Female scholarship


In Short

It takes time, patience and what we call “shelf-esteem” to put Torah ideas into words and articulate them to the world. It’s even harder when looking at the Jewish shelf as a woman. There is so little company. 

In her bestselling memoir, Anne Lamott shares a story about writing that became the title of her book and coined an expression in the face of an overwhelming task. Her school-age brother was once assigned an essay on birds. He had no interest in the project and procrastinated until Lamott’s father sat beside him, put his arm around his shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” These three words became foundational to Lamott’s approach to writing and to life. Writing an essay, article or book can seem impossibly daunting. Beginning with the mindset of one bird or one word at a time and building up slowly and incrementally is far less intimidating and makes each word meaningful.

After all, we as a nation began with only a few words: a sentence of revelation here, a prophecy there. The Ten Commandments, which have inspired countless words, are only about 175 printed words. Yet, word-by-word, they were interpreted.  Virtually every word became the platform for commentary. Those words that would shape a nation and Western civilization, were engraved in stone. 

The delivery of words, and not only their existence, burnished each letter into an act of witness. We find similar sentiments throughout biblical literature. Isaiah was told by God that the written word was a testimony: “And now, go, write it before them on a tablet and inscribe it in a book, that it may be for the time to come as a witness forever (Is. 30:8). Jeremiah was commanded to do the same: “Write in a book all the words that I have spoken to you” (Jer. 30:2). Habakkuk was ordered to articulate prophecies with simple words: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets…(Hab. 2:2). 

God’s written teachings turned into the human script of our lives. Therein lies the imperative to continue the writing and join this conversation across the ages. “We have to write our own scroll,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes. “The point about the Torah is not that it is old but that it is new; it is not just about the past but about the future. It is not simply some ancient document that comes from an earlier era in the evolution of society. It speaks to us, here, now – but not without our making the effort to write it again…” (“Torah as Song,” Covenant and Conversation, Sept. 19, 2015).

The 613th mitzvah in the Torah is the mitzvah to write a Torah scroll, which the Rosh, R. Asher Ben Yehiel, a thirteenth century Talmudist, states can be fulfilled by writing any sefer, a book on Jewish texts. This is also the opinion of the Sefer Ha-hinukh, a medieval compilation of mitzvot that follows the weekly Torah portion. This is an audacious statement that may be less about writing than about the way we internalize Torah when we write about it. We transform it and make it our own. We also turn it into a source of inspiration that speaks to the people with whom we speak – our contemporaries, our friends and our students – and speaks to a future we will not know. 

For millennia, women have been excluded from this sacred task because they lacked the education to participate. The blessing that God has bestowed upon us and our generation is that of advanced Torah scholarship for women. The appropriate response to that blessing is to share works of Torah to pass on to the next generation. It is also a profound challenge. It takes time, patience and what we call “shelf-esteem” to put Torah ideas into words and articulate them to the world. It’s even harder when looking at the Jewish shelf as a woman. There is so little company. 

That’s why we’ve spent years dreaming about a writing sisterhood, bringing together a diverse group of Torah scholars into a cohort to support, challenge, inspire and encourage each other. Word-by-Word, is a cohort initiative for twenty women – first-time and veteran writers – to take their ideas from the proposal stage right up to publication. Participants will receive coaching, workshopping opportunities and the benefits of an annual writing retreat. They will hear from well-known writers and publishers and engage in peer mentoring. 

We are deeply grateful to Sefaria and Micah Philanthropies, Walder Foundation and the Arev Fund for all they have done to support women’s leadership and their recognition that we’re at the horizon of the next stage of female scholarship. To join, see the submission guidelines here

Proverbs contains a majestic image of how we internalize the Torah using writing: “Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart.” Like a child who re-writes the teacher’s words to remember them, we are told to write down what spiritually binds us to God on the tablet of our hearts (Prov. 3:3). Psalms moves that image from the heart to the mouth: “My tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe” (Ps. 45:1). The tablet of the heart is vast. The scribes are ready. 

Sara Wolkenfeld is the chief learning officer at Sefaria, an online database and interface for Jewish texts. Sara is a fellow at the David Hartman Center at the Hartman Institute of North America.

Erica Brown is the vice provost for values and leadership at Yeshiva University and director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks-Herenstein Center.