What would you call a gathering of sofrot (female scribes)? It needs one of those oddly beautiful terms of venery, a collective noun like a charm of magpies or a murmuration of starlings. A quill of sofrot, perhaps? A klaf? A heresy?
I attended such a convocation earlier this month at the Lev Shalem Institute of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation. There are only around two dozen women Torah scribes in the world today. Twelve or so are in an informal group called Stam Scribes; (“STaM” is a traditional abbreviation for Sifrei [scrolls of] Torah, Tefillin, Mezuzot, and Megillot, the four major ritual texts scribes write), which puts together an annual sofrot conference.
The Stam women call themselves “Torah scribes for modern congregations,” which makes sense, given that ultra-Orthodox congregations would no sooner hire a woman to write a Torah than they would a red heifer. Egalitarian congregations, however, often love the idea of hiring women to do this meaningful, sacred work that connects generations of Jews. “It’s lovely for a community to have their Torah written or maintained by someone who looks like them,” one scribe told me. They write and repair Torahs, teach clergy and laypeople basic Torah maintenance skills, write other sacred texts, and educate congregations and schools about what a scribe does. They range in age from early 20s to early 60s; some were raised without religion, and some were raised Orthodox; their current identities vary from Reform to Modern Orthodox. They live all over the world.
“The first international gathering was in my kitchen in Saratoga, New York, in 2005,” recalled Rabbi Linda Motzkin, who with her husband Rabbi Jonathan Rubenstein has led Temple Sinai in Saratoga since 1986. “It was just four women. Some of us were already doing telephone hevruta, studying together over the distance. But it’s amazing to get together in person.”
Motzkin, 56, has a gorgeous leonine tangle of white and silver hair. As the conference-goers sat around a table in shul, snacking on nuts and dried fruit and drinking green tea, she hand-stitched an atara, the neckband on a tallit, using gold thread. (She is multi-platform crafty.) The other women I met on the last day of the gathering were Rachel Reichhardt, 56, from Sao Paolo, Brazil; Ariela Housman, 30, who lives in Chicago; Linda Kaye, 62, who came from New Zealand; and Jen Taylor Friedman, 35, who hails from Southampton, England, but now lives in Montreal.
As we chatted, I noticed the way each woman kept encouraging others to toot their own horns. (“Tell her about your parchment stretcher!” Housman urged Motzkin.) They gave each other business advice. (“You need to charge for consultations, and if they hire you, apply that fee to the cost of the work,” Taylor Friedman gently chided Reichhardt. Occasionally congregations ask for repairs or quotes and then back out after panicking that someone on their board won’t be happy if the shul hires a woman.) They shared ideas about tools and techniques. (“Can you send me that tefillin template?” Motzkin asked Taylor Friedman. “That’ll be fun.”) They talked about opportunities for new designs. (A soferet who’d left Woodstock the day before uses a laser cutter for wood and paper calligraphy; there was an excited discussion about creating embossed leather straps for tefillin to make them look more feminine. “A lot of women would like that,” mused Housman.) As we chatted and noshed, the Lev Shalem Institute’s senior scholar, Rabbi Jonathan Kligler, popped in and out. He was wearing a beautiful embroidered kippah and well-worn Birkenstocks, thus generously providing me with the full Woodstock sartorial rabbinical experience.
There are essentially two generations of sofrot. The older women were isolated and without community when they began; they pretty much experienced a calling. No one was doing what they wanted to do. Finding teachers was a challenge; most sofrim wouldn’t take on a female student. Reichhardt studied with a fairly forward-thinking scribe in Jerusalem, “but he’d only teach me from Megillat Esther, and he wouldn’t teach me to write the name of God,” Rachel remembers, and all the other women nodded knowingly. (The Talmud is explicit about women being forbidden to write Torahs, mezuzot, or tefillin but doesn’t explicitly say “no megillot.”) The younger generation, those under 35, were almost entirely trained by Jen Taylor Friedman. Friedman, the first known woman to write a sefer Torah all on her own (she’s now done several), is a dervish of communitarianism: She studied in both Oxford and Israel and then worked on both solo and group Torah projects, recruited new scribes, and now gives classes via Skype. She’s well-known for creating and selling Tefillin Barbie, the proceeds of which go to acquiring and restoring tefillin for women who can’t afford their own. (Many traditional men will give their hand-me-down tefillin to another man, but not to a woman.) I am excitedly anticipating the Facebook comments on this story right now.
