LiteratureJewish Culture & IdeasJewish History
Oct 8, 2009–Mar 29, 2011
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.
In As It Is Written: Project 304,805, a soferet (professionally trained female scribe) will write out the entire text of the Torah, at The Museum, over the course of a full year. Once completed, she will be one of the few known women to write an entire Torah scroll, an accomplishment traditionally exclusive to men.
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. 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. Museum visitors will also be able to examine and in some cases handle her materials.
The scribe 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.
Around this central activity, The Museum will present a series of displays that explore the Torah in its many facets: as historical artifact, ritual object, scribal tradition, and contemporary muse. New works responding to sections of the Torah created by 54 prominent local and national contemporary artists will be on view, as well as a historical display of an old Torah which is no longer in use, allowing visitors to examine the intricacies of the text much more closely. In addition, there will be examples of ornamentation associated with the dressing and reading of a Torah in a synagogue including an ark, mantles, crowns, finials, breastplates, pointers, and Torah cases. The exhibition also includes an exploration of the distinct calligraphy used to write the Torah, and a presentation of the process and materials used to physically write the text. This section will be tactile, with a wide range of opportunities to engage with the materiality of the scribal arts.
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.
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.
It is said that every one of the 304,805 letters in the Torah corresponds to a soul. This concept is explored in the People’s Torah, an interactive, multi-media art installation that is part of the exhibition As It Is Written: Project 304,805. In this three-dimensional rendering of the Five Books of Moses, the Torah are "written” collectively, letter by letter, by online participants in collaboration with visitors to the Museum. To create the People's Torah, participants virtually “join hands," working together by scanning images of their hands to create each of the 304,805 letters of the Torah, or submitting images to the online site peoplestorah.org.
According to ancient rabbinic belief, writing just one letter of a Torah is considered a mitzvah—defined as both an act of human kindness, and a religious commandment. In line with this tradition, The Museum will provide many opportunities for the public to actively participate, including opportunities to stitch and proofread the Torah. Additionally, visitors can participate in an evolving photo collage called Bar Mitzvah Memories. In this coming of age ceremony for Jewish children (Bar Mitzvah for boys and Bat Mitzvah for girls), the candidate reads a portion of the Torah.
Five panelists explore new ways of considering how Torah is read and interpreted in this slightly raucous multi-genre exhibition-opening conversation from the opening night of the exhibition. Panelists include Julie Seltzer, David Henkin, Elana Jagoda, Sarah Lefton, and Matthue Roth.
Meet The Museum's scribe-in-residence Julie Seltzer as she shares some of the mysteries and tools of her trade.
This dialogue between the first two women known to have scribed complete Torahs, Julie Seltzer and Jen Taylor Friedman, celebrates the completion of Seltzer’s undertaking of writing a Torah.
In a continuing series for the blog CJM Voices, Soferet Julie Seltzer blogs her thoughts on her sojourn as the Torah scribe at The CJM.
The following websites provide side-by-side Hebrew/English translations, historical information, and opportunity to hear the sounds of the Hebrew letters.
A Life of Letters, Brown Alumni Magazine
Video: SPARK segment This Week in Northern California features Museum Scribe Julie Seltzer
A Torah Scribe Pushes the Parchment Ceiling, The New York Times
Quill and scroll: Female Torah scribe at work in groundbreaking CJM exhibit, J Weekly
Female scribe at Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco Chronicle
As It Is Written: Project 304,805 is organized by The Contemporary Jewish Museum. This exhibition has been made possible by the generous lead support of the Jim Joseph Foundation. Major support has been provided by the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund and through the Max Leavitt Memorial Fund. Additional individual support has been provided by Arlene and Keith Bronstein and Mort and Amy Friedkin. In-kind support has been provided by Pam Rorke Levy.
The Museum gratefully acknowledges The Jewish Theological Seminary for their invaluable participation.
People's Torah is an interactive installation and net art project by New York-based interactive studios Cabengo LLC and Studio Mobile. It was created by Hillary Leone, Mirek Nisenbaum, Fred Fauquette, and Juan Sarria. People’s Torah was commissioned by The Contemporary Jewish Museum as part of As it is Written: Project 304, 805, an exhibition that explores the Torah as a historical artifact, ritual object, scribal tradition, and contemporary muse.
The Koret and Taube Foundations are the lead supporters of the 2009–2010 exhibition season.