Women and Safrut
The Talmud states "Sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzot written by (some versions insert "a heretic"), an informer (to the Romans), a star-worshipper (some versions substitute "non-Jew"), a slave, a woman, a minor, a Cuthean, or an apostate Jew, are unfit for ritual use" (Gittin 45b). The reason given is the halachic principle that one who is not directed to perform a commandment cannot significantly aid others in the performance of that commandment. Since women are not obligated to perform the commandment of tefillin, they may not write tefillin, and since sifrei Torah and mezuzot are similar to tefillin, women may not write those either.
Virtually all decisors of Jewish law have followed this directive, with minor variations; the Rambam further explains that the idea of "writing" includes all fixing and assembly.
A philosophical note: I personally am in favour of enabling women to extend their spheres of activity within the halakhic system. This may not be apparent from the following. However, whenever one wishes to alter the status quo, she must be aware of the objections which may be raised against her; no-one can make a convincing argument against the status quo unless she is aware of all the reasons for maintaining it. These pages aim to outline both.
We shall now see some of the main sources concerning women practising safrut. It is important to bear in mind that the halakhic system is more or less predicated on the authority of precedent. An early source like the Talmud is pretty much authoritative unless you have a very good reason to suppose otherwise, and in halakhic terms, a "very good reason" is a ruling from a sufficiently weighty authority, such as the Shulhan Arukh. Logic and external considerations such as sociology do play a part, but it is a minor part compared to the authority of texts.
One sometimes hears this sort of thing: In antiquity, women didn't do writing. So of course the Talmud says women can't write Torahs - in those days no-one would have thought a woman could write anything. Today's women are completely literate, so obviously today's women can write Torahs. This is nonsense, and a foray into the laws of gittin shows why.
A get (plural gittin) is the document by which a marriage is formally terminated. Until a get is given, a woman cannot have any relations with men other than her husband, and any children born of such relations are mamzerim - pretty much banned from being part of the Jewish people for ever and ever. That is to say, gittin are serious stuff. If you write tefillin wrong, their owner is going to fail to perform the mitzvah, and he's going to say blessings in vain - which is bad all right, but not as bad as writing a get wrong, because that potentially causes not only adultery, which is a death-penalty offence (or was, when that sort of thing still happened), but also causes children to be born Jewish yet permanently barred from participation in communal activities, and from marrying Jews, and so on. But a woman may write a get, despite its being the document with the gravest consequences. If there was any doubt at all about women being valid persons to write gittin, they would not be allowed; the potential consequences are too serious. Yet a woman may write a get:
משנה מסכת גיטין ב:ה
הכל כשרין לכתוב את הגט אפילו חרש שוטה וקטן האשה כותבת את גיטה והאיש כותב את שוברו שאין קיום הגט אלא בחותמיו הכל כשרין להביא את הגט חוץ מחרש שוטה וקטן וסומא ונכרי:
Mishnah Gittin 2:5
"All are valid to write the get, even a deaf-mute, a witless person, or a minor. A woman may write her own get, and a man may write his receipt [the one he gets when he pays his ex her settlement], since the get is only made binding by the signatures. All are valid to deliver the get, excepting a deaf-mute, a witless person, a minor, a blind person, and a non-Jew."
This is not to say that since a woman may write a get she may write anything, but it does show that women in talmudic times were allowed to write things, so in those days no-one would have thought a woman could write anything doesn't apply. (If you want to make a similar argument on a sociological level, that's a whole other question and I would probably agree with you.)
The nature of obligation
Judaism is a religion of obligation and responsibility, and the concept of obligation is central to this topic. I shall illustrate by analogy: suppose you have an obligation to vote. You may appoint a proxy to cast your vote for you, but the law of the land stipulates that your proxy must likewise have an obligation to vote. That is, your proxy must be a citizen; merely happening to live in the country is not sufficient.
