Female scribes unlock the power of the word

Ariele Mortkowitz talks with a group of women at an in-person SVIVAH event before the pandemic. Photo Courtesy of Ariele Mortkowitz

There’s probably no one who has a more intimate relationship with the 304,805 letters in the Torah than those who hand inscribe them.

“Handwriting is actually even more individual than a fingerprint,” said Julie Seltzer, who just completed writing her fourth Torah scroll. “Which is a fascinating counterbalance to scrolls that contain, well most of them, the same exact words.”

Scribes learn from other scribes, and many male scribes refuse to teach females the craft. This, in addition to Orthodox communities not accepting the writings of women as kosher, makes the soferet, or female scribe, a rare species.

Seltzer is one of the first women known to have written a Torah and is part of an international collective of progressive Jewish women who scribe, known as “Tam.”
Seltzer took a Zoom group of some 60 women to a behind-the-scenes look at the meticulous work that goes into scribing. Her turkey feather pen glided across her parchment as she enthusiastically explained the process.


“Each scroll is absolutely unique,” the scribe said to the group. “Just as each human is unique.”

On that night of Jan. 26, local women’s organization Svivah had their HerTorah session: “Women Writing Torah,” in which the group explored the intimate intricacies of scribal artists.

“Everyone that enters the room is as much a teacher as she is a student,” said Ariele Mortkowitz, the founding director of Svivah.

Svivah began meeting in 2020 as an in-person gathering. It has since gone virtual. Its subset HerTorah allows multi-generational Jewish women to come together and have rich conversations about not only Jewish texts, but about their lives.

“So often in the Jewish community we are silo-ed,” said Rabbanit Aliza Sperling, the program’s director. “There’s some people at this synagogue and some people are at this congregation. We never get to talk to each other or get the richness to hear one another.”

Sperling takes a Socratic approach to the group’s learning sessions. She brings a diverse selection of speakers to HerTorah, but encourages each individual in the room (or on the Zoom call) to add her perspective.

“Teaching at its core is not one person telling someone else what to think or believe. It’s all of us coming together and pooling our wisdom; in our case, around Jewish text,” she said.
“I could tell you from my perspective what the Torah says. But it’s so much better if I bring a question or we look in depth at a concept in the Torah and everyone brings their own wisdom to the table then we can really craft something together.”

Rabbi Yonah Lavery-Yisraeli led the group through the history of women and Torah scribery. Her message was that although it may seem like females have been shut out from the practice, the legacy exists and Jewish women today have that ancestral connection.

“When we’re thinking about lineage and sofrut [the scribal art], we don’t have to feel like orphans or like we are the newcomers into the story,” Lavery-Yisraeli told the group. “There’s a history of women writing Torah scrolls that goes back further than anyone could know. “

The group also hosted Shoshana Gugenheim Kedem, whose scribal practice led to her current mission of trying to source sustainable parchment for scribes.

“It’s a system of exploitation of the workers, the animals and the land,” she said about the process in which animal hide is collected for the parchment.

Mortkowitz and Sperling say they hope their event, and others hosted by Svivah, will encourage more women to connect with their scared texts.

“This beautiful text is all of ours. It belongs to all of us,” said Mortkowitz. “So whatever it is that you bring, even if you’ve never opened a Jewish book in your life, you have wisdom that we need to learn from you that’s going to elevate our collective learning together.”

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