June 07

Shoshana Gugenheim: Woman of the Book

Rachel Barenblat

Born and raised in the United States and now living in Jerusalem, fiber, mosaic, and calligraphy artist Shoshana Gugenheim has spent the last decade of her professional life wrestling with the question of what it means for a woman to write holy text. In the process, she has become one of the sofrot (female Torah scribes) tasked with crafting the first—ever sefer Torah written entirely by women's hands.

As I thought about the question of what it means for women to take up the work of scribing sifrei Torah, I was struck by the realization that it has taken a long time for a woman to appear in these virtual pages of conversations with movers, shakers, and makers of spiritual life that I contribute to Zeek. It is not that I meant to wait six months before introducing women's voices into the series; but somehow, most of the names on the preliminary interview list I created were men.

Recognizing this gap gave me pause. I spent two years working as the editor of a monthly women’s newspaper dedicated to telling women’s stories and honoring women’s experiences. If I of all people fall prey to unthinking sexism, to the internalized sense that the interesting work in the Jewish world is being done mostly by men, how much more does the rest of the Jewish world follow the very same pattern? Overt prejudice toward women is rare in the progressive Jewish circles I frequent, but the unconscious blindness that enables women’s invisibility is pervasive – and hard to root out. It is a subtle and ubiquitous injustice, and one that I don’t like contributing to. I also wonder the extent to which Shoshana Gugenheim's drive to perform her work arises in response to these kinds of unconscious assumptions as well– and to what extent we have an obligation, as thoughtful Jews, to recognize and combat them.

For a woman to dedicate her life not only to sofrut, but specifically to writing a sefer Torah, is radical. Gugenheim isn't just claiming her right to hold forth as a Jewish woman about her reality; she is taking the most fundamental tool of Jewish authorship and authority into her own hands. When I write poems out of my own Jewish experience, I can say I'm "writing the Torah of my life" — but when Gugenheim takes up ink and quill, she is writing her life's Torah in a literal sense.

While some of us applaud that leap, others are horrified by it. The nexus of Gugenheim's attempt to balance halakha with change is fascinating, highlighting the needs of one part of the Jewish community for boundaries and another’s desire for pluralism – not to mention the simple, sharp objections many Jews raise to the desire of her heart to perform work she believes God has called her to do.

Gugenheim's life offers one set of answers to these questions of halakhah, boundaries, gender, the sacred arts, and more — at least answers as they are now, because Gugenheim makes no guarantees of permanency. On the contrary, she cherishes a kind of fluidity that might be problematic for some Jewish thinkers – and might also be exactly what Jewish tradition needs right now.


Rachel Barenblat: Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Shoshana Gugenheim: I grew up both in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Charlotte, North Carolina. The home I grew up in was Classical Reform, and today I'm the only observant person in my family. Bear in mind, this was Reform in the South.

RB: I can relate. I grew up in South Texas. I think this marks two out of three interviews where I've had cause to mention that. How am I attracting so many southern Jews to these conversations? Because South Texas isn't a place that's steeped in Yiddishkeit the way, say, New York is.

SG: Oh, absolutely. We moved when I was 13, and there was some real culture shock. In Cincinnati the public schools closed for the chagim because there were so many Jews! But in Charlotte I formed an identity of otherness. In my graduating class of 1200 there were maybe five Jews. So it was very different. But all my life I've been connected to prayer. I loved going to Temple, I don't know why.

I spent my junior year [of college] abroad in Israel, and fell in love with the place. Not so much with the language at that time, but I started to meet people, to see what Shabbat was — I'd had such a limited Jewish education, and my family's cultural inclination wasn't very Jewish, so I had never heard of Mishnah or Talmud. I didn't know there was a whole canon of literature and parshanut... I immediately started learning. I almost left school to move to Safed and become a ba’al teshuvah — and I'm glad that I had the sense to not do that. I took it much more slowly.

RB: Walk me through the chronology here, if you will.

SG: I came to Israel at twenty for a year. I had studied photography and cultural anthropology and art history in college. I'd always seen myself working for National Geographic, traveling and photographing and meeting people from different cultures, but Israel got hold of me. The first year I came back, my partner at the time was in rabbinical school, so I was around the HUC folks, soaking up their enthusiasm for learning. I decided not to apply to rabbinical school but to apply for the joint master's program in Jewish education at HUC.

RB: And where were you at, artistically, at that point?