Rabbinic proxies are similar: if you have an obligation and you wish to appoint a proxy to discharge it, your proxy must be likewise obligated. For instance, all adult Jews have an obligation to make Kiddush on Shabbat; therefore, any adult Jew may make Kiddush for any other adult Jew. (N.B. For the sake of brevity, I am using generalisations to illustrate principles. There are almost always exceptions to any generality. Therefore, if you try hard enough you will be able to contradict some statements. This is not really the point.) Conversely, if one is not obligated, he may not be a proxy; a non-Jew may be in the habit of attending Shabbat meals, but he may not make Kiddush, even if he considers it part of his personal obligation set; formally, he is not obligated and therefore may not be a proxy for a Jew who is.
Sometimes it isn't clear how it works. Take the example above from Gittin – only a man has the power to grant a get. A woman cannot initiate divorce, but must wait for the man to divorce her. You might have thought that given this, a woman wouldn't be a suitable person to write the get, since she can't grant its giving – but she is, because no-one is obliged to give a get; a Jewish man is subject to the laws of marriage and under those laws may grant a get, and a Jewish woman (and minor, deaf-mute, etc) is bound by the same laws of marriage and therefore may be a proxy for giving a get.
Another example is that of tzitzit. Only Jewish men have an obligation to provide their four-cornered garments with fringes, but Jewish women may attach the fringes, because they are after all Jewish and theoretically bound by the same law, it's just that they happen to be exempt from this particular one. Non-Jews may not attach the fringes – they're not exempt from the obligation, they never had it in the first place.
In sum, if you are going to perform a ritual duty for somebody, you must be obliged to perform that same duty. "Obliged to" is subject to rabbinic interpretation, and may mean different things in different circumstances.
Sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzot
The Talmud, in Gittin 45b, says:
דתני רב המנונא בריה דרבא מפשרוניא: ס"ת, תפלין ומזוזות שכתבן (מין) ומסור, עובד כוכבים ועבד, אשה וקטן, וכותי וישראל מומר - פסולין, שנאמר: [דברים י"א] וקשרתם... וכתבתם, כל שישנו בקשירה ישנו בכתיבה, וכל שאינו בקשירה אינו בכתיבה;
Rav Hamnuna the son of Rava from Pashronia taught: sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzot written by (some editions: a heretic,) an informer, a non-Jew or a slave, a woman or a child, a Cuthean [a particular group who were converted under duress and were therefore suspected of not being entirely punctilious in their Jewish observance] or an apostate Jew, are invalid, as it is said, [Deut 6:8-9] 'Bind them...write them' - anyone who is commanded to bind is commanded to write, and anyone who is not commanded to bind is not commanded to write.
That is, if someone has an obligation to lay tefillin, they are considered valid to write tefillin. While this may not seem strictly logical, it is absolutely unchallenged in rabbinic literature, and as such is incontrovertible. There is also a category of people who do have an obligation to lay tefillin but nonetheless may not write; they are broadly analogous to people who may not be your proxy to vote because they have been convicted of election fraud. Henceforth we assume our discussion is limited to Jews who are "in good standing" - ones who observe the mitzvot and have not rejected the validity of the halakhic system.
Women, as a class, are not obligated to lay tefillin, for a number of reasons which we shall not address here. It follows, from the Talmud citation and discussion of the nature of proxies above, that they are not considered valid to write tefillin, and likewise neither are they valid to write mezuzot or sifrei Torah.
This last step, that of automatically associating tefillin with mezuzot and sifrei Torah, is explained in more detail in a separate page. As is, it may seem somewhat tenuous, but it has gone largely unchallenged in the early literature, and as such has considerable power of precedent. How it is made is questioned, but its conclusion is accepted by virtually all authorities. Indeed, its conclusion is crucial to many of the laws of sofrut, since laws tend to be derived from reference to one of the three elements and extended by this association to the other two. If they weren't generally associated, we would have three separate sets of laws. Associating the laws of tefillin very closely with the laws of sifrei Torah and mezuzot is not a principle we can disregard.
Obligation in mezuzah
Affixing a mezuzah to one's doorpost is, unlike tefillin, a commandment that women are very definitely obliged to perform. Yet by saying that one who is not obliged to lay tefillin is also not valid to write a mezuzah, we are left with the uncomfortable position of a woman who is obliged to fulfil a duty but may not make the item with which she is to perform it.
