Can I Ask You a Personal Question?

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

I have a personal question for you that I didn’t want to ask in front of the group during the Q&A session. Would it be alright to email you?
Ah, the familiar “personal question.” This is generally a polite way of saying, “Tell me about your menstrual cycle and how it affects Torah writing.” At least she didn’t ask it in front of everyone. And at least she prefaced it by acknowledging the personal aspect of it. Not everyone does.

When her email arrived a few days later, it was not what I expected:

My understanding is that some communities—especially Orthodox ones—would not accept and make use of a Torah scroll written by a woman. Are you part of a community that would and, if not, how do you reconcile that tension?

The range of what people consider “personal” is astounding! And, after being on display for a few months, I appreciate that this visitor recognized the personal nature of these types of questions. Here is part of my answer to her:

It's true that Orthodox and some other traditional communities would not accept this torah as valid. The reason is because the halacha1, or Jewish law, states that a Torah written by a woman would not be valid for use. It is based on a series of extrapolations, beginning with tefilin2: because women are not obligated to wear tefilin, they don't write tefilin. And since a line from the Torah about tefilin is right next to a line about the obligation to have a mezuzah3, it was determined that likewise, a mezuzah written by a woman would be invalid. The Talmud basically goes on from there to create a category of "writing" as something that men do. Some female scribes who have obligated themselves to wear tefilin argue that since they are obligated in tefilin, their writing is valid the same as a man’s. Others simply say "I'm egalitarian" or, "I'm not Orthodox," and therefore this sexist law is no longer applicable.

I probably fall somewhere in between. I am still in the process of figuring out my relationship with tefilin -- it certainly doesn't feel natural, at least in part because of social norms and expectations. Also, while I don't consider myself Orthodox, I am traditionally observant (observe shabbat4 and kashrut5, etc.) Here in the Bay area I most frequently attend either a modern Orthodox synagogue, or a traditional yet progressive halachic minyan6 (the former would not chant from a Torah written by a woman; and as far as I know, neither would the latter).

Sometimes, the best way to get my head around religion is to think of it as one big paradox – most of it does not make sense in any kind of logical way. What brings me to these communities is their spirit, the desire to be in a place where others who attend care about Jewish tradition in a similar way as I do, and simply but less logically, the “feel” of them. Also, these communities are progressive, meaning that they are pushing boundaries within their stated parameters, and it’s important for me to be part of that. Still, the bottom line is that the Torah I am writing would not be read from at these places. Somehow, it sits right with me. I'm not sure why. Again, it really shouldn't if I were operating with my brain. But hearts and souls have less ego.

1Halakha is the collective body of Jewish religious law.

2Tefillin are a set of small cubic leather boxes painted black, containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah, with black leather straps that are wrapped around the arm, hand and fingers.

3A mezuzah is a piece of parchment (often contained in a decorative case) inscribed with specified Hebrew verses from the Torah, which is affixed to the doorframe of Jewish homes.

4Shabbat is the seventh day of the Jewish week and a day of rest.

5Kashrut is the set of Jewish dietary laws, termed "kosher" in English

6A minyan refers to the quorum required for certain religious obligations in Judaism.


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