SG: I was getting involved in ecology and environmental issues. I looked for the most environmentally benign form of art, and decided to study papermaking. The papermaker I learned with was a calligrapher also, so she taught me both arts. I remember standing in her studio one day — and remember, I was around all these people from HUC, really being exposed to Torah, to services, to having Judaism in my life — and I got this vision, I felt it in my body and coming through me, that I needed to write a sefer Torah. And I was like, whatever! Not going to happen!

But it was intriguing. So I thought, what about a midrashic sefer Torah? So both of these visions, scribing a sefer Torah and the Women of the Book project, were born in the same moment.

Over the next ten years, there was this constant dance of engaging with the idea and running away. I felt I was being called to do this. It wasn't necessarily something I would have chosen — though at this point that's hard to say, because I so believe in the work.

RB: It's shaping you even as you're shaping it.

SG: Yes. In those years I traveled all over Israel to find a sofer who would train me. I met with the head of the yeshiva for learning sofrut in Bnei Brak — but I went under the auspices of being an anthropologist who was researching the idea of a woman writing a Torah.

When I was on the bus going to Bnei Brak, this woman asked me what I was doing, a very dati woman, wig and all. I told her I felt it was my life's calling to write a sefer Torah and Hashem was telling me to do it, and she started to cry and gave me a blessing. And that has mostly been the response.

Though there's obviously some people who feel otherwise. There was one scribe in Jerusalem who began to cry because he was so devastated by what we're doing.

RB: Obviously this project is controversial in parts of the Jewish community. How do you relate to the halakhic question of whether and how it's permissible for a woman to write a sefer Torah?

SG: When I first met with one of the sofrim I would later learn from — and I'm not mentioning names, because that is his request — his concern was, what would happen in 100 years if the sefer Torah got out of the hands of the original community that had commissioned it, and fell into the hands of a community who didn't know it was written by a woman, what would happen then?

A scribe never signs a sefer Torah — so what do you do? Do you write in pencil on the back? There really isn't a way for it to be permanently identified, but some communities wouldn't be comfortable using such a Torah. So that was a concern.

I wrote about the original vision in an article for Sh’ma Women Writing a Sefer Torah.

RB: It's a beautiful piece.

SG: And as you see there, the vision was always community—oriented. I do my own artwork, which I sell, but I'm very interested in the power of community art.

We know that according to halakha women are forbidden to write. So are we going to say that a woman who is observant in the same way that a man would be observant can write? What's the essence of this project? I kept thinking that I knew the answer — it's about empowering women within the halakha. But then I would talk to other people, and it felt like something was gnawing at me. It's not just about the halakha, there's also something about pluralism and about empowerment.

RB: Somewhere in here you went to graduate school.

SG: Yes, I went to graduate school in Boston. I'd been working at the Teva Learning Center, and had decided that I would write my master's thesis on Jewish environmental education and the arts. I had done all the research, had started writing, and one day I had this vision of men dancing around a sefer Torah, and I realized what I had to do was write about this instead. So I wrote about this. Both from the halakhic perspective and from the socio—political perspective, what it would mean for women to write a sefer Torah.

And then I returned to Israel in 2000, a week before the Intifada started, with the intention of writing a sefer Torah somehow. That's when I started learning with a scribe in Jerusalem. I was very clear with him about what I wanted to do.

Mostly at that time I was doing my other artwork. And then one day I heard about the Women's Torah Project — everybody who knew me had had to listen to the whole story about wanting to write a sefer Torah, so I got several emails when another soferet came on the scene.

RB: That would be Avielah Barclay?

SG: Right. I was very happy! It was like, ‘Thank God, someone else is doing this! I don't have to do it!’ Of course, it didn't happen that way.

Fern Feldman called me when Avielah was preparing to leave the project. Over the course of 3 or 4 months, I came on board, and they paid for me to finish my studies. Once I made the commitment to do it, everything opened up.

RB: Was there ever any question of your halakhic suitability for the task?

SG: That was one of the big things they checked out about me. Once we met, I think Avielah felt like I wasn't halakhic enough. It reopened this whole question of ‘who can write?’ Who's sitting on me, to watch and see my practices? Is this about the practices of the heart, or the letter of the law? That's always the question about someone who has an observant life who's willing to question it, to challenge and ask.

At that time, they said: It's going to be written; we're doing it exactly how it's always been done; the only difference is that it's a woman doing the writing. And I was willing to go into it in that way, but that closed down the possibility of other women's voices who weren't already in a halakhic place.

That's what allowed the birthing of the Women of the Book — filling out that missing place. Here we have a historic time when women are writing a sefer Torah. Women of the Book opens it up even more: Who are we when we come to the text? What's our relationship to the text, whoever we are? This is how the women's voices appear.

RB: Do you feel that the Torah you're writing is essentially different from a scroll scribed by a man?

