September 23, 2020

With the Torah Project, women embrace their role in Judaism

We are beginning a new Torah cycle – the Five Books of Moses. As we do every year soon after our New Year – or Rosh Hashanah – we start over again with the reading of Genesis and, over the course of a year, complete the reading of the entire Five Books of Moses.

The Torah scroll is the most precious material object a Jewish community owns. The beautiful calligraphy is hand-written in Hebrew by a learned scribe. It is written on parchment, the parchment sewn together to form a large scroll. The scroll is attached to two wooden dowels so that it can be rolled to the proper place for each week’s Biblical reading.

In modern Jewish congregations, women and men participate equally. In traditional or Orthodox congregations, women do not participate in the services on an equal basis with men.

“I was bat mitzvah [the Jewish coming of age ceremony which takes place at age 13] at a traditional synagogue where I was not allowed to touch the Torah because I was female,” Andrea Sher-Leff, a Jewish artist, wrote. “I began to fight the patriarchy of my religion as a teenager because I didn’t believe that I shouldn’t be able to do things just because I was a female. It has been a long journey, a journey full circle.”

The long journey to which Sher-Leff is referring is that over the last 40 years, Judaism has been both changed and energized by integrating Jewish women into leadership positions including that of rabbi and cantor.

Andrea and Wendy Graff are excited about a new Jewish venture called the Women’s Torah Project. Its purpose is to “create the first Torah known to be scribed by women.”

“I have long searched for egalitarian ways to experience my Jewish spiritual and cultural heritage,” Graff, one of the organizers of the project, wrote. “When my community broke out of the gate to challenge some 3,000 years of tradition, I leapt eagerly into the saddle. The possibility of jumping over this epic barrier to gender equity was simply irresistible.

“It was disconcerting to comprehend that the Torah, feminine in gender in the Hebrew language, had never been scribed by a woman. Read from every week in Jewish communities around the world, considered the most sacred Jewish object, the Torah is copied letter by letter and word by word, only by men.”

Change is inevitable. Nothing stays the same. Judaism and the Jewish people have existed for 4,000 years. We remain vital and vibrant as a people because we have managed to change, adapt and evolve while maintaining our connection to our unique beliefs, practices and history.

Feminism has changed our country, even our world. Opportunities for women in some countries are equal to opportunities for men. Feminism is changing the face of religion. Now young Jewish women know that they, too, can become leaders in the Jewish world.

The Women’s Torah Project is one more example of the opportunities that are being explored and expanded within our Jewish world.

“The Women’s Torah will be physically created and adorned by a collection of women,” Wendy Graff wrote, “supported every step of the way by other women and men around the world. It will be born of, and into, community.

“It’s no secret that traditional Judaism, like every other mainstream religion, is highly patriarchal. It’s also no secret that thousands of women and men have worked over the past several decades to rectify gender inequities and make language and practice more inclusive. With the aid of revised liturgical texts, thoughtful service leaders, and broad cultural change, many of us have carved out egalitarian ways to see ourselves and our daughters in Jewish practice.

“The Women’s Torah Project,” she continued, “is already about more than creating a Torah, although that would be enough. It is about more than opening doors for women called to meaningful work that has been denied to them for millennia because of their gender, although that, too, would be enough. It is about transformation, about bringing people closer to Torah by bringing Torah closer to them. The Women’s Torah will be a symbol, not an artifact. It will be another catalyst for transforming Judaism, and the Kadima Congregation [in Seattle, Washington] and its new Reconstructionist family will be at its heart.”

The Jewish Reconstructionist movement views change as a strength and the evolving nature of the Jewish people as a sign of our diversity and of our ability to grow and adapt. Feminism is a core component to modern Judaism in general and to the Reconstructionist movement in particular.

Endeavors like the Women’s Torah Project exemplify the growth, strength and sensitivity, which characterize progressive and modern Jewish life. May we continue to grow from strength to strength.

Rabbi Barry Krieger is the rabbinic facilitator for the Hillel organization at the University of Maine in Orono. E-mail

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