“Jen set the tone for all of us,” noted Housman. “She could have decided to be the lone sparkly unicorn—the first woman to write a sefer Torah! The only woman! But instead, she chose to be a resource and a wonderful colleague.” Studiously looking at the desktop, Jen responded simply: “We try to build the ethos in the group that we’re kind. People can be observant Jews without being mensches; I like having mensches on my team.” (This triggered a discussion of the proper term for mensches who are women, since the word literally means “men.” Lady Mensches and Menschettes were both floated.)
Each of the Menschettes has a fascinating story of how she became a soferet. Reichhardt was a Hebrew teacher in Sao Paolo who was in love with the curves and angles of Hebrew lettering; she had an opportunity to do Jewish meditation with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of the beloved founders of the Jewish Renewal movement, and suddenly she knew what she wanted to do. “But it felt like an impossible dream,” she remembered. “I knew no one who was a scribe. In Cairo once I saw a statue of a scribe in the museum—a very small statue—and I thought, ‘It’s so small, but all we know of the culture in Egypt we know because of the scribes.’ ” Then the grandfather of one of her students made a donation to the seminario in Argentina, paying for Reichhardt’s classes, hotel, and tickets. She ultimately received a certificate—one of few women to do so—from an international organization that gives a seal of approval to scribes who’ve passed certain educational requirements.
Housman, a Lea Michele lookalike who grew up in the Boston area and went to the University of Pennsylvania, works as a digital marketing producer. Checking out her modest blue-and-white dress and knit cap, I would have guessed she was Orthodox. Nope. But she isn’t quite sure how to label herself. “I guess I’m ‘traditional egalitarian,’ but I don’t love that term,” she shrugged. “Until I was 8, I grew up in an Orthodox shul, but my mother wanted her daughters to see her read Torah. She taught me to put on tefillin before my bat mitzvah.” Housman attended a Solomon Schechter Day School; today, she said, “I try to live a halakhic lifestyle. I put on tefillin and pray three times a day and keep kosher and don’t drive on Shabbat and don’t eat hot dairy out. I go to the mikveh, and so does my husband. I cover my head—which isn’t the same as covering my hair, which I don’t do unless I’m trying to ‘pass.’ ”
Unlike the other women, who found barriers to becoming sofrot, Housman noted, “The only resistance in my story came from me.” Motzkin smiled and said, “That’s a testament to the change of the last dozen years.” Housman had been designing ketubot (there’s no halakhic prohibition against women doing marriage certificates) when she met Taylor Friedman online in 2008. “She urged me to expand my horizons,” Housman began, and Taylor Friedman interrupted, in a sonorous and hammy voice, “What a shaaaame this talent is waaaaasted on a ketubah!”
“I kept telling her, ‘It’s not my thing! It’s not for me!’ but she wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Housman said with a laugh.
Kaye’s path was more circuitous. “I grew up in Auckland, where there was one shul,” she recalled. “We were observant—I don’t know if you’d call it Orthodox. We kept kosher and observed all the festivals. Girls didn’t count in a minyan and didn’t leyn from the Torah.” So, how’d you get from point A to point B? I asked. Taylor Friedman grinned at her: “By being a hippie?” Indeed, Kaye left Jewish observance in adulthood, then got into yoga. “It felt like the same tree as Judaism, but not my branch,” she recalled. “I needed to find my way back to my nest.” From yoga she got to “the JewBu stuff,” reading The Jew in the Lotus and becoming drawn in. “By then there was a Reform shul in Auckland and the rabbi taught women to leyn,” she said. “And it was fantastic.” She saw an Elat Chayyim meditation retreat brochure and ended up becoming “the world’s oldest intern” in 2000. She, too, studied with Reb Zalman and trained as a Jewish meditation teacher.
