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Dorshei Emet synagogue commissions female scribe

July 2009

On May 24, the Congregation of Dorshei Emet celebrated a unique and joyous event, the launch of the Torat-Imeinu–the Torah of our Mothers project. In anticipation of its 50th anniversary next year, the Reconstructionist synagogue has commissioned scribe Jen Taylor Friedman to pen a new Torah Scroll. In doing so, Dorshei Emet will be the first synagogue in Canada and the third in the world to receive a Torah handwritten by a woman. The project, to be completed by next spring, is meant to honour all women and illustrates the inclusive nature of the congregation, where women have always been full participants.

“Today we are joining together to link our lives with the Torah, linking ourselves literally with generations past, present and future,” Rabbi Ron Aigen said at the Two Hands on a Quill Family Day, where the congregation was introduced to Taylor Friedman. The event culminated in a moving moment where Hillel Becker, the son of Dorshei Emet’s founder Rabbi Lavy Becker, and a few other long-time members,were guided by the scribe in forming the first letters of the scroll. There is some debate in the different streams of Judaism as to whether a woman may write a Torah for ritual use, Rabbi Aigen explained in an interview. The differences in opinion are due to different interpretations of halacha, or Jewish law.

“Reconstructionism interprets religion as culture, and understands law to be interpreted in a modern context,” Aigen said, while in more traditional interpretations, the focus of women’s lives remains on the home and family. As women are exempt from time-bound commandments that would interfere with their domestic duties, they cannot be obligated, or counted. According to some this would disqualify them from certain actions. However, Reconstructionism looks to the social realm, according to Aigen. “The past is a vote but not a veto.”

Though Orthodox Rabbi Yossi Kessler of the Chabad Centre declined to comment on the legitimacy of female scribes, he did stress the importance of not deviating from the laws. “The laws have been the same for thousands of years; the same shabbes candles, the same blowing of the shofar, the exact same thing for generations. A son, father,grand-father and great grand-father doing the exact same thing as it was written. This is the mainstream of Orthodox Judaism. That’s what makes us last, otherwise we fall apart.”

But things are changing quickly even in the Orthodox world. “Currently in non-Orthodox Judaism, women are able to do everything, including being rabbis,”says Ira Robinson,professor of Judaic studies at Concordia University. “In Orthodox Judaism, women are not able to become rabbis, but they have achieved the ability to educate themselves in Torah, which was not the case a century ago. There is no explicit law barring a woman from being a scribe, and only historical custom restricts this. In non-Orthodox Judaism, this has become a non-issue. In Orthodox Judaism, it still is an issue but not a very prominent one.”

Mitzi Becker (left), Jen Taylor Friedman and Hillel Becker scribe the first letters Photo: Kristine Berey

Writing on the website, Chana Weisberg suggests that women, including those without children to care for, should be given more place in Orthodox Judaism. “While circumstances in the past might have required all women’s time, energy and resources to properly fulfill [domestic] roles,with today’s comforts and technologies, extra talents or energy may be untapped. We need to open up opportunities for women, in prayer gatherings, in the educational arena, in becoming proficient in all areas of Judaic studies, and in areas of communal influence.”

The Torat-Imeinu project was conceived during a morning prayer service, as the Torah was carried by several women and a few men. It was suggested that a lighter Torah was needed, and someone knew of a female scribe.

“I was shocked to find there are not many women scribes, astounded and flabbergasted that in this day and age, where hundreds of women become rabbis, there are few female scribes. I started to pursue the idea three years ago, did research, and found the person we have now,”Aigen said.

As a woman,Taylor Friedman has encountered difficulty on her journey to becoming a scribe. She had to learn the skills required on her own, from books, because she couldn’t find a teacher. Upon completing her first Torah in 2007, she told the Jerusalem Post “Even buying the necessary materials – kulmus (quill), klaf (parchment), giddin (animal sinew), and dyo (ink) – can be tricky. If it’s me buying, they won’t sell it to me. I have a faithful spy network and send people to buy it for me.”

Though she is,unintentionally,a trailblazer, Taylor Friedman’s motivation is a purely personal/spiritual one. She discovered halacha while studying mathematics at university and found her skills in calligraphy harmonized beautifully with her newfound knowledge.

“I love Jewish law; it’s like mathematics, looking at relationships,patterns, in ways things interact with each other. If I wanted to be a career feminist, I could be. Using the Torah as a means to that end would be very inappropriate.” What is she trying to achieve with her work? “Fundamentally what I want to do is make a decent living in a job I’m happy doing which uses the skills God gave me to the fullest extent possible.”



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