Assuming the Privileges of Patriarchy

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January 1, 2000
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Lori Hope Lefkovitz

Shoshana Gugenheim’s vision of children watching their mothers write a Torah scroll is a moving one, and women reclaiming Torah through sofrut has barrier-breaking power: the first woman surgeon, rabbi, and now . . . scribe. Adding this role to women’s options represents another step towards women’s access to all positions of Jewish authority.

Authors have authority, and scribes, I presume, transcribe. Returning us to Sinai, Gugenheim invokes a trope of Jewish feminism that has to date emphasized the difference between authority and transcription precisely by questioning what we heard at Sinai. Thus, Judith Plaskow’s theology, Standing Again At Sinai, reminds us that Moses’s words presume an all male assembly and that this error is corrected only with intellectual effort. In Helene Aylon’s artistic work, “The Liberation of G-d,” a project both similar and contrary to Gugenheim’s Torah project, Aylon glued transparent parchment over each page of the Five Books of Moses and highlighted each word of “vengeance, cruelty, and misogyny. . . attributed to G-d.” The time-honored rabbinic practice of patient commentary, with the difference of baby-girl-pink highlighter imposed defiantly but lovingly on the face of the Torah, indicates where Aylon’s record might have differed.

Gugenheim envisions feminist differences: scribes working collectively, community sponsorships, travelling Torah scrolls, a distinctively women’s version of the mitzvah to create a Torah for oneself. And the paradox is clear: Claiming essential distinctions between the sexes enforces sexual and gender boundaries; but at the same time, the unique history of the female body and women’s socialization asserts itself as a commitment to act with meaningful difference. Like the customs of women’s kippot and tallitot, the simchat bat ceremony or the bat mitzvah, feminist innovation promises a transformative effect on our whole tradition. (For example, the brit milah ceremony, influenced by ceremonies for girls, has become more engaging and the influence of women’s craft is evident in magnificent unisex tallitot.)

My daughters will wear tallit and teffilin, and I am delighted that the gifts will come from grandparents, one of whom holds smicha from the Mir Yeshiva of pre-war Lithuania. I do not, however, use these articles myself. Among other reasons, I have not yet been able to bind or wrap myself in the concession that male Judaism is normative Judaism. Each assumption of patriarchal prerogative and each feminist adoption of the trappings of Jewish masculinity require thoughtfulness. Adding women’s restrooms to seminary dormitories was not enough to make Jewish learning centers hospitable to women.

My mental picture of the sofer has been of an ancient, pious Jew with bony fingers. To picture women scribes, especially from around the world, changes this mythic image from black and white to color. Gugenheim’s project invites us to think about the effects on our cultural mythologies when women assume here-to-fore male prerogatives. We are reminded that Judaism is a living religion, not simply nostalgia. For some, this vitality feels like colorization, a false effect, an imposition. For others, it is a moral and spiritual imperative.

Since the holy essence of writing a Torah rests with the intentions of the sofer, I hope women scribes carry the intention of tikkun, reparation, in their hearts with each letter. To the women scribes: May the work of your hands be blessed, and may it be for a blessing.

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Lori Hope Lefkovitz is Associate Professor and Director of Kolot: The Center for Jewish Women's and Gender Studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Her forthcoming book, co-edited with Julia Epstein, is Shaping Losses: Cultural Memory and the Holocaust.

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