Quill and scroll: Female Torah scribe at work in groundbreaking CJM exhibit

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A Torah contains 304,805 Hebrew letters handwritten on 62 sheets of parchment paper.

The painstaking process usually takes a year from start to finish, and is almost always accomplished by a man working alone, a practice that makes sacred scribal art mysterious and isolating.

Usually — but not always.

This year, for what is believed to be the first time in any Jewish museum’s gallery space, a woman will craft a Torah from start to finish as visitors watch her work on the second floor of San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.

It is a move that upends the often mystifying process of how Judaism’s most ancient and sacred ritual object comes into being.

“As It Is Written: Project 304,805,” also known as “The Torah Project,” opened Oct. 8. It began years ago with a simple question: What would happen if someone sat in the museum and wrote a Torah?

The idea evolved into a dynamic exhibit that will feature the scribe, or soferet; original artwork by 54 artists, each creating work based on the year’s 54 Torah portions; a 19th-century ark from India; explanations of the laws that govern a Torah’s creation and use; and information on the scribal arts.

The content of the exhibit ranges from the most basic to the most sophisticated, says Connie Wolf, executive director of the CJM.

“We wanted to give an introduction to those who knew very little or nothing at all about Torah, and give a new way of looking at the Torah to those who know a lot,” Wolf says.

While there is much to see in the exhibit, its centerpiece is the soferet, Julie Seltzer.

Most Orthodox Jews and scholars interpret Jewish law in such a way that forbids women from writing a Torah.

“Having a female scribe is unique and somewhat bold,” Wolf says. “We know some people may be offended, but we feel this is the right thing to be doing as a contemporary museum.”

The CJM consulted with the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Alan Cooper, a JTS professor and provost, describes the halachic objections to a woman writing a Torah as “pointless.”

“If a person has the artistic gift and religious devotion required to write a Sefer Torah, what difference does it make if that person is a man or a woman?” Cooper says.

Seltzer works at a drafting desk for six to seven hours a day in the gallery during museum hours, writing approximately one column, or 42 lines of Torah text, per day (except on Shabbat, when a video of Seltzer’s hand and quill will replace the live version).

Her first day was Oct. 12. Twice daily she stops writing to talk about the ritual scribal arts and to answer visitors’ questions.

Julie Seltzer moved to San Francisco to be a part of “As It Is Written,” a new exhibit that has commissioned her to write a Sefer Torah. photo/stacey palevsky

She hums quietly as she works, her face just inches from the parchment paper. She looks serene and focused.

“It’s an art, but a meditation, too,” she says.

A photocopy of the text she is writing lies to her left, since scribes must create each letter of a Torah from a copy and never from memory.

Before the soferet writes the name of God (which appears in its four-letter incarnation 6,828 times in the Torah), she must state her intention in Hebrew, which translates as: “I am writing this for the sake of the sanctification of the name.”

Seltzer, 34, is one of the world’s few trained female scribes, making the pool of potentials small from the start. The CJM needed a woman who was not only a talented scribe, but who shared the museum’s vision and also was willing to relocate.

Seltzer fit all of the requirements and moved to San Francisco just weeks before the exhibit opened.

“This is a dream job for a scribe,” Seltzer says. “I get to scribe a Torah and share my love for it.”

Seltzer grew up on the East Coast and most recently lived and worked as a baker at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in northwest Connecticut.

She first became interested in sofrut (Jewish scribal arts) about three years ago, when she began creating art from Hebrew letters. Seltzer was fascinated by the roots of the letters, their numerical equivalent and the meaning in each one.

Then, two years ago, while walking down a street in Jerusalem, “a light bulb went off,” she recalls. And in that moment, she knew she wanted to learn sofrut.

This revelation presented just a bit of a hurdle. Of all the world’s Torah scribes, nearly all are men, and most will not teach a woman to create a Sefer Torah.

So how would Seltzer begin to learn?

“I Googled it,” she says with a grin.

After finding some resources on the Internet, Seltzer bought a calligraphy pen and got to work. She practiced on her own before she discovered Jen Taylor Friedman, who in 2007 became the first woman to scribe a Torah.

Seltzer began apprenticing with Friedman in New York. She learned more about the letters and about the halachah, or Jewish law, surrounding the writing of a Torah.

The Talmud outlines basic rules for making a Sefer Torah, and the commentary on those rules has produced about 4,000 additional rules that a soferet must learn, memorize and practice in order to demonstrate proficiency.

More than 500 rules explain how to properly form each Hebrew letter. Others explain how to properly write God’s name, space the Hebrew letters, cut and sharpen a quill, score the parchment, stitch the sheets together and attach the sheets to the rods upon which the scrolls are wound.

“The laws are designed … so that the Sefer Torah a woman writes today will look exactly like the Sefer Torah written 1,000 or 2,000 years ago,” says Cooper, of JTS.

People who learn all the rules and become skilled scribes write not only Torahs, but also prayer scrolls for tefillin, mezuzahs, megillahs and gets (divorce documents).

Seltzer previously has written a megillah and several pages of a Torah for the Women’s Torah Project, a collective effort of four female scribes.

