When I think about Shavuot, the first image that pops into my head is a mob of Israelites gathered at the base of Mt. Sinai, impatiently waiting to receive the Torah amidst shofar blasts, smoke, and lightning. This image inevitably triggers Merle Feld’s poignant poem, “We All Stood Together,” and Judith Plaskow’s iconic book, Standing Again at Sinai. Both of these feminist texts explore women’s absence from Jewish tradition and from the moment of revelation and explore the ways that Judaism can transform itself to become more inclusive. I am well aware that feminism and gender are essential lenses for my Jewish experience (after all, I do work at JOFA) but I was a bit surprised that my subconscious had designated Shavuot as a holiday of exclusion. The Torah tells us that women, along with men, were present at Mt. Sinai, and the Midrash, rabbinic commentary, teaches that all of the souls of future generations of Jews were present at Sinai. That seems relatively egalitarian. Upon further thought, I realized that Ruth, the protagonist of our Shavuot narrative, embodied the marginalization that I was sensing and that Shavuot is an appropriate time to engage with the topic of exclusion.
Ruth is a woman, a widow, a convert, a penniless immigrant, and a Moabite (a different, hated race forbidden from entering the Jewish people). She is an outsider in every sense of the word. And yet, she is at the center of our Shavuot story, and at the core of the narrative of the Jewish people, as the great-grandmother of King David.
On many holidays, we focus on the ways that Jews were excluded, marginalized, and victimized by other cultures. On Hanukkah, we were oppressed by the Greeks. On Passover, we were enslaved by the Egyptians. On Tisha B’Av, we were victimized by the Babylonians and the Romans. All of these holidays memorialize times when Jews were marginalized as a nation. Ruth is notable because she was marginalized by the Jewish people. She was an outsider in the Jewish community. Yes, Ruth was ultimately a “success story.” She converted to Judaism, married Boaz, a wealthy and prominent land owner in the community, and gave birth to Oved, the grandfather of King David. She ultimately overcame these disadvantages and was accepted into our Jewish narrative as the great-grandmother of King David and the paradigm of chesed, loving kindness, and selflessness. However, we should not focus solely on the end of the story, to the exclusion of her other identity markers. The story of Ruth should remind us of the ways that the Jewish community is still segmented, and should serve as an opportunity for us to explore the way that our community treats other individuals within the Jewish community, those who are “Other” because of their gender, their race, their socioeconomic or religious background.
On Shavuot, we have the rare opportunity to sit with our communities and study texts into the wee hours of the night until daybreak. Tikkun Leil Shavuot is an alternate reality with ebbing and flowing cycles of intensity—caffeine buzzes, catnaps, sugar rushes, crashes after the first few cups of coffee and pieces of cheesecake wear off. It can be a dreamy time, learning underneath the stars, finishing up that final chevrutah as the birds start chirping and the sun rises, eagerly anticipating receiving the Torah anew, and imagining what our ideal Jewish community should look like.
We have the opportunity to examine the big questions: What does it mean to receive the Torah? How does the Torah impact us all differently? How do we engage with the more difficult, exclusionary aspects of the Torah and halakhah? How can we build a more inclusive community? A more committed community? How can we create a community that would welcome and accept Ruth, a community that values and encourages the equal contributions of women to our ritual community? How will the Torah help us build the Jewish world that we are craving?
This Shavuot, let’s embrace the opportunity to discuss those big questions, and explore ways to build the more equitable Jewish community that we crave. We could start by inviting more women to teach classes and address the congregation from the bima, including mothers’ names in ketubot and aliyot, offering more childcare options during prayers and classes, or simply welcoming everyone with a warm smile, and the question, “How would you like to participate in our community?”
Orthodox women reading Megillat Esther on Purim are a common sight in many communities, but this year, a group of Orthodox women in St. Louis has written their own megillah!
On Tuesday, after nearly three years of preparation, the St. Louis Women’s Megillah Writing Project completed their megillah, just in time for Purim 2013. They celebrated this milestone with a siyyum, filled with words of Torah, reflections on their accomplishment, and a workshop for those who wanted to try out safrut (scribal calligraphy). Four primary scribes worked together to complete the megillah–Phyllis Shapiro, Shelly Wolf, Aviva Buck-Yael and Dorit Daphna-Iken. The megillah also contains illuminations by female artists, and was sewn together by another female participant.
