News: Scribe writes a scroll, and revises a tradition

December 11 , 2008
By: Johanna Ginsberg

W. Orange soferet works as a member of all-women team

Linda Coppleson of West Orange, one of a handful of sofrot in the world, is part of a three-woman team working on the first Torah scroll commissioned to be inscribed by women. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg

Linda Coppleson, in kipa and tzitzit, bends over a large square of parchment on her artist’s table. She picks up a quill, checks the words in the small text next to her, and bends over the parchment, reciting the letters as she demonstrates how a traditional sofer, or scribe, creates a Torah scroll.

Of course, “traditional” is a relative term when it comes to Coppleson. While she is engaged in a practice now thousands of years old, she is also one of fewer than a dozen sofrot, or female scribes of sacred texts, in the world. The West Orange woman is one of three sofrot working on the first Torah scroll commissioned exclusively for women scribes by a Reconstructionist community in Seattle.

Although the Torah scroll was commissioned in 2003, Coppleson signed on to the project only recently. After receiving her parchment and her assignment – Bamidbar, or Numbers – she began on Nov. 30. As a calligrapher, she has written and illustrated many documents, from ketubot, or wedding contracts, to megillot, to commemorative fund-raising scrolls. This, however, will be her first Torah.

“I said a Sheheheyanu” – a prayer for new beginnings – she told a visitor just a few days after she began. “It was very emotional. I was nervous. I was aware of tradition on my shoulders. It was a very spiritual moment.”

Coppleson, a member of the Summit Jewish Community Center, teaches Hebrew Bible at the upper school of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union in West Orange. She had been doing Hebrew calligraphy for years, and finally decided, five or six years ago, to combine her two passions. She contacted Dr. Eric Ray, a scribe, to ask to become an apprentice. Ray, who died in 2005, was both a sofer and an art historian.

“You don’t go to school and get a degree. It’s a process,” Coppleson said. “At some point you come to the realization that you are a soferet. You have a sense that you are qualified and the confidence that you can do a good job.”

Sofrut, the scribal art, requires not only skill in calligraphy but also in Halacha, or Jewish law, and text. The apprenticeship includes technical training – how to repair a scroll, how to cut a quill – as well as text study. Scribes must learn how to approach the writing with the right kavana, or intentionality, and what rituals are required before, during, and after writing.

While Coppleson finished the basics with Ray, she continued to study texts intensively in a hevruta, or paired study, with soferet Jen Taylor Friedman and a third scribe.

‘A fabulous idea’

Coppleson had known that Kadima, a Reconstructionist congregation in Seattle, had initiated its Women’s Torah Project in order to create a scroll and contacted project director Wendy Graff when she felt ready.

“I was vetted more carefully than Sarah Palin,” she quipped, before receiving approval and being hired. She joins what is now an international triumvirate of women that includes Shoshana Gugenheim of Jerusalem and Rachel Reichhardt of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Women artists from around the country are also contributing artwork for the project.

Graff conceived Kadima’s Women’s Torah Project in 2000; at the time, the congregation did not have its own scrolls. It still does not.

“We’d borrow Torahs from local congregations and Hillel,” said Graff. “Every once in a while, we would run into a scheduling conflict, where the Torah was double-booked, and once we borrowed a Torah for Simhat Torah that was littered with little yellow Post-its, marking places where it needed to be repaired. We decided that we really wanted our own,” Graff said.

When their rabbi at the time suggested acquiring a scroll inscribed by women, “several of us thought that was a fabulous idea and kept hounding her for leads…,” Graff said. “We discovered that the reason there weren’t any woman-scribed Torahs is because there weren’t any women Torah scribes.”

Women scribes, they learned, had to overcome a series of cultural and halachic taboos (see sidebar). The project ended up underwriting the completion of studies for two women, Gugenheim and Aviel Barclay, who is widely recognized as the first soferet. Barclay finished her training in 2003. She is no longer with the project. Gugenheim finished her training in 2005.

Coppleson said she is averaging 15 lines per day. Her goal is to finish Bamidbar in six months.

“This is the first Torah scroll written by a community of women intentionally working together,” said Graff. “Working together in groups is part of what women do, and this Torah really embodies that – it will be the first created in that context.”

Coppleson, however, seems wary of transforming their work into a feminist message.

“What’s important here is the fact that it’s a Torah. I don’t want a feminist statement to overtake the kedusha of the Torah,” she said. “I kept away from this project at first. But the fact is that it is a Torah. And I can put the fact that I’m a woman in the back seat. The Torah is more important to me than who is doing it.”

Sidebar: ‘A changed world’

IN 2007, SOFERET Jen Taylor Friedman became the first woman scribe to complete a Torah scroll, in a commission undertaken after Kadima’s Women’s Torah Project was launched in 2003. The scroll is owned by the United Hebrew Congregation in St. Louis.

Yet scribes like Friedman and Coppleson needed to confront an array of obstacles, included a specific injunction in the Talmud that prohibits them from writing Jewish holy texts.

The Talmud states that “sifrei Torah, tefillin, and mezuzot written by a heretic, an informer, a heathen, a slave, a woman, a minor, a Cuthean, and an apostate Jew are disqualified.” (Gittin 45b)

Coppleson, a Conservative Jew, has taken on the obligation of tefillin. From her perspective, this act and the change in the historical context of women resolves the issue.

“The Talmud is very clear about women not writing,” she said, but went on to point out that the Talmud is also clear that whoever is qualified should write a Torah and that whoever cannot should have someone else write it instead.

“For the time of the Talmud, it was something that would follow – that women would not be qualified,” she said; but today, “life is different for women. It was a pragmatic law.” Now, she said, in “a changed world,” when women have the same opportunities as men, it is fitting to remove them from forbidden categories.

That does not mean everyone will consider the scrolls she writes kosher. Orthodox Jews would probably not; but most Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist authorities would.

Also, Coppleson is not certified. There are two main certifying bodies, both in Jerusalem and both Orthodox bodies that would understand Halacha as prohibiting women from becoming scribes. Coppleson’s teacher, Dr. Eric Ray, had plans to establish an institute to teach and certify men and women as Torah scribes; however, he died in 2005 before accomplishing his goal.

Coppleson also noted another obstacle: She is left-handed, and some traditional texts disqualify lefties from writing a Torah scroll. “There are all sorts of cultural taboos about lefties,” she said. But the verse has been reinterpreted, she said, to mean that “a righty shouldn’t write a Torah with the left hand, and vice versa.”