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Kadima Women's Torah Project

Yad by Laurel Robinson
Yad, by Laurel Robinson

By Wendy Graff

Making Jewish and feminist history while achieving a sort of personal enlightenment may not be the Trifecta, but creating the first Torah known to be scribed by women has surely been a remarkable ride. I have long searched for egalitarian ways to experience my Jewish spiritual and cultural heritage. When my Kadima community, one of Reconstructionism’s newest affiliates (in Seattle, Washington), broke out of the gate to challenge some 3,000 years of tradition, I leapt eagerly into the saddle. The possibility of jumping over this epic barrier to gender equity was simply irresistible.

Kadima had been raising money to buy a Sefer Torah of its own for years. Used Torahs in good repair can be purchased for around $15,000, although even that modest goal seemed perennially out of our reach. Scrolls that aren’t kosher because they are worn, unreadable in parts, or otherwise not repairable cost less, but using a non-kosher Torah isn’t really . . . kosher. New scrolls can cost $35,000 and up, depending on the skill and reputation of the ritual scribe.

In 2000, with the synthesis of Torah-borrowing fatigue and inspiration, Kadima’s Judaic Director, Rabbi D'rorah O'Donnell Setel, suggested that we commission the first Torah ever to be scribed by a woman. Several of us jumped at the idea, until we discovered that the reason there haven’t been any woman-scribed Torahs is because there haven’t been any women Torah scribes.

It was disconcerting to comprehend fully that the Torah, feminine in gender in the Hebrew language — the “tree of life to those who hold fast to her” — had never, to our knowledge, been scribed by a woman. Read from every week in Jewish communities around the world, considered the most sacred Jewish object, handed down from generation to generation in one of the world’s iconic coming-of-age ceremonies, the Torah is brought to life, copied letter by letter and word by word, only by men.

I found myself chairing the Women's Torah Project (WTP) committee and steering a small cadre through raising money, drafting contracts, reviewing customs law, researching foundations, writing grants, converting U.S. currency into shekels and Canadian funds, reaching out to the larger Jewish community, finding climate-controlled storage units, smoothing the waters within our own group, penning letters and updates and thank-you notes — the unending minutia and substance that are the stuff of any major undertaking.

We knew we were partners in creating something extraordinary and historic, but did not expect that our work would a grow into a life-changing and bridge-building endeavor. It began to dawn on us that this project could become a catalyst for astonishing and consequential change, a symbol of opportunity for women to move into all areas of Jewish life. It could bring together progressive Jews around the world. It could be a bridge between art and politics, spirit and culture, artifact and symbol.

Artists began approaching us, eager to bring hiddur mitzvah (beautification of the commandment) to this first Women’s Torah. Embellishing the Torah hadn’t even been on our radar screen at first. We were — and still are — far more concerned with raising the money needed to pay our scribes. But it was as if pieces of a grander picture were falling into place. Laurel Robinson, professor of art at Georgia Southwestern State University, was the first, contacting us in the Fall of ’03 with her offer to make a yad and a matching case. We were thrilled by her gesture and astounded by the beauty of her work. Laurel’s Purim Kit is in the collection of the Jewish Museum in New York City, and her pieces have been exhibited around the country and around the world. In addition, Laurel is the private painting instructor for former President Jimmy Carter — a connection that gladdened our hearts.

Laurel finished the yad and case in the Spring of 2005. The yad is 13 inches long and crafted of pink ivory wood, ebony (from piano keys), deer antler, and carnelian. It rests comfortably in hands both small and large. The Song of Songs inspired the winged rose design because, as Laurel wrote to us, “Those verses were, perhaps, written by a woman, and are at least a very ancient example of love poetry. Even when seen allegorically, those writings represent the love between the people Israel and G-d.” This exquisite yad nestles in a graceful box wrought of domestic cherry, lined with velvet from the Torah mantle, and inscribed with this blessing by permission of the poet and liturgist Marcia Falk: “Let us restore the Shekhinah to her place in Israel and throughout the world, and let us infuse all places with her presence.”

Kadima recruited one of its own, multi-talented artist, Sooze Bloom deLeon Grossman, to design and create the Torah’s mantle. Sooze chose a pomegranate as the central motif, stating, “For me, pomegranates are the most voluptuous of fruits. Round and heavy, filled with hundreds of tangy ruby drupelets that burst between your teeth and saturate your soul, topped with a gorgeous cut crown, smooth and supple in your hand — pomegranates are the perfect symbol of the feminine, of Eitz Hayyim: the Tree of Life, and of our New Torah scribed, for the first time, by a soferet, or female Torah scribe. Pomegranates remind us of fertility, of life, of our role as co-creators with G-d in the ongoing work of our World, and so it is a pomegranate that will adorn our first Torah mantle.”

