Seltzer writing a sefer Torah in San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum. (All photos by Bruce Damonte)

The codex, a bound volume of handwritten manuscript pages, was invented in the third century BCE. In 751, at the Battle of Talas, Arabs captured Chinese papermakers, developed mass-production techniques, and spread paper manufacturing to the West. By the mid-15th century, Gutenberg’s printing press was churning out Bibles. Yet for more than 2,000 years, the Jews, the so-called People of the Book, have rejected innovation when it comes to making their book. Instead, the same process of writing a Torah scroll, by human hand with a ink-dipped quill on parchment from the hide of a kosher animal, has endured for millennia. In fact, the slow, laborious process is an integral requirement for the Torah’s creation.

This week, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco takes a stab at changing that process through “As It Is Written: Project 304,805,” a public performance in which 34-year-old scribe Julie Seltzer will spend a year calligraphing a Torah scroll in one of the museum’s galleries. Referring to the number of letters in the Torah, “Project 304,805” makes Torah-creation an art event and a radical act, as the Talmud prohibits women from writing Torah scrolls. But Seltzer is part of a movement of female scribes, including Jen Taylor Friedman, credited as the first woman to complete the writing of a Torah in modern times, and the proponent of a halachic argument for why a woman would be allowed to write a Torah. When Seltzer is finished, her Torah will travel to Jewish communities around the country.

Julie Seltzer writing a sefer Torah
the scribe's tools and workspace