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Public Prayer

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

Imagine you’re in a room, praying. You’re not the only one there – in fact, at times there are many others in the room too. They’re not praying. They’re watching you pray. As you pray (or do your very best), you have an awareness of their presence. You wonder: What are they looking at? Do they want to learn something specific? Are they looking with a critical eye? Do they want you to stop what you’re doing and pay attention to them? Then they begin talking about you: Look at how she sways back and forth. Can you see which prayer book she’s using? Look at her outfit – I wonder if she always wears such bright colors. They speak in soft voices, thinking you’re so engrossed in your activity that you can’t hear them talking about you. But the heightened level of awareness that you’ve reached bleeds into an awareness of them, too.

At times, this is what it feels like to write Torah in public. I use the prayer metaphor not only because it’s an activity that requires some level of spiritual awareness, or presence, but also because it traverses the public and private spheres. On the one hand, prayer is extremely personal – what could be more private than talking to God? Rabbi Nachman of Bretzlov recommended isolation for personal prayer, called hitbodedut. The idea is to get alone with yourself, usually in nature, in order to commune with God. But Jewish prayer also has a public aspect: certain elements of the service are only done when there is a group of ten, called a minyan. This includes the mourner’s prayer, something so seemingly personal. A person in mourning is exposed – and ideally, supported – within the larger community. The Torah service also requires a minyan. But what about Torah writing?

Generally speaking, scribes work from the privacy of their studios or homes. The idea to have a scribe write a sefer Torah in public view at a museum is a new one. It makes sense that scribes generally write in a private space. The process requires focus, concentration, and some amount of control over the surrounding environment. It also makes sense that there is a desire to see the process of Torah writing – not only is the Torah chanted only within a group setting, there is also a tradition that we were all present at Mount Sinai when God revealed the Torah. “Everyone” includes everyone living at that time, and everyone yet to be born, to this very day and into the future.

I think that the blend of public and private writing for this project is representative of how Torah is experienced. People connect with Torah on an individual level, and no two people will understand it in exactly the same way. Different parts will speak more to different people. And yet, the very same text joins a community as one. It can only be shared in its traditional manner in a group context. It is this joining, this unification—represented by the public writing hours—that is the heart of Torah, but it’s the individual voices percolating within that make that heart beat.

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