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Covenant of the Word

Thoughts from scribe-in-residence Julie Seltzer on what she's writing, her process, and the experience of writing a Torah on public view.

“Is this something men do as well, or are there only female scribes?”

Wow. This question, asked at one of the Q&A sessions I lead on breaks from writing, is on one level so charming. It’s not too hard to imagine that ritual calligraphy would be situated primarily in the realm of the feminine; I could see scribing lumped in the same category as baking and weaving–“women’s art.” But on another level I found the question disturbing, not having anything to do with gender at all.

You can probably see how it’s charming as well as amusing. After all, there are only about ten women in the world doing this work, and with some possible historical exceptions, it’s a very, very new thing for women. The question is usually inverted: “Are there any female scribes?”

So, what about this question would I find disturbing? It’s a stark reminder that we as human beings come to broad conclusions based on our narrow experiences. I can imagine a parallel question coming from a visitor, “Are all Torahs written for museums, or are some of them for use in synagogues?” (as a side note, this Torah will not stay at the museum; once complete, communities in need will be able to apply to have the torah for a few years at a time). Based on what we see and experience, we often infer something radically inaccurate.

Recently, I was writing the section in the Torah describing the covenantal relationship between God and Abraham. To be perfectly honest, I felt just a teeny bit left out. The covenant, or ברית Brit in Hebrew, is a pact between God and Abraham, the first Jew. The sign of the covenant for all future generations is “in the flesh” – ie, circumcision. The word Bris (the circumcision ceremony for baby boys at eight days old) is a pronunciation of this same Hebrew word for covenant, “Brit.” In full it is called Brit Milah, a Covenant of Circumcision. Now most of me is VERY grateful not to be part of this physical covenant. But, where does this leave me and all women? Are we part of the covenant or not? And if we are, what is the sign of this covenant?

Another way of translating the phrase Brit Milah is "Covenant of the Word". The word מילה milah means both “circumcision” and “word.” And as if that wasn’t enough of a hint, the circumcision is also referred to as “אות ברית Ot Brit, or “Covenental Sign.” But the word for “sign” (אות Ot) is also the word for “letter.” So now the covenant is connected very clearly to words and letters.
Maybe scribing (and reading and learning and engaging with the letters and the words of Torah) is a manner in which women are brought into the covenant with God. The feminine is generally associated symbolically with that which is more hidden. In this case, this more hidden understanding of the covenant is its connection to “words” and “letters,” compared to the more obvious and outward “circumcision” or physical covenant.

The words and the letters in the Torah have meaning that is beyond our understanding; in and of themselves and not just based on what they represent. We often cling to the simplest level of meaning, the literal. Like the person who assumed that all scribes are women because the scribe she saw is a woman, our understanding of the meaning of Torah is also based on assumptions from a very narrow human experience. Perhaps the letters and the words of the Torah, beyond all possible meaning we might attribute to them, are somehow a connection with God in and of themselves. I can only speak to my narrow experience, but in reading and saying and writing these words – despite their “meaning” -- I felt part of the covenant.

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