women’s seminary in the next neighbourhood. That’s when I realized the woman they were gossiping about was I.
I meditated very much in my next yeshivah, a Breslover yishuv in the gush, far away from Yerushalayim and surrounded by five Hamas villages. It was one wacky place! Although this sect of Hasidic Judaism was equally as strict as my previous yeshivot in regards to men’s and women’s role being defined (by men) in a very traditional way, I somehow felt comfortable volunteering my story to the rebbetzin who ran the women’s yeshivah. Nobody was judgmental, nobody came out gangbusters condemning my actions or ideas or called me names, but they definitely thought I was odd. After some time there she even suggested that perhaps a woman writing a Sefer Torah would turn out to be a part of the events that must happen to bring Mashiach (the Messiah). I dwelled on this over Shavu’ot, the season of our receiving the Torah. I then returned to Yerushalayim.
I hadn’t learned with my sofer for some time, so we spent more time learning together and I even spent a few Shabbatot at his shul and in his home, becoming friendly with his wife and children. During this time I began attending my fourth yeshivah, in Bayit Ve’gan. I didn’t pull any punches with the faculty. My confidence and self-possession had grown over the past months since leaving yeshivah number two, so I told the rosh yeshivah (head of the seminary) first off about my learning sofrut. Even though Nishmat was an Orthodox women’s yeshivah, Rabbi Blobstein was unfazed by my statement and I was welcomed to move into the dorm.
I had been at Nishmat a couple of weeks when I was mugged downtown. Suddenly I had to turn my attention to replacing my passport, phone, bank and credit cards, etc. Although I was eventually able to obtain a temporary passport, neither the credit card companies nor my bank were willing to send me replacement cards overseas. This stopped my cash flow dead. I had no way of paying the yeshivah, my sofer, or covering any of my living expenses. My mother even tried to wire me money, but they required photo ID for me to pick up the cheque and I wouldn’t be able to pay for a temporary passport without this cash. I couldn’t borrow enough without the ability to repay it, so I could find no recourse but to schedule my flight home.
So I left Israel, determined to stay in touch with my sofer and to continue learning. I was now capable of writing a kosher Megilah, but I wasn’t finished with my sofrut journey.
In the past four years since returning to Canada, I have dedicated myself to exploring the texts pertinent to women and sofrut with a number of rabbeyim. In addition, I have conversed with a wide variety of Jews of every level of scholarship on this subject, encountering both horror and enthusiasm. I have been happy to discover in the writings of the Rishonim as well as our Acharonim that there is in fact room for women to practice some sofrut. These statements and arguments, made pre-feminism, exist alongside those that are against women having anything to do with the process or practice of sofrut & can be found everywhere from the TaNaKH to the Arukh HaShulchan.
I have also found employment in checking Mezuzot and repairing Megilot, B"H.
As we’ve seen over the past one hundred and fifty years in particular, women have been making room for themselves in the world, both inside and outside Judaism. As we continue to define our own roles and share what gifts we have to bring to our communities, I feel confident that, at the right time, G@d willing, the world will open up to women acting as ritual scribes. May these women be seen as pious rather than heretical. May this be granted in a good time and help expand world Jewish consciousness and hasten the arrival of Mashiach. Amen.
Rosh Chodesh Adar Bet