SG: I do think that on a mystical level, it is in its essence different when it's known that it's been written by a woman. And women have stepped up, both halakhic and non—halakhic women, who can say, ‘Okay, this is the halakha, but this needs to happen.’

RB: There's that Reconstructionist formulation: The past gets a vote, not a veto.

SG: Right. I think it's important that the woman who are involved in writing be learned, that they have a strong practice — but the details of that practice I'm less interested in.

The question isn't whether women can do this. Not for me, not now. It's so obvious to me that women need to be doing this. What remains relevant is the practice of each woman who's writing. It's important that it's fluid and changing, not fixed. That's one of my struggles with halakha, that it's fixed. Halakha is about movement, that's the essence of the word.

RB: I wonder sometimes why that meaning doesn't get drashed more often. Halakha is the walking, the path, not something eternally unchanging.

SG: Exactly.

RB: Aside from the scribe in Jerusalem who heard about your work and wept — not in the good way — have you experienced negative reactions to this work?

SG: I have not granted any interviews in Israel because I'm afraid of the lash back. It's a fanatical, extreme kind of place. I'm nervous about that, about someone coming to our home. It's a struggle, because I'm fearful, but I think it's important for people to know about.

RB: Your bio mentions an interest in ‘engaging the arts as a means for transformation and cross—cultural communication.’ It seems to me that this work ties into that — it's cross—cultural within the Jewish world, moving between flexibility and strictness.

SG: Right! That goes back to the question: What's the essence of this project? Is it about working within halakha, or is it about bringing women together to write the most sacred thing in our tradition? And if it's the latter, shouldn't it include women of every practice?

There's fear, because I haven't quite yet in my life been able to fully bridge those two places. Individually I can, but on the community level it's been a challenge. And I'm thankful for that, actually. It keeps my Judaism alive for me.

RB: Is this something women bring to this work — a certain comfort level with fluidity, with change in the structures of our lives?

SG: Yes, I think so.

On one hand, what's the issue? We really need to push this halakhic barrier, as observant women, for the Orthodox and observant community. And on the other hand, there's the larger picture of it, the question of uniting women, the pluralism in Judaism. Women writing. It's a first time. That in itself is enough.

This all arises too with the Women of the Boook project. The most important thing for me is the religious diversity of the women who are involved. The only people who hesitate about applying are secular women, and I encourage them to apply though they feel intimidated by it, as though Torah were not a part of their experience, which it very much is. It might feel far away, but it's not.

RB: Like it says in Dvarim, ‘For the matter is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart that you may do it.’ It's in your heart, maybe whether you know it or not.

SG: Yes! We wanted women of all denominations to be involved. National diversity matters too — we're seeking Ethiopian artists, Russian artists, women from Europe and from Africa and Latin America... And of course there's so much we could be doing, but it's just me and no funding.

RB: It's really a labor of love.

SG: Totally. As is the sefer Torah.

RB: You have an interest in using the arts in service of justice work. Is that a conscious theme for you?

SG: The work I do is birthed from that place. I do go into my studio and I do create for the sake of beauty and function, like when I'm doing mosaic work that's not about any particular issue — and that's important, for any artist, to create for the sake of being creative. And I really do believe we do an injustice to ourselves and society if we don't use our skill and our craft to address a diversity of issues. So it's balance.

RB: In your essay "Women Writing a Sefer Torah," you use imagery that's almost erotic to describe the engagement with Torah: ‘The most intimate way of engaging with the text, the scribing of a sefer Torah.’ Is the capacity for intimacy with the text something that women particularly bring to this work?

SG: I do feel a kind of intimacy with the sefer Torah itself. There's something very powerful in working with the materials of a scribe: skin and feather and sinew. There's something about the sefer Torah — every time it gets taken out and I see it opened up I'm breathless! There's something so sensual about it, both because of its physical form and because it's created from a place of spirit.

The handmade beauty of a sefer Torah allows a connection that doesn't happen otherwise. All beings are naturally drawn to natural materials; you can have a living interaction with a material that has a life of its own.

To be engaged with the whole process, from stretching skin all the way to creating the scroll — that's a full process that engages intimacy in a full way. Women can bring awareness of that to the work.

I did an interview in St. Louis that made me realize how misunderstood things can be. The interviewer said, ‘You must be very angry!’ and I said ‘No, no — it's about love, writing a sefer Torah is only about love! What else could it be?’



Rachel Barenblat is a Contributing Editor of Zeek. To learn about training as a sofer/et or to join Women of the Book, contact Shoshana Gugenheim online at her website.