Sooze immediately came up with a way to build community and connection with her artwork. As she wrote, “Each seed will be formed from fabric worn by the generations of women who have made this Torah possible. We are collecting the fabric bits (as little as an inch by an inch) and their history from donors, who in turn collect the fabric from their mothers, grandmothers, daughters: all the inheritors of our Matriarchs. Each seed, each woman, each generation, each story of struggle, strength, perseverance, joy, and generosity, will be a visible reminder of our legacy. All of this information will be lovingly collected and organized into a provenance for the Torah mantle, which will be kept as an archived history for the larger community.”

Not surprisingly, the opportunity to be magnificently connected to this first Women’s Torah struck a chord with our supporters. They donated money and cloth in honor of daughters who found paths between secular and religiously observant parents; in memory of mothers who had volunteered at synagogues for years yet had never been allowed to read Torah; in the name of babies who would grow up knowing that women could be cantors, rabbis and Torah scribes.

Artist Aimee Golant (www.aimeegolant.com) was recruited to fashion the Torah’s crowns. Aimee, a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, started making mezuzot cases in 1993, using her grandfather’s hand tools. Today, she makes Judaica almost exclusively. As she explains, “I use my Judaica to teach people of all faiths how we Jews see God — as being everywhere and a part of everything, that there is a vast oneness here on earth and that we are all interconnected. I want to create a peaceful world through the making of Judaica. Once I began this spiritual path, why would I want to make anything else?”

The last artist to join the fold was Austin-based silversmith and jewelry designer Andrea Sher- Leff, who will make the wimple clasp. In March of 2005, Andrea e-mailed us: “I was bat mitzvah at a traditional synagogue in Skokie, Illinois where I was not allowed to touch the Torah because I was female. I began to fight the patriarchy of my religion as a teenager because I didn't believe that I shouldn't be able to do things just because I was female. It has been a long journey, a journey full circle. I now live in Austin, Texas with my husband and two children. Three years ago, dancing at Congregation Beth Shalom for Simchat Torah, the rabbi turned to me and handed me the Torah. It was a moment I will always treasure . . . I should have written this sooner. I hope it's not too late to participate. I would love to a create fine silver adornment of any kind. I have to know if there is any creative part that I can contribute to this project.”

The Women’s Torah Project, as thrilling as it is, has not been without tsores. While the Torah was gaining artistic embellishment, the scribing itself was static. Kadima enabled artist and educator Shoshana Gugenheim (www.artfully.org) to complete her training under one of the same sofer-mentors who guided another one of our scribes. Shoshana writes that she engages the arts “as a means for transformation and cross-cultural communication.” She has twice served as the artist-in-residence for Elat Chayyim, the Jewish retreat center in upstate New York. She lives outside of Jerusalem and has recently begun her scribing of the Women’s Torah.

Kadima went into this project assuming that one soferet would complete the Torah. Having multiple scribes now penning the work feels even more right for the project than a single soferet. The Women’s Torah will be physically created and adorned by a collection of women, supported every step of the way by other women and men around the world. It will be born of, and into, community.

It’s no secret that traditional Judaism, like every other mainstream religion, is highly patriarchal. It’s also no secret that thousands of women and men have worked over the past several decades to rectify gender inequities and make language and practice more inclusive. With the aid of revised liturgical texts, thoughtful service leaders, and broad cultural change, many of us have carved out egalitarian ways to see ourselves and our daughters in Jewish practice. But there was something about breaking down this last bastion of discrimination that did more than merely illuminate a dusty corner of traditional practice.

Perhaps it’s like white sheets. I remember their antiseptic brilliance, their starched crispness as they snapped across the bed, or more often, crumpled around my feet. I never dreamed of tucking myself into anything else until the day the J. C. Penney catalog arrived, trumpeting bed linens in pastel pinks and blues, subtle prints and stripes. Once I saw the rainbow of possibilities, plain white just wasn’t enough. Similarly, before this project, it had never occurred to me to think about how the Torah scrolls were produced. Once I understood that no woman had ever transcribed one, and that I could help that happen for the first time in history, I couldn’t go back.

The Women’s Torah Project is already about more than creating a Sefer Torah, although that would be enough. It is about more than opening doors for women called to meaningful work that has been denied to them for millennia because of their gender, although that, too, would be enough. It is about transformation, about bringing people closer to Torah by bringing Torah closer to them. The Women’s Torah will be a symbol, not an artifact. It will be another catalyst for transforming Judaism, and Kadima and its new Reconstructionist family will be at its heart.

Kadima’s affiliation with the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation right before Rosh Hashana this year was sweet synchronicity. A movement in which creativity is central, in which the construction of new, personally and communally relevant observances is encouraged, in which tradition has “a vote, but not a veto,” is so obviously the right home for the Women’s Torah Project.

Originally published in Reconstructionism Today, Winter 2005-2006.

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