A Woman as a Scribe
Almost two years ago, our synagogue hired a Torah scribe to clean and repair a sefer torah which had been rescued from the Nazis. Several of us had the opportunity to help clean the Torah and “letter” it by placing our hand over the scribe’s as he wrote, thus fulfilling the commandment for every Jew to write a Torah. I became fascinated and deeply moved by this work. The feeling of standing in front of the open Torah, of sensing the spirit of the original scribe, of the generations before me who rejoiced and wept in its presence, is a powerful one. I so love this feeling of being connected to God and to my people through the Torah that I would like to learn how to be a scribe in my own right, if that is possible. I already have art and calligraphy backgrounds, and I am deeply committed to this.
Could you please reply to me in the form of a responsum on the subject of women participating in the scribal arts? If you have particular advice as to a course of study, I would appreciate hearing that, too. (Julietta Ackerman, Goldens Bridge, NY)
Many of us, upon reading this question, can readily identify with your experience. We too can remember how we felt when we stood before the open sefer torah and sensed for the first time the power and significance of this scroll in our lives, in the way in which we define who we are. And for good reason. Jewish tradition regards the study of Torah as the means by which we discover God’s will, how we are to live so as to sanctify the divine name. The world, we are taught, exists for the sake of three things, one of which is Torah.1 And the study of Torah is equivalent to the performance of all the other commandments.2 The Torah and the study of Torah are, therefore, the quintessential Jewish religious acts. Little wonder, then, that a child marks the occasion of reaching religious majority by being called to the Torah, for it is through participation in the life of Torah that one learns most truly just what it means to grow as a Jewish adult, to be a Jew.
The Traditional Prohibition.
Yet the fact remains that Torah as an intellectual and spiritual discipline has traditionally been reserved to males. Let us take, for example, your own experience of “fulfilling the commandment for every Jew to write a Torah”, a commandment derived from Deuteronomy 31:19, “therefore, write down this poem and teach it to Israel.”3 The author of the Sefer Hachinukh, an important medieval work, uses exalted language to describe the purpose of this mitzvah:4 “God instructed that each Jew should have a sefer torah readily available to study…in order to learn to revere God and to understand God’s commandments, which are more precious to us than gold…”. But the phrase “each Jew” is severely qualified: “This commandment is practiced in every community and in every age5 by males, who are obligated to study the Torah and therefore to write it, and not by females.”
Women, in other words, are exempt from the commandment to write a Torah scroll because they are also exempt from talmud torah, the requirement to study Torah. The source of this exemption is a midrash, a rabbinic legal interpretation of Deuteronomy 11:19: “you shall teach (My words) to beneikhem.” This Hebrew word is the second person inflection of banim, which means either “children” or “sons”, and according to the rules of Hebrew grammar it can be rendered correctly as either “your children” or “your sons”. The midrash seizes upon the latter alternative: beneikhem means your sons and excludes your daughters. Hence, a father need not teach Torah to his daughter, nor is she required to study it on her own.6 Since a woman is exempt from the commandment to study Torah, the rabbis deduce through the interpretive principle of simukhin, which draws comparisons between adjacent Torah verses or subjects, that she is also exempt from the mitzvah of tefillin.7 And–once again through the principle of simukhin–if she is exempt from the requirement to wear tefillin, she is not qualified to write them, or to write mezuzot or Torah scrolls.8 As Maimonides puts it: “Torah scrolls, tefillin, or mezuzah parchments that are written by a woman are unfit for use (pesulin) and should be stored away.”9 Thus does the tradition disqualify women from serving as scribes.
Critique of the Traditional View.
The position we have just described, which is the consensus view of the halakhah, is not immune to critique. We would argue that the traditional prohibition, though strictly observed in the Orthodox community, is flawed as a matter of Jewish law. We note, first of all, that the rule which disqualifies women from serving as scribes rests upon a thoroughly arbitrary reading of the Torah. The midrash on Deuteronomy 11:19 which interprets beneikhem as “your sons” rather than as “your children” could just as easily and correctly have chosen the alternate translation. Indeed, the halakhah often does read banim and its various inflections as “children”, undistinguished by gender.10 This more inclusive reading is even adopted when the subject under discussion is a matter of ritual observance, where we would expect the rabbis to draw a distinction between men and women. A case in point is Numbers 15:38, which states: “speak to benei yisrael (sons/children of Israel) and tell them to make fringes (tzitzit) on the corners of their garments”. The Talmud cites this wording to prove that only Jews (benei yisrael) and not Gentiles are permitted to make the ritual fringes.11 Note that the text reads the phrase benei yisrael as “children”, rather than “sons” of Israel; accordingly, most halakhists rule that Jewish women, no less than Jewish men, are qualified to make tzitzit.12 In other words, nothing prevents the rabbis from reading the Hebrew banim as “children” rather than “sons”, including males and females alike within the terms of a mitzvah. They are not compelled, therefore, to interpret Deuteronomy 11:19 so as to exempt women from the mitzvah of Torah study and, by extension, from tefillin and from serving as scribes.
