Not Kosher

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

Question: Have you encountered any obstacles in this work because you’re a woman?

Answer: No. The inverse seems to be true. While it is the case that my work will not be accepted by all sectors of the Jewish community, in some cases it is specifically sought after, simply because I am a woman. Feminists of the previous generation paved the way, and I just stepped into that opening.

And while this is definitely true, I am now becoming more and more aware of subtle sexism – the kind that impacts everyone, not just women who are working in traditionally male fields. And it has nothing to do with halacha (Jewish law). According to traditional halacha, the Torah that I write will not be valid for ritual use. Sometimes people harp on this at the sessions, looking down at those who won’t accept it. But the fact that this Torah will not be kosher according to halacha is a matter of halacha. I get it. And it’s much less bothersome to me than the sexism that impacts my day-to-day experience. What I’m talking about is more ubiquitous and harder to detect. I’ll give two examples.

The first example might be blown off as simple inappropriateness, but it’s more than that.
The scenario: It’s a Q&A session. A kind gentleman asked,
Can you still write the Torah if you’ve been a naughty girl?
For a split second, I simply stared – did he really just ask that question? At that point another person in the group came to my rescue by reframing the question,
Do you mean, for example, does her prayer practice affect her writing?
Afterwards, an interesting response was proposed as perfectly appropriate: “I’m wondering if you would be asking that question if I was a man.” And then the picture became even more clear, and absurd. I tried to envision it --- a male scribe, with all of the outer signifiers, a kippah, a beard, maybe even a tallis that he wears while writing. I’m trying to imagine someone ever daring to ask, “Can you still write the Torah if you’ve been a naughty boy?” Can you imagine?!

The next example is even more subtle. It is connected to the questions I categorize as “legitimacy” questions:
So, not everyone will accept your Torah as kosher, right?
You have to sanctify all of God’s names, but how can we know that you have done so?
Are you sure it’s OK to fix a mistake?
Do you have any official certification for this?
Even though all of these questions are all perfectly legitimate (speaking of legitimacy…), together they form a picture of what it means to be a woman in this society. It means being questioned, all the time, as to our worth, our legitimacy, our knowledge, and our ability to do something properly. Often it means not being trusted to handle a project – the same project that a man is trusted with without question.

I had not made this connection until a friend suggested it, and told me of the following account:
A female writer was having difficulty finding work. When she did write a piece, it was often criticized. Editors would question her facts. They called to check up on her. They didn’t trust her with the job. This writer got fed up, and thinking she knew what the problem was, took a male pseudonym. Suddenly, everything shifted. She started to get a lot more work. The editors gave “him” fantastic feedback. They trusted the sources and the claims. And to add icing to the cake, she started getting paid more – by a lot.

This is kind of shocking. But on the other hand, maybe not such a surprise.


Anonymous said…
I would have loved to see the look on your face when the fellow asked his "naughty" question. What chutzpa! I've really been enjoying your blogs. Thanks!
Jeri Dansky said…
Regarding the woman who wrote under a male pseudonym, and had things work much better:

This recent blog post deals with just that scenario:

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