Why did you become a soferet?
Why? It seemed like a good idea. It relates to being simultaneously good at mathematics and crafts, because sofrut is a combination of calligraphy and dense talmudic reasoning. Arts and crafts were a hobby while I was taking mathematics at school and university. I never really knew what I wanted to do with myself, career-wise; I thought something which combined analytical reasoning with craftsmanship would be nice, but I didn’t know what that might be. I figured that when the right job came along, I’d know about it.
A chance combination of happy circumstances at college got me interested in Jewish law, and rigorous mathematical training is a jolly good foundation for relentlessly convoluted Talmudic reasoning. I was doing a good deal of calligraphy in college, chiefly because calligraphy materials travel easily, and another chance combination of happy circumstances introduced me to Mordechai Pinchas and the concept of the ritual scribe. Whereupon I realised: here is a job which combines a lot of theory with a lot of craftsmanship, and is incidentally a glorious combination of ancient and modern; this could be something I could be very good at. The right job had come along, and I knew about it. (See also post at Hatam Soferet.)
When did you become a soferet?
On the whole, “Purim 2004” is the simplest answer.
Bear in mind that asking “When did you become a sofer?” is sort of like asking “When did you become a journalist?” There isn’t a clear starting point. A rabbi is different – before ordination one is not a rabbi, after ordination one is. But when does one become a journalist? First article? First paid article? First byline? First month living on income from writing alone? Same with being a sofer – there are a number of landmarks, but no one defining moment. One’s first Megillah of Esther is a landmark. Or the first time a respectable authority says your knowledge is sufficient and your work is kosher. Or the first time a congregation puts its trust in your work, using your scroll to fulfil their obligations. These all happened to me in early 2004. Sofrut was my main source of income by early 2006. One tradition says you are only truly a sofer when you complete your first Torah scroll, which happened to me in 2007.
Who was your first Torah for?
One day I came out of a lecture and checked my phone messages; the message went, roughly: “We’re looking for someone to write us a new sefer Torah, and we found you on Google, are you interested?”
Found me on Google? How could I not be interested?
United Hebrew Congregation of St Louis, Missouri, wanted a new Torah; they had looked at work from male scribes and female scribes, but they were really quite keen on having a female scribe. I sent them some samples, and we hit it off. So I wrote them a Torah, and finished it in the summer of 2007.
And your others?
Subsequent Torahs are now in Troy, MI; Montreal, Canada; and Davis, CA.
Was yours the first Torah by a woman?
This is the first Torah we know to have been written by a woman.
It seems pretty likely that at some time in history, there have been other women who have written Torahs. We know there have been women who worked alongside their sofer husbands, and who took over from them when they died, but we don’t know what they were writing; it’s quite possible to spend all one’s time on repairs, tefillin and mezuzot. In any case, a sofer can’t sign his sefer Torah, so unlike other manuscripts, we don’t know who wrote most of our existing Torahs. Perhaps there were women amongst them, perhaps not. In any case, as far as we know, there are no women alive today who have written complete Torahs, and no Torahs which have been written entirely by women.
You are not certified; doesn’t that mean your Torah isn’t kosher?
There is a misconception that “A Sefer Torah, by definition, is a Torah scribed by someone who has been certified to do this work.” This statement is not true. A sefer Torah is a Torah scribed in accordance with all the relevant halakhot (laws). Certification is not one of the laws.
Scribal certification is not like rabbinic ordination. It is much more like kashrut certification. Rabbinic ordination is what makes a rabbi, but scribal certification is not what makes a scribe. R’ Askotzky in his book Tefillin and Mezuzos says so, and he is one of today’s leading scribes. He says quite clearly that one does not have to be certified to be a scribe.
Kashrut certification indicates that you can trust that the chef’s work is kosher. Scribal certification indicates that you can trust that the scribe’s work is kosher. That is all.
What are you trying to achieve with your work?
Fundamentally, what I want to do is make a decent living in a job I’m happy doing which uses the skills God gave me to the fullest extent possible. I didn’t decide I wanted to do this for some grandiose political reason; this career path more or less opened up in front of me, and I followed it. Perhaps there may be another job I would be equally happy doing, but I have not found it. The political stuff is basically a side-effect. People often assume it’s the other way round – feminist politics first, Torah second. It’s not, though. I discovered that I had all these skills which meant that being a scribe is a good job for me, and the politics come out of that: Torah first, politics second.
See separate Tefillin Barbie page. If you require high-resolution images, please email me.
Tefillin Gemach – Loans of tefillin
A gemach is a Jewish loan society; a tefillin gemach lends tefillin to men who can’t afford tefillin of their own. Since tefillin are traditionally a men’s mitzvah, many people are willing to lend kosher tefillin to men, but not many are willing to lend to women. Further details here.
On taking men’s roles
I’ve always done “boy’s subjects.” I was the best at mathematics in my class for as long as I can remember. At GCSE I took technology, which entailed a good deal of theory of levers, gears and suchlike, and a good deal of practical application. I got far and away the highest score in the school. At A-levels I took sciences; in my physics and chemistry classes there was one other girl, in maths four or five, in classes of twenty and thirty. I went on to take a degree in mathematics.
People accuse me of working with unsound motives; they say I’m doing this not because I care about Torah but because I want to make some kind of statement. Did I choose mathematics as my degree because I wanted to make a feminist statement? No; I did a mathematics degree because I’m very good at mathematics. Likewise, I’m working as a sofer because I’m good at halakha and calligraphy. I always wanted a job which would let me combine my academic ability with my creative skills; sofrut combines the two admirably. I’m not working as a sofer because I want to be a man, and similarly I don’t think that working as a sofer compromises my femininity any more than did my studying mathematics.
I don’t see that sofrut is terribly different from mathematics. Granted, one is secular and the other isn’t, but I don’t generally make the distinction. The point of religion is to infuse the mundane with the divine; a mathematics degree is just as much part of a religious lifestyle as is a Talmud degree, in my view, and working as a mathematician fundamentally no different than working as a sofer. It is perhaps easier to be aware of the divine when writing Torah than it is when writing program code.
I also study halakha, looking for the legal loopholes which provide justification within the halakhic system for my doing what I do. In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be necessary, but Jewish law incorporates the cultural norms of thousands of years, and anyone who is observant of Jewish law must take these into account. In challenging cultural norms, one challenges the law, but one who dismisses the law loses something of great worth, so any challenge has to be approached with due care and respect – and scholarship. That said, religion evolves as does society, and all change must start somewhere. Legitimacy is gained by a combination of reasoned justification and widespread acceptance of the law in practice. Reasoned justification I have; I hope that widespread acceptance will follow.
I think this is partly what distinguishes this generation of soferot from those who have come before. There have been women who served as scribes; sometimes because their fathers or husbands were busy scribes, sometimes because they could do the work and sell it – but we first found our halakhic feet and then proceeded to stand on them. We aim to be legitimised within the tradition.