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Is ‘bringing another Torah into the world’ a feminist act?

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A progressive Jewish congregation in Madison, Wis., is breaking barriers by commissioning a woman scribe to create, via quill pen, a handwritten Torah. Women have been forbidden for centuries to become such scribes. This copy may be one of only a dozen produced by women. The process, which is costing the congregation $45,000, entailed meticulous duplication of the “first five books of Moses,” following complicated rabbinical laws. The commission is so rare and barrier-breaking that it netted a front-page story in the Wisconsin State Journal Sunday.

Congregation Shaarei Shamayim, which meets at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed First Unitarian Society in Madison, hired a woman scribe from Gothenburg, Sweden. Reporter Doug Erickson noted the unprecedented clause for a maternity leave in the contract. Yonah Lavery-Yisraeli gave birth both to a baby and to her first copy of the Torah over a two-year period. Lavery-Yisraeli, as all such scribes must, had to calligraph the official Hebrew Torah word for word (exactly 304,805 letters). These copies are “held in great reverence by a congregation,” Erickson reported, “which routinely reads from its during worship services.”

“If you believe this text is divine, then every word must be written correctly, because who are you to be God’s copy editor?” Jordan Rosenblum, an associate professor of classical Judaism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told the Journal.

“It’s a real value in a Jewish community to commission a Torah and to contribute to the act of bringing another Torah into the world,” the congregation’s feminist rabbi, Laurie Zimmerman, added.

But is ‘bringing another Torah into the world’ truly a feminist act? Consider the first five books of the Old Testament (as the Torah is known to Christians, many parts of which are also shared in common by Muslims and Islamists, unfortunately including the injunction to stone to death transgressive females).

By the third chapter of Genesis, woman has lost her identity, become subjugated to man, is cursed with motherhood, and is blamed for bringing sin and death into the world:

“I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee,” Yahweh commands.

The Torah establishes woman’s inferior status, her “uncleanliness,” her transgressions, and God-ordained master/servant relationship to man. Biblical women in those first five books are possessions: fathers own them, and sell them into bondage. The Torah sanctions rape in various contexts. Wives are subject to Mosaic-law sanctioned “bedchecks” as brides, and male jealousy fits and no-notice divorce as wives. One sentence from the second book of the bible, Exodus 18:22 (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”), brought centuries of terrorism to women in the form of Catholic and Lutheran witch purges. Leviticus is rife with scorn for women as “unclean.” Deuteronomy specializes in a rape manual (Deut. 21:11-14), instructs that many rape victims must marry their rapists, imposes a virginity test, and inegalitarian divorce decrees. One verse has made miserable women throughout recent history seeking dress reform (not to mention making life extra-hard for the transgendered). Deut. 22:5 calls it an “abomination” for women to wear men’s garments, and vice versa.

And that’s just touching on the Torah as a handbook for women’s subjugation. One example of the many other historically harmful verses includes Lev. 20:13, which calls male homosexuals “an abomination” and demands their execution in blood-thirsty language. This isn’t even visiting the scorched-earth policies and deity-ordained genocides, such as the horrific instructions in Deut. 20:16 to “save alive nothing that breathes.” Or considering the lingering retardation of science wrought by Genesis’ primitive creation story.

While appreciating that the commission of a Torah by a female scribe is “blasphemous” to the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox rabbis, I am hard-pressed to celebrate a woman lovingly copying by hand the grotesquely misogynist teachings of the first five books of the bible.

How on earth could it possibly be viewed as a privilege for a woman to transcribe woman-hating religious copy that explicitly ordains female inferiority? Wouldn’t that be like asking a slave to kiss her chains? Feminists and freethinkers have a duty to act as “God’s copy editor.”

It’s time to put the Torah, the Old and New Testaments, the Koran, and other various “holy books” on the shelves with the other myths and legends, and concentrate on bringing into the world human-based justice, equality and reason.

Annie Laurie Gaylor is a co-founder and co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. She is author of a guide to bible sexism called “Woe to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So” and “Women Without Superstition: No Gods — No Masters. An anthology of Women Freethinkers from the 19th and 20th Centuries.” Read more about bible sexism in her “nontract” called “Why Women Need Freedom From Religion.”

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