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The Women's Torah Project

Laurel Robinson
Laurel Robinson, artist for the yad and yad box

By Laurel Robinson

The Torah is the core of Judaism. It is never merely the Five Books of Moses, the first books of the Tanach, Hebrew Scripture or Old Testament. It is not merely the root of Christian or Islamic texts. Regardless of the debate as to actual authorship, either due to Moses' secretarial skills on Sinai or the work of a variety of writers then seamlessly redacted, the Torah is the central, ancient tapestry that the entire Jewish people is woven into, onto, around, through and through, commentary upon commentary until now.

In Jewish law, Halachah, all legal citations must thread and ultimately tie to Torah. The Torah weaves our calendar together, as weekly portions, chanted in specific melodies, are the same everywhere in the world and join liturgies, holidays and daily life together in praise, celebration and commemoration.

The Torah is still written letter by letter, by a carefully trained scribe, on specially prepared kosher parchment, with specially prepared ink and quill. We approach the Torah with a reverence for tradition, honoring the stories of our people. We reach out our hands with the fringes of a tallit or with our prayer books, touch the Torah then bring the kiss back to our lips.

It is a very great mitzvah to write a Torah or to contribute to the scribing. This writing takes great kavannah, intention. Interestingly, kavannah in Modern Hebrew is the word for “meaning”. Meaning is created with great intention. The Hebrew term for “paying attention” is sim lave, literally “to put heart into”. The writing of a Torah, the creation of meaning with great intention and heart, is a process that takes at least a year, every day, letter by letter, column by column. The letters are sacred, white fire on black fire, black on white.

The tradition of art in Jewish history roots clearly right back to the Torah. Two specific citations are always used to frame any discussion of Jewish visual arts. The first is the Second Commandment with the apparent prohibition of image making, better seen as the acknowledgement of the power of visual imagery and the danger of idolatry. The second citation comes from the Book of Exodus where we are introduced to Bezalel, the highly skilled artist whose name means “in the shadow of G-d”, the builder of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the wilderness.

The rabbis consistently juggled the tensions between in these texts along with the stories of our Temple decorations, the Golden Calf, and the idols of our neighbors. This tension played out historically in ways best viewed in the contexts of where we have lived, in other dominant cultures where we were a minority, in the visual production of these dominant cultures, and the peace or pressure we endured.

We have a rich tradition of making beautiful visuals, whether synagogue paintings from 3rd Century Syria or 18th-19th Century Poland, illuminated manuscripts, tapestries or ritual objects.
The Women's Torah Project is another in a long line of Jewish projects. It is hard to imagine that the anonymous daughter of a scribe somewhere in history didn't participate in the writing of a Torah. But now for the first time in 3500 years, women are publicly announcing the first women scribed Torah. Throughout our history there have been women involved in Jewish art and craft.

The important Jewish concept of Hiddur Mitzvah, “the glorification of a commandment”, is the driving force for the creation of our ritual objects. It is permissible to make kiddush in a Styrofoam cup, to light Sabbath candles in tin candlesticks, or to put an etrog in a cardboard box, yet the idea of Hiddur Mitzvah is to construct elaborately beautiful cups, candlesticks, and etrog boxes is to enhance, glorify and elevate the performance of the mitzvah itself. To create adornment for the embellishment of a Torah enhances not only all of the symbolic meaning of the text, but also the work of the human scribe. These embellishments tie the artists to the Torah, to the stories, to the congregation, and to our history.

The Hebrew word for artist, art and craft are from the same root (aleph, mem, nun) etymologically linked to: belief, faithfulness, establishing, amen, and even the wet nurse who nourishes the child.

An Ashkenazi Torah is typically dressed with honor and glory. The development of ornamental Torah embellishments probably arose as wealthy congregants desired to publicly honor their families and artisans found ways to decorate the Torah.

Often breastplates hang from the Torah made from precious metals, alluding to the ephod (breastplate) of the Temple High Priest. Rimmonim (literally: pomegranates) also of precious metals sit atop the wooden staves holding the parchment scrolls. These staves, usually wooden, sometimes silver, carved or inlaid, are called Etz Chaim, trees of life. The rimmonim are the sweet fruits on these trees. Another tradition is to crown the Torah with a keter/atarah, that fits over the two staves. The honor goes to Torah, not an earthly monarch. Sometimes little bells hang from the crowns or rimmonim hearkening back to the bells on the hems of Temple priests' robes.

The Torah is dressed in a mantle, me'il (coat/dress) of beautiful fabrics, often embroidered with silver or gold threads. Around the actual scrolls of parchment is a wrap, a wimple that was traditionally made by the women from the cloth their boys wore at their bris. These were embroidered and dedicated to the congregation in a gesture of tying the diligent teaching of Torah to the children from generation to generation.

And finally, the Torah is opened on a reader's table revealing the fiery script of the scribe. To honor this work, to protect the ink and parchment from acids and grease of readers' fingers, the tradition of using a pointer developed.

As a yad maker for over ten years, I have focused on individually carved wooden Torah pointers. The once alive wood connects to the trees of life of the Torah staves, the once alive parchment, to the human scribe, the human readers, the alive stories of a very live tradition.

The Women's Torah Project is an example, a dugma, of the complexity and continuing evolution of our people. It is an open acknowledgement of the full participation of women. It honors those women artisans before us and invites our daughters to continue their involvement. It is a continuation of the process of Hiddur Mitzvah, the placing of our hearts into the project and ultimately creating a Torah we all hope will be read, honored, kissed and held dear for years to come from generation to generation.

Laurel Robinson, Professor of Art, Georgia Southwestern State University
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