Tuesday, June 16, 2015


A reporter interviewed me about the Torah I wrote for a congregation in Madison, Wisconsin (article here). The only material that made it into the finished product was regarding my parental leave, so I thought I would post the other questions which dealt with more substantial and relevant issues.

Why did you decide to become a Torah scribe?
 A teacher at my yeshivah thought that I had nice handwriting and sent me to learn with a scribe he knew. I was eager to learn, because ritual writing permeates Jewish life in all sorts of ways and it seemed only natural to study that rather than take it for granted.

How did you develop your skills?

I learnt from a variety of teachers. First I had to learn how to make a straight line, then decent-looking letters, then how to things like cut a quill from a feather and how to erase ink from parchment. In parallel I had to learn the halakhah (Jewish law) relevant to writing various documents. I began by learning the normal way of doing things according to mainstream, current Ashkenazi conventions, but came to learn much from Sepharadi and Yemenite scribes and scholarship, in particular the work of Rav Yosef Qapah (1917 - 2000). Much Yemenite scholarship has a rationalist, practical outlook which is a breath of fresh air in a field which is too often, these days, dominated by more fanciful mystical elements.

What is your work environment like?

Predictably, my writing desk is a hideous mound of parchment, spilled ink, empty coffee mugs, knives, weird tomes, and slashed-up feathers. It crouches in the corner of our dining room. It is by a window which looks out onto the street, which has distracted me from my work with the entertaining arrest of many a drunken Swede (I live above a bar).

While you are writing, are you following the biblical narrative or are you lost in the letters?

You can try this for yourself by writing out a few sentences from a book in careful handwriting. You will see that it is not at all like watching a story unfold, but neither can one be lost in the letters, either. Many layers of attention are folded over the text at once.

Do you do this full time, or do you have other jobs or income?

This is my day job.

How has it been working with Congregation Shaarei Shamayim?

Excellent. They have been interested in the work, curious to learn along the way. They have been confident in explaining what they want, bold and unfazed by mainstream expectation. For example, my writing has been heavily influenced by Yemenite scholarship, which makes it look different from the vast majority of Torah scrolls available in North America. It also uses conventions which were once widespread even in Ashkenazi Torah scrolls, but which haven't been used for more than a hundred years. Congregation Shaarei Shamayim has not been intimidated by these unusual choices, but rather has been energised by the thought that they are helping support and renew these traditions, perhaps as one is energised by the thought of protecting a rare animal.

As you know, there remains debate over whether women should be scribes. How do you respond to those who say your Torah will not be kosher and should not be used liturgically?

Obviously, I believe that Jewish law says otherwise. But I do not lose sleep over this. There are some fringe groups within Orthodoxy that I think are not kosher to write Torah scrolls, and they don't lose sleep over my opinion -- as far as I know.

From the outside, writing a Torah could appear tedious and repetitive. How has the process been for you?

I mean, attentiveness is a skill. I don't ask for entertainment from my work, rather it demands my attentiveness.

What will the dedication of this Torah be like for you?

I think that I have little to do with it, other than saying a few words at their kind invitation. It is a celebration by their community of their collective achievement -- successfully putting their time, will, and resources towards obtaining a new Torah scroll. They will celebrate this in their own way.

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