Why then did the rabbis of the Talmud adopt that restrictive interpretation? Clearly, the sages of late antiquity did not possess what we would call an “enlightened” view of the female mind and character. They believed it inappropriate and even dangerous for women to occupy themselves with the study of Torah. Thus, although women were not absolutely forbidden to study and even received a certain merit for doing so, “the Sages command that a father not teach Torah to his daughter, for most women are not intellectually suited to learn. Rather, due to their lack of intelligence, they are liable to interpret the words of Torah in vain and foolish ways. As the Sages teach us: `if one teaches his daughter Torah, it is as though he teaches her obscenity.'”13 This attitude, though not the only one represented in talmudic literature, is of a piece with other rabbinic statements concerning women14 and, as the codes indicate, it is the accepted halakhah regarding women and Torah study. Given this intellectual and cultural reality, it is no surprise that the rabbis chose to read Deuteronomy 11:19 in the way that they do.
In our age, it is hardly necessary to state that the rabbinic view of women’s mental capacity does not correspond with the facts. We reject that view, therefore, not because it is politically incorrect but because it is false. And since it is demonstrably false, since it contradicts our own intellectual and cultural reality, one need not be a Reform Jew to recognize its falsehood. Indeed, leading traditional scholars have acknowledged that women are no less capable of learning than are men and that the rabbinic conception of female intelligence does not fit the “woman of today”.15 This is important, because the exclusion of women from the mitzvah of Torah study was justified largely on the basis of their supposed intellectual inadequacies. In the absence of this conception, the rabbis would not have ruled Torah study off-limits to women. And in a time when the evidence of our eyes so clearly demonstrates the collapse of that conception, no justification exists for rabbis, Orthodox or otherwise, to maintain the restrictive interpretation of Deuteronomy 11:19 which denies to women the opportunity to participate as equals in this mitzvah.16
The View of Reform Judiasm.
Reform Judaism dissents sharply from this prohibition. Our movement rejects any attempt to draw distinctions in ritual practice on the basis of gender. Over the years, we have worked to remove the barriers that deny women equal access to all avenues of Jewish religious expression, learning, and leadership. Women serve our communities as rabbis, cantors, and mohalot (performers of ritual circumcision); there is no reason to deny them, should they possess the requisite education and skills, the opportunity to function as soferot setam, writers of Torah scrolls, tefillin, and mezuzot.
Since this is a matter of religious principle for us, we would maintain our dissent even if it were impossible to argue cogently on textual grounds against the traditional prohibition. Why then do we make such an argument? Obviously, we do not expect that Orthodox authorities will change their position because of anything we say. We rather seek to demonstrate that, according to halakhah no less than on grounds of ethical principle, women ought to be obligated to study Torah and thus permitted to write sacred texts. Such to our mind is the most persuasive reading of the sources of Jewish law, one which Orthodox halakhists could adopt with halakhic integrity.
You, Ms. Ackerman, ought therefore to be able to serve the entire Jewish community, and not just its liberal segment, as a scribe. That some deny you this opportunity is the result of a prohibition which, as we have seen, flows from arbitrary textual interpretation and long-outdated psychology. This is a regrettable state of affairs which, we hope, will one day change. In the meantime, you should not let it hinder you from working toward your goal.
Your goal is, in fact, our goal as well. The Reform movement is deeply interested in training and producing soferim/ot, just as it produces rabbis, cantors, and other religious leaders.17 We also urge you to remember that as a scribe you will serve the community as a teacher of Torah as well as an inscriber of texts. A scribe, like a rabbi, embodies for other Jews the value of the study of Torah, the commandment that is equivalent to all the others combined. It is therefore incumbent upon the scribe, no less than upon the rabbi or other communal servants, to continue to study Torah with the greatest intensity of which he or she is capable. This study should include, at a minimum, a careful reading of the Torah itself, the weekly portions along with their haftarot, in the original Hebrew. In addition, you should learn the traditional halakhot, the laws concerning the writing of Torah scrolls, tefillin, and mezuzot. A good source for these is Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, which contains a section devoted to this subject.
