SAN FRANCISCO — It took seven years to write and just a few days to sew together, but on Oct. 15 the first Torah scroll written entirely by a group of women — including Linda Coppleson of West Orange — was attached to its wooden poles and declared complete.
The ceremony was held at Seattle’s Kadima Reconstructionist Community, which sponsored the project.
“We had the idea 10 years ago, but when we looked around for women scribes, we realized there weren’t any,” said Kadima member Wendy Graff, one of the volunteers who shepherded the project from its inception.
To remedy the dilemma, Kadima supported two women as they trained to be scribes. Four others trained on their own. Ultimately the six female scribes, or sofrot, worked on the scroll in four countries: two in Israel, two in the United States, and one each in Brazil and Canada.
The panels were checked by experts in Jerusalem and New York, who made the minor tikunim, or corrections, permitted by Jewish law. Major errors require a complete redo of the page.
Last week the panels were flown to Seattle, where another group of women sewed them together. The Torah mantle, including wooden poles and other traditional accoutrements were created by seven local artists.
The scribes were paid, but the others who worked on the project donated their time.
According to Orthodox tradition, women are not permitted to be Torah scribes.
Over the last decade, however, a handful of women have trained as scribes. It’s an exacting process. Torahs must be written by hand on parchment made from the skins of kosher animals, and scribes must state their intentions out loud each time they prepare to write God’s name.
In September 2007, Jen Taylor Friedman of New York completed the first Torah scroll known to have been written by a woman, for the United Hebrew Congregation of St. Louis, Mo. Friedman advised the Women’s Torah Project and was one of the experts who checked for small errors. She is among a number of women at work on other Torah scrolls, including Julie Seltzer of San Francisco, one of the six scribes on the Seattle project.
Seltzer wrote four of the Seattle Torah’s 62 panels in the summer of 2009. Since October 2009, she has been writing a Torah scroll at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco as part of the yearlong exhibition, “As It Is Written: Project 304,805.”
Although the Torah scroll was commissioned in 2003, Coppleson signed on and received her assignment — Bamidbar, or Numbers — in 2008. As a calligrapher, she has written and illustrated many documents. This, however, was her first Torah scroll.
“I said a Sheheheyanu” — a prayer for new beginnings — she told New Jersey Jewish News just a few days after she began. “It was very emotional. I was nervous. I was aware of tradition on my shoulders. It was a very spiritual moment.”
And yet she seemed wary of transforming their work into a feminist message.
“What’s important here is the fact that it’s a Torah. I don’t want a feminist statement to overtake the kedusha of the Torah,” she said at the time. “I kept away from this project at first. But the fact is that it is a Torah. And I can put the fact that I’m a woman in the back seat. The Torah is more important to me than who is doing it.”
But the fact that the Torah scroll completed by the Women’s Torah Project was written by women means it will not be accepted for use in Orthodox congregations.
On her website, Hasoferet.com, Friedman tells female scribes they need to be upfront about that when they are commissioned to work on a Torah scroll.
“Why is a soferet like a swordfish?” she writes. Swordfish, she says, is not considered kosher by most Orthodox Jews, although Conservative Jews will eat it.
“If I repair a Torah and then let Orthodox congregations use it,” she wrote, it’s “an appalling desecration of trust. If we want respect, as Jews or as human beings, we have to give respect, and part of that is accepting that other Jews’ rule systems are valid despite being different from ours.”