This seems illogical – surely if one is going to fulfil a commandment he should be theoretically able to perform the steps leading to its fulfilment? However, such situations are not entirely without precedent; consider someone living in Temple times who accidentally extinguishes a fire (for example) on Shabbat. In atonement, he must bring a sacrifice in the Temple. He may purchase the animal and bring it to the Temple, but if he is not a priest he may not do the actual sacrificial rituals. The cases are not identical, but the element of one who is obliged to do something being statutorily barred from so doing is common to both.
One occasionally hears the argument "But women are obligated in mezuzah, therefore they must be able to write mezuzot." This argument cannot be made without rejecting the rulings of all the major halakhic decisors, and as such cannot be described as halakhically valid.
Obligation in sefer Torah
While men are obligated in the commandment to write a sefer Torah (personally or by proxy), it is not clear whether women are or not. A good deal of effort has been expended of late in trying to demonstrate that women are in fact obligated in the writing of sifrei Torah, the idea being to prove their validity to write sifrei Torah by demonstrating the existence of an obligation so to do. However, given firstly that the commandment may be fulfilled by proxy and secondly that obligation in mezuzah by no means validates a woman to write a mezuzah, this approach seems ill-founded. The question is undoubtedly of interest, but it is minimally relevant, since validity to write sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzot depends solely on one's relationship to the commandment of tefillin. It is often observed that the Shaagat Aryeh attempted at length to demonstrate that women are obligated in the mitzvah to write a sefer Torah; it is seldom observed that he stated that even if they were they would still be invalid so to do because they are not obligated in tefillin.
Sifrei neviim and megillot
We shall pause for a moment to mention women's validity to write items from this last category of ritual documents.
The trio sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzot is unusual in that one without a direct obligation may not make the tools for fulfilling the obligation. Tosafot observe that women do not have direct obligations in the commandments of wearing tzitzit, waving a lulav, or sitting in a succah, but they may nonetheless tie tzitzit, assemble a lulav, and build a succah, and this is the general way of things. Tosafot conclude that the set sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzot do indeed have this unusual property, that persons not obligated in their performance may not even make the objects required for performance, but also note that this is the only instance of such a ruling:
תוספות מסכת גיטין דף מה עמוד ב
כל שישנו בקשירה ישנו בכתיבה - מכאן אומר ר"ת דאין אשה אוגדת לולב ועושה ציצית כיון דלא מיפקדה ואין נראה דהא מדפסלינן בריש התכלת (מנחות דף מב.) ציצית בעובד כוכבים דדריש בני ישראל ועשו ולא בעובדי כוכבים מכלל דאשה כשרה ואמרינן נמי סוכת גנב"ך כשרה בפ"ק דסוכה (דף ח:) ודוקא בס"ת ותפילין ומזוזות דכתיב וקשרתם וכתבתם דרשינן הכי.
Tosafot, Gittin 45b, s.v. "Kol"
"All who are commanded to bind are commanded to write." From this Rabbeinu Tam said that a woman may not bind a lulav nor make tzitzit since she is not commanded. It does not appear that we do in fact say they are invalid: in "Resh ha-Tekhelet" (Menachot 42a) it says "Tzitzit made by an idolater" [are invalid, the Gemara explains there] and it explains that the verse says "the children of Israel...they will make" - not idolaters. It follows that a woman is valid. It is also said in the first chapter of Succah (8b): "The succah of idolaters, women, animals or Cutheans is valid." Solely in the case of sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuza do we explain thus.
This more or less brings us to the status quo - women, not being obligated in tefillin, are accordingly not valid to write sifrei Torah, tefillin, or mezuzot. How we continue from there depends on whether we take a fully gender-egalitarian approach to Judaism, or a non-fully-gender-egalitarian approach (the labels Orthodox and non-Orthodox are tempting but inaccurate, therefore eschewed).
Jen Taylor Friedman, 2006-9