You say that it is your dream to become a scribe. We say that you have every right to pursue that dream and to serve your people thereby. We pray that God grant you the energy, perseverance, and insight to make your dream come true.
M. Avot 1:2. And see BT. Pesachim 68b: “were it not for the Torah, even heaven and the earth could not exist”. BT. Shabbat 127a. BT. Sanhedrin 21b. See Yad, Hilkhot Sefer Torah 7:1: “that is to say, write for yourselves the Torah which contains this poem [in parashat Ha’azinu], for we write the Torah whole and not section by section.” Sefer Hachinukh, mitzvah 613. i.e., it is not restricted to the land of Israel or to the days when the Temple was standing. BT Kiddushin 29b; Yad, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:1; YD 246:6. BT Kiddushin 34a. Since these two commandments are mentioned side by side (Deuteronomy 6:7-8 and 11:18-19), the rabbis learn that what is true of the one (women are exempt from Torah study) is true of the other (women are exempt from tefillin). Since the commandment of mezuzah (“you shall write them on the doorposts of your house… Deuteronomy 6:9) is adjacent to the commandment of tefillin (“you shall bind them… Deuteronomy 6:8), what is true of “binding” (women are exempt) is true of “writing” as well; BT. Menachot 42b and BT Gitin 45b. In the version of this baraita which appears in the printed version of M. Soferim 1:13, “woman” is not mentioned among the list of those who are unfit to write a sefer torah. However, the Gaon of Vilna reads “woman” in his text of Soferim; moreover, the exclusion of women seems demanded by the very logic behind this rule (“whoever does not wear tefillin may not write them”). Yad, Hilkhot Tefillin 1:13; SA, OC 39:1; SA, YD 281:3. The Tur, YD 281, does not mention “woman” among those who are disqualified to write a Torah scroll. From this, some would learn that while a woman may not write tefillin she is permitted to write a sefer torah (Derishah ad loc.). But this is not the majority halakhic position (Siftey Kohen, SA, YD 281, # 6). The Torah speaks of the Israelite community as benei yisrael, the “children” of Israel, a designation which almost always includes women as well as men. For example: according to all opinions the well-known statement in Leviticus 19:2 (“speak to benei yisrael and tell them: `you shall be holy…'”) is addressed to the entire community and not merely to its sons. BT. Menachot 42a. Yad, Hilkhot Tzitzit 1:12. On the basis of BT Menachot 42a, Rambam prohibits Gentiles from making the fringes, and he does not include women within this prohibition. Tosafot, Menachot 42a, s.v. minayin and BT. Tosafot, Gittin 45b, s.v. kol; R. Asher, Hilkhot Tzitzit, # 13; SA, OC 14:1; Hagahot Maimoniot, Tzitzit 1, # 9. Some medieval authorities want to read benei yisrael in this verse as “sons of Israel”, thereby disqualifying women as well as Gentiles from making tzitzit; see Hagahot Maimoniot ad loc. But theirs is definitely a minority opinion. Isserles, SA, OC 14:1, urges that tzitzit not be made by women, but his words are couched in the form of a prudent stringency and not as a statement that, according to the law, women are forbidden to make them. Yad, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:13; see also SA, YD 246:6. The quotation is the dictum of R. Eliezer in M. Sotah 3:4. See also YT Sotah 3:4: “let the Torah’s words be burned rather than given over to women.” E.g., “women are of unstable temperament” (BT. Shabbat 33b and Kiddushin 80b) and “women’s sole wisdom lies in the spinning of yarn” (BT. Yoma 66b). See Arukh Hashulchan, YD 246, # 19, and Torah Temimah, Deut. 11:19, # 48, end. And see, especially, R. Ben Zion Ouziel’s description of “today’s woman” in his Resp. Mishpetey Ouziel, v. 3, # 6, where counter to the orthodox rabbinic majority he rules in favor of female suffrage. Moreover, despite women’s supposed mental inferiority, halakhists have long required them to study those aspects of Jewish law which apply directly to them. See Isserles, YD 246:6, and Tosafot, BT. Sotah 22b, s.v. ben azai. One cannot defend a refusal to remove the prohibition on the basis of “hallowed tradition.” The halakhah allows contemporary rabbis to depart from the rulings of their predecessors when those rulings were based upon an observable reality that has changed since their day. See R. Eliezer Berkovits, Hahalakhah: kochah vetafkidah (Jerusalem, 1981), 48ff. Ms. Ackerman was informed of the efforts by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations to hold an institute for the teaching of scribal skills during the summer of 1996.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.