Using our Past to Write our Future

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One reason for Judaism’s survival is its ability to merge tradition with progress. Since we don’t live in a bubble, the Jewish community has grown in a number of ways that reflect the society at large. Women and LGBT Jews are now rabbis. Children of intermarriage are active and valuable members of the Jewish community. It’s our ingenuity that allows us to always find a way to root that growth in our shared heritage, insuring that our religious bond is what holds us together.

An article in the New York Times about former JOI staff member Julie Seltzer illustrates perfectly the balance of tradition and progress. Seltzer is a soferet, a female Torah scribe. Traditionally a job held only by men, Seltzer estimates she is one of “perhaps 10 women in the world” who write the Torah and other “restricted” documents.

What’s even more interesting about Seltzer’s profession is how she is currently employed – writing a Torah in public. She is the central “performer” (though she doesn’t like that term) at an exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco called “As It Is Written: Project 304,805.” The number comes from the exact number of letters used in a Torah scroll.

The exhibition is a celebration of the progress women are making in the arena of Torah scribes, said Connie Wolf, the museum’s director. On the museum’s website, she explains that the “Torah is a wonderfully alive document at the heart of Jewish life,” and the demonstration aims to “create a unique platform for everyone, regardless of background, to enter into a dialogue with the text.”

Seltzer will be working on the project through the fall of 2010, so there is plenty of time to see her at work if you are going to be in the San Francisco area. As a Torah scribe, she is adhering to the rigorous demands of tradition and history that come with such a job – writing with quills carved from turkey feathers, adding the delicate flourishes that define each letter. But as a woman, her gender serves as inspiration, showing us that a combination of new with old is what will strengthen our community into the future.

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