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Scribe will Write Out the Entire Text of the Torah at San Francisco Museum
As It Is Written: Project 304,805. Scribe Julie Seltzer. Photo: Bruce Damonte.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- It begins with parchment, ink, a hand-sharpened feather quill, and a scribe who states out loud the intention to write a Torah scroll, the most holy and important object in Judaism. One year, 62 sheets, 248 columns, 10,416 lines, and finally 304,805 letters later, it is written.

Starting this October, the Contemporary Jewish Museum presents As It Is Written: Project 304,805, an exhibition centered around a soferet (a professionally trained female scribe) who while on public view will write out the entire text of the Torah over the course of a full year. She will be one of the few known women to complete an entire Torah scroll, an accomplishment traditionally exclusive to men. As the soferet works within the gallery, she will actively engage in dialogue during a scheduled time each day, answer questions, and share the mysteries and tools of her trade. In this groundbreaking, living exhibition, the Museum will be the first public institution to reveal this traditionally private process unchanged by time for thousands of years. Visitors will have an unprecedented opportunity to learn about one of the world’s foundational religious texts and the spiritual and ritual essence of an enduring scribal art.

Around this central activity, the Museum presents a series of displays that explore the Torah in its many facets: as historical artifact, ritual object, scribal tradition, and contemporary muse. On view will be new works responding to sections of the Torah created by 54 prominent local and national contemporary artists, which will grow over time. There will also be a historical display that includes an old Torah which is no longer in use, as well as examples of the ornamentation associated with the storage and reading of the scrolls and other Jewish scribal arts.

“With this exhibition the Contemporary Jewish Museum becomes an unprecedented, public forum for understanding and contemplating the extraordinary history, mystery, and contemporary relevance of the Torah,” says Museum director Connie Wolf. “The Torah is a wonderfully alive document at the heart of Jewish life – told, re-told, and continually reconsidered through an interpretive process called midrash. We wanted to engage contemporary artists and audiences in that dynamic investigative possibility and create a unique platform for everyone, regardless of background, to enter into a dialogue with the text.”

The Torah and The Torah Scroll
The Torah is the foundational document of the Jewish people, integrating the formative history of Jews with laws that define their fundamental values. The Torah scroll, known as a Sefer Torah, is a handwritten copy of the Torah, or the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). There are many rules and requirements for writing a Sefer Torah, and for how it is used and stored. A Sefer Torah is kept in a Holy Ark in a synagogue and is used in the ritual of Torah reading during weekly services. The text of the Torah is also printed in book form and is known as the Chumash. While the content has tremendous importance also in Christianity and Islam, the Torah scroll is a uniquely Jewish construction at the core of Jewish identity. While other religions adapted their religious texts into book form, Jews held fast to the scroll as a ritual object.

Since ancient times, both the material and spiritual requirements for preparing a Torah scroll have been rigorously fixed. Early on, rabbinic culture froze the technology of the Torah scroll and codified scribal practice in an effort to ensure scrupulous accuracy, thus preserving and fixing the text for eternity. Every detail of the scroll, from the relative size of different letters to requirements for the type of parchment, remains the same to this day.

“Preparation of a Torah scroll connects you through time as very few things do,” says Alan Cooper, provost and professor of biblical studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the Museum’s advisory partner for the exhibition. “It is an immersion in an ancient act of worship experienced now and centuries ago in an identical way. Each writing brings the past to life and to be able to share that with people really adds to its wonderment.”

The Scribe
Thirty-four-year-old Julie Seltzer has gone through an extensive training process to become a soferet. Becoming a professional scribe was the outcome of an enduring curiosity about Judaism and a passion for the Hebrew language after a stay on an agricultural development, or kibbutz, in Israel. “I was so intrigued by Hebrew letters and their mystical meaning,” she says. “I just started teaching myself from the Internet – sites that explained letter formation and how to hold a calligraphy pen - and then I finally found teachers.”

In New York, she began to apprentice with Jen Taylor Friedman, the only known woman to complete a Torah scroll in contemporary times. The profession has traditionally been exclusive to men, and still is in many Orthodox communities. Friedman and Seltzer are part of a small but growing group of pioneering women learning the profession.

Scribing however, is typically an anonymous art, and done out of the public eye. Seltzer was willing to uproot her life, and move to San Francisco to work at the Museum because it presented such a unique opportunity to not only be one of the few women known to complete a Torah scroll, but to do so in a public forum, while interacting with the community.

“People are really curious about my profession,” she says. “They always have a lot of questions so the educational aspect of this is really interesting to me. It’s such an extraordinary opportunity to share this with people.”

Seltzer says that the question she most often gets is how she avoids making mistakes. Everyone thinks that scribes do not make mistakes, but mistakes are inevitable. I welcome the opportunity to let visitors see how scribes make corrections to ensure full accuracy of the text.” Visitors will be able to see how a scribe painstakingly scrapes the dried ink off of the parchment with a blade and uses chalk on the spot to restore the color, a delicate task since parchment is animal skin (either kosher cow or goat) that has subtle and beautiful variations of color.

Seltzer anticipates that visitors will be fascinated by the many surprising rules of the process. For example, similar letters cannot be corrected by erasing a part of one to form the other. The whole letter must be eliminated and started again. And, scribes must state out loud their intention each time before writing God’s name otherwise the Torah scroll is not considered kosher. There are also many ‘scribal quirks’ that have persisted over centuries – mysterious crownlets that appear over certain letters, letters that are written larger or smaller than others, and inverted letters.

Museum visitors will also be able to examine and in some cases handle her materials – the velvety parchment and the feather quills. “I make the quills myself – I like turkey feathers best – and I have to sharpen them every five lines or so,” she says. “People will get to see and even experience all of these rituals in real time.”

Seltzer will work in the gallery during regular Museum hours except on Saturdays and Jewish holidays. The finished sheets of the growing Torah scroll will be displayed in the gallery.

When the Torah scroll is finished, the Museum will invite emerging Jewish communities and Jewish communities in need from around the world to apply for its use. The Museum’s Torah will be shared with a new community every 2-3 years.

Contemporary Jewish Museum | As It Is Written | The Torah | Julie Seltzer | The Scribe |

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