The Torah commissioned by the CJM will be her first full scroll.

“This Torah will be different from any other Torah — but it will also be exactly the same,” Seltzer says. “It’s almost a metaphor for the Torah itself. It uniquely speaks to the individual, and at the same time it speaks to the entire community.”

That also means engaging the community in the process of creating a Sefer Torah. The CJM intends for the exhibit, and the work it produces, to be a communal experience.

The museum will call on lay leaders and Torah scholars in the Bay Area to volunteer their time to proofread Seltzer’s writing as she works. It’s essential that every detail is exact. A Torah with even one missing or erroneous letter is considered invalid, and mistakes should be corrected as soon as possible through a painstaking process so as to keep the rest of the letters clean and valid.

When Seltzer completes a page, the parchment will be displayed under glass that will be covered by fabric, per Jewish law. Museumgoers will be able to lift the fabric for an up-close look at the in-progress Torah. (They can also view a damaged Torah that was rescued from the Holocaust and will be unrolled in a glass case.)

Then, when Seltzer finishes all 62 pages of Torah text, the CJM will invite fledgling or struggling Jewish communities around the world to apply for its use. Communities will be able to use the Torah for free on loan for up to five years.

“The idea is to let this Torah live in the world,” Wolf says.

Exhibit’s artists reinterpret Torah’s stories

As soferet Julie Seltzer carefully writes Hebrew letters on parchment as part of the “As it is Written” exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, a number of artistic, historic, interactive and even humorous elements will surround her.

The museum invited 54 contemporary artists from California, New York, Europe and Israel to respond to each week’s Torah portion. About a dozen works of art will be displayed at a time, and the work will rotate periodically during the yearlong exhibit.

Artists who accepted the offer were assigned a Torah portion and given no parameters other than a suggested size for their artwork.

For instance, New York–based filmmaker Alan Berliner created an interactive media installation inspired by the Torah portion Vayishlach.

In Vayishlach, Jacob returns to Canaan from his father-in-law Laban’s house to face his estranged brother Esau and apologize for his past deception, bearing gifts of cattle and female slaves. To Jacob’s surprise, Esau receives Jacob warmly. Later in the portion, Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, is raped, and her brothers Simeon and Levi slay all the males of the city in revenge for their sister’s defilement, which causes trouble for Jacob and his family in Canaan.

“As It Is Written” also features a Torah ark from 19th-century India, on loan from the Judah L. Magnes Museum in berkeley. photo/ben blackwell

“It’s rather complex and almost impossible to represent as a single narrative,” Berliner says.

He began his creative process by reading the portion a dozen times. He then counted and alphabetized the words, laid out the words horizontally as one long, run-on sentence and structured them vertically, like a tower, all in an effort to “think about and look at the text differently.”

The result, “Open to Interpretation,” is both cinematic and interactive. A video screen will feature the 4,062 words in the portion, one at a time. Then, by using a digital notebook and stylus, museum visitors can replace each word in the Torah portion with symbols, sketches, calligraphy — the options are limitless, Berliner says.

Thereafter, the computer will replace the word every time it appears in the text with the visitor’s creative flourish. The individual interpretations will flash on the screen for future visitors.

The idea is to provide a forum for continual biblical interpretation.

“People’s idiosyncratic and diverse responses to words will transform how the work is read, and then that too is open to interpretation as people see other people’s inkings, symbols, handwriting and metaphors,” Berliner says. “Everyone has a chance to lend their hand to the flavor of the work.”

Vayishlach contains 841 unique words, so visitors will have 841 ways to transform the text. When all the words are replaced, the text will regenerate itself for another round of interpretation. All versions will be saved to a computer.

Berliner was asked in July to participate in “As it is Written.” He said yes immediately.

“I like being part of a community of artists … cumulatively assembling our own version of some kind of ritual Torah,” Berliner says. “This text has been dissected in so many different ways, and here is a chance to do a new kind of midrash in a museum context where there really are no rules.”

“As it is Written” also features an ornate 19th-century ark from India, on loan from the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley. Next to the ark is a screen featuring a slideshow of photographs of arks from Bay Area synagogues, “to show how they are all different,” says CJM Executive Director Connie Wolf.

Those images will complement text explaining the logistics of a Torah — how it is stored, how it is dressed and what happens when it is damaged.

Another slideshow will feature images that illustrate a Jew’s most common first interaction with a Torah: a bar or bat mitzvah. Bay Area Jews of all ages submitted photographs from their b’nai mitzvah, and a slideshow will feature these awkward 13-year-olds holding a Torah.

Throughout the year, the b’nai mitzvah slideshow and the art will change as more people submit their photos and artists submit additional artwork.

“The Torah is never stagnant, and so we’ve made the exhibit that way because we should never stop studying from and reading about the Torah,” Wolf says.

“As It Is Written” is open now through fall 2010.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Tuesday and 1 to 8 p.m. Thursdays. The museum is closed Wednesdays.

The Torah scribe does not work on Shabbat.

For more information, visit www.thecjm.org.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.