This siyyum marks the completion of the firstmegillah written by Orthodox women in the United States, showcasing yet another way that Orthodox women can take ownership of their ritual experiences and use their skills to become active participants in their religious experiences. As a result of this siyyum, the Orthodox community has a new set of role models to look up to, and Orthodox women have a new set of possibilities open to them.
Phyllis Shapiro, first woman president of Bais Abe in St. Louis and project organizer, explains that she initially learned Hebrew calligraphy because she wanted to write mezuzot as house-warming and wedding gifts. She was discouraged when she learned that a mezuzah written by a woman is not kosher in Orthodox communities. A male friend suggested she redirect her new skill and “just write a megillah.” “The project was too big to take on by myself so I gathered a group of interested women to help,” says Ms. Shapiro. The project began in Spring 2010 with a group of ten women who studied the halachot of writing amegillah and began calligraphy classes. After two years of studying the halachah, and practicing their calligraphy, the group began to write on parchment in Summer 2012. Of the original participants, four wrote the megillah, three participants became involved with illuminating the megillah, and one sewed together the four pieces of parchment. “Working with a group was the best idea—the group aspect of the project was one of the most gratifying parts.”
The group began by studying the halachic aspects of writing a megillah with Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Bais Abe, and continued to learn the technical skills of creating each Hebrew letter through step-by-step videos online. They were eventually able to find a local rabbi, Rabbi Mark Fasman of Shaare Zedek Synagogue, to work with them in person as they continued to learn the calligraphy and the practical details of writing a megillah.
Resources and Advice
Not only have these women written a kosher megillah, that will be read on Purim this year, but they have also documented their journey, laying out a practical and clear roadmap for others who are interested in following their lead.
It is fascinating to watch the progression of the project through their blog, and to see the way these women slowly learned to create individual letters, and learned to use the special nibs and ink for writing on a klaf (parchment). They practiced each letter for weeks, using step-by-step guides and graph paper guides, before they transitioned to writing directly on the klaf, and on their megillah.
The group has been very thoughtful about the way they have approached this project—through studying and translating the halachic requirements of writing megillah, to studying the halachic sources that allow for illuminating the scroll. The blog contains detailed accounts of every step—from identifying prospective new members, to purchasing materials, to creating the guides for the calligraphy letters, to illuminating the megillah.
The blog includes translations of the laws of writing and sewing a megillah, a collection of sources permitting illuminations in the megillahand links to step-by-step guides for creating each letter.
Ms. Shapiro offers the following practical advice for women interested in writing amegillah: “Work with a group of at least four scribes. Find a good teacher for learning how to write the alphabet–we tried learning the STAM script on line, which was not a good idea. Buy all of your supplies at the beginning, including the parchment, ink, nibs and gid (thread) for sewing. Set up a light-table to work at. It is very easy to make a makeshift one – use a large piece of Lucite held up by two TV snack tables, and a lamp underneath. Copy a megillah that has the same format (number of columns and rows per column) as the one you will write. Copy it, cut the columns and tape them (with masking tape) behind your parchment pieces – this will take care of all spacing issues – and working at the light table, you just follow the model Megillah.”
Participants combined a variety of skills to help them with this project. Some of the women had prior experience with calligraphy, which served as a template for going forward, while one woman used her computer skills to create practice grids which were the same size as the letters in the megillah.
This brand-new, illuminated, kosher megillah will be used at the sixteenth annual women’s megillah reading in St. Louis this year. It is truly a special experience for any community to have an opportunity to read from a megillah created in their community, but it is unique that Orthodox women will have taken ownership of every aspect of thismegillah reading this Purim, beginning with the creation of their own megillah.
Shapiro concludes, “I’ve done lots of craft items over the years– from scenery for kids’ school plays to making chuppot–but nothing compares with this. We actually created a holy piece of Judaica – adding a scroll to our people’s sacred items.”
Check out the St. Louis Women’s Megillah Writing Project online at womensmegillah.blogspot.com.