“But I never felt sufficiently qualified,” she said. “One of my teachers said, ‘When are you going to stop training and start doing?’ ” Taylor Friedman said gently, “You start doing, and then you get better at it.” Housman added: “We’re tenacious about getting better.”
Like Reichhardt, Kaye fell in love with Hebrew letters. “I’m obsessed,” she said. “It’s beautiful that they’re simultaneously hieroglyphs and pictographs and numbers and phonemes.” She still studies with Taylor Friedman. “We have to figure out time zones,” Taylor Friedman said miserably. “It’s dreadful.” But both women love the experience of digital hevruta. “It was quite lonely in the beginning, because there weren’t many other people doing what I was doing,” Taylor Friedman said. “Now I aggressively recruit, and I spend a lot of time giving the pep talk. I tell women, ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re not perfect. Was Moshe Rabbeinu perfect? You improve as you go on.’ ”
Despite the blessings of long-distance cheerleading, it’s a joy for Kaye to spend time with her scribe friends face to face. “I don’t live in a Jewish community,” she said. “My neighbors know about my Shabbos and give me goose feathers for quills and try not to call me on the phone on Saturdays…but it’s wonderful to be here now.”
Motzkin, who lives near the foothills of the Adirondacks, also appreciates both her real-life and digital communities. She explained how she avoided the problems other women had in getting klaf, parchment, and supplies, which religious vendors wouldn’t sell to women. She didn’t want to send a male emissary to buy for her like the other women did; to her, it felt like starting a spiritual project on a note of inauthenticity. So she decided to tap the huge number of hunters who live near her to get skins so she could teach herself to make her own klaf. (My jaw was on the floor at this point.) “During deer season, bucks are plentiful, and where I live, everyone’s a hunter,” she said. “Skins are worthless; they just throw them in the woods. So, I put out the word that I wanted skins and I got so many. I’m impressed with the ethos of hunters; they don’t want anything to go to waste. I get all the hides I could want. I just throw them in the chest freezer in my garage and process them over the following year. That was after my kids were all, ‘Mom! You are not allowed to hang hides in the laundry room!’ ” She added serenely, “Hides do smell terrible.”
To learn to turn hides into parchment, Motzkin did a ton of both textual and in-person research. She consulted an engineer who does historical reenactments. As the scribe of a medieval court (his name in the game is Angus McBain), he’d done research into parchment production in the Middle Ages. She got advice from a Wyoming survivalist named Matt Richards, who wrote a book called Deerskins Into Buckskins: How To Tan With Brains, Soap or Eggs. She talked to Jesse Meyer, who runs Pergamena, an artisanal deerskin parchment company. Meyer generously let her visit his factory and take measurements of his hide-stretching frames; she built two exact copies and designed an additional portable version for teaching. Finally, another scribe, Shoshana Gugenheim, who lives in Israel, made a connection between Motzkin and a parchment-making factory near her moshav. “I learned I was more exacting than the guys who did it there,” Motzkin laughed. “I was following minhag [custom] in addition to halakhah; I was more strict. I was all, ‘What!? You’re using a regular metal tool to score the lines?!’ I cut out panels with a gold-plated scissors and use a silver-plated awl.”
But it’s OK to use a non-ritually-slaughtered deer? I ask. “The rules are that klaf has to come from the skin of kosher animals, but it doesn’t matter how it was killed,” Motzkin explained. “The meat from a deer shot by an arrow isn’t kosher to eat, but the hide can still be used to make a Torah.”
(She told a story of stopping the processing of a deerskin because she realized she hadn’t made the proper statement of sanctification at the beginning. “I just use that hide for teaching,” she said. “And now the lid of my hide-soaking bucket has the statement of sanctification on it so I won’t forget.”)
All the women I met want to do their work according to the strictures of halakhah. “We do this for ourselves,” Kaye said. “The biggest burden is personal integrity. I think that for most of the people who buy from us, the strictness our observance is not a priority, and the people who do care wouldn’t buy from us anyway. So, we live with that paradox.”
Synagogues all over the world find the Stam Scribes through their web site, as well as through Jen Taylor Friedman, their best-known member, who shares the work she’s too busy to handle. (Google “Torah repair” and her site’s the sixth link; Stam Scribes’ is the seventh.) A new Torah can cost upward of $20,000, since it’s a huge project; repairs cost less. And as mentioned, many liberal and progressive congregations actively seek women to do this work, as a way of ensuring that their scribes reflect their congregation’s values as well as countering historical biases.
Motzkin has to fit her scribe work around her job as a congregational rabbi. She’s been working on a Torah for over eight years, “and I’m still only at the beginning of Leviticus,” she sighed. “It’s the slowest Torah in human history.” (“But Leviticus is short!” chimes in Taylor Friedman, ever the cheerleader.) Her Torah is part of her pedagogy. “I have over 2,200 names of helpers,” she told me. “They’re all in a database, all in their own handwriting.” She has each volunteer fill out a slip of paper saying how they assisted. “I stretched a hide!” “I helped proofread a panel!’” Still, she thinks finishing will take her another decade.
For Motzkin, scribing is writing meditation. “I’m trying to follow the form completely, so that my sefer Torah looks like every other sefer Torah,” she said. “A Torah is unsigned; it’s not my work. My job here is to get my ego out of the way.” Doing Jewish calligraphic art, which Motzkin also enjoys, is an entirely different animal. “I can make the letters big and little and swirling and leaping and in different colors! I can keep surprising myself! That’s an expression of my own artistic spirit. With the Torah there are no decisions about how it should look. There is a certain amount of space. The rows are measured.”
Reichhardt also finds Torah repair meditative. “Repairs are as special to me as writing,” she told me. “Some of the sefarim I work on are 200 years old. I feel a connection to the first sofer and to the repairer from 100 years ago and to the generations of Jewish people leyning out of the sefer. It’s a connection to eternity.”
Torah repair is more common than scribing a new Torah. The stitching holding the panels together often breaks. The etz chayim, the wooden roller, can break. “Sweat or spit can make a sad letter or two,” noted Taylor Friedman. Sometimes there are mice. (Shudder.) Humidity. Mold. When giving a quote about the cost of repair, the scribes ask the congregational leaders to take a picture of Parashat Pinchas, a section of text that wears out faster than the rest of the Torah because it’s read the most often, on every Rosh Hodesh. The ends of the Torah are rolled the most tightly around the rollers, so they can wear out faster. “Restoring is wonderful because it helps you learn from experience,” Reichhardt added. “You see different parchments, different inks.”
None of the women express the slightest bit of anger at patriarchal views that prohibit some Jews from accepting their work. All want to do their work according to the strictures of halakhah—using the proper tools, prayers, intentions, processes—even though to some people, their gender is a deal-breaker. “I believe that women can extend their spheres of activity within a halakhic system,” Taylor Friedman said. “But from a sociological standpoint, your mileage may vary. And a mezuzah by a woman is not a good wedding gift if the couple won’t accept it.”
But slowly, things are changing. “Now there are stores that will sell klaf to us, which is lovely,” Taylor Friedman said in her crisp British accent. And their community of egalitarian scribes is growing larger all the time.
There’s still a ways to go, of course. The day after I returned from the conference, there was a story in the Israeli news that harshed my soferet-induced-mellow.
Two bat mitzvah girls, one from Brazil and one from California, traveled over 6,000 miles each to have their ceremonies at the Kotel, the Western Wall. But when they arrived, they were not allowed to read from a Torah, despite having studied and worked hard to do so. The rabbi who is in charge of the Wall has decreed that only boys may read from a Torah there, despite a 2013 legal decision that guaranteed women the equal right to wear prayer shawls and read aloud from the Torah at the holy site. In the past, the activist group Women of the Wall has smuggled Torahs into the women’s side; they’re not doing so now because of the current stratospheric threat levels.
To me, there’s a difference between not engaging in ritual practices you find personally abhorrent and not allowing anyone else to engage in that practice. No one has to buy a Torah written by a woman. But actively standing in the way of women writing—and even reading—Torah seems observant but not very menschy.
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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.