Torah Scribe Wields Her Quill Against Segregation of Women

Hanna Klebansky, says she hopes the writing and reading of the scroll will send a message contradicting that of the segregation of women.

On a small desk, squeezed between a closet and a wall, the writing of the first women's Torah scroll in Israel began a few weeks ago. The scribe, Hanna Klebansky, says she hopes the writing and reading of the scroll will send a message contradicting that of the segregation of women.

Klebansky is hardly the stereotypical Torah scribe. She is 39, born in Georgia in the former Soviet Union, and was ordained a Conservative rabbi in Israel. A musician by training, she is also an instructor in courses for chaplains to the terminally ill. After her five children go to sleep, she begins her scribal work, line after line, column after column.

Hanna Klebansky - Emil Salman - January 2012
Emil Salman

It was as a student at the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem that she discovered the scribal world, at first as an enrichment course a few sessions long, and later during a year's study with a teacher. The teacher, amazingly, was an ultra-Orthodox man who was formerly secular and apparently taught all 17 women Torah scribes worldwide. "I asked him if he did not fear that he will be found out and ostracized, and he said he believed that day would come, but that the world needed a woman's statement," Klebansky says.

Klebansky's teacher, who will vet the Torah scroll after it is completed, is not the only Haredi who accepts her as a scribe. Another ultra-Orthodox man bought a mezuzah from her ("he said the time will come when such things will change").

There are no more than three female scribes in Israel, and Klebansky is apparently the only one working at the sacred craft on a regular basis. She has so far inscribed a Book of Esther - which, after some debate, was read at a women's prayer quorum last Purim in a synagogue in her neighborhood of Givat Masua in Jerusalem - mezuzot, phylacteries, marriage contracts and decorations for Hebrew calligraphy.

Klebansky took part last year in the writing of a Torah by women from all over the world, which eventually found a home in a congregation in the United States.

But the current project is the largest so far - an entire Torah written in Israel by a woman that will remain in Israel for use by a Modern Orthodox congregation.

Jewish law is clear on whether a woman can write a Torah scroll. Tractate Gittin of the Babylonian Talmud states: "A Torah [scroll], phylacteries and mezuzot written by an informer, a heathen, a slave, a woman, a minor, a Samaritan or an irreligious Jew are disqualified." Despite this clear opinion, Klebansky finally got rabbinic approval for her project in a response by a Conservative rabbi, Simcha Roth. Klebansky, who says she was once reticent about revealing her profession, says that now she views it as a means of fighting the segregation of women in her own way.

Klebansky has a Facebook page where she offers "letters for sale" at half a shekel each. She reckons the entire project will cost NIS 140,000, including the parchment, ink and work time. Meanwhile, she is paying for everything out of pocket.

She buys the parchment from a shop in a Haredi neighborhood. As to whether the vendor knows what she does with it, she says: "He doesn't ask and I don't say. Sometimes I send my husband; it's important to me that there will be no lie involved in the scroll."

Klebansky says it will take her about 18 months to inscribe the entire 64 pieces of parchment that go into the scroll. The heart of the project, she says, is its spiritual energy. "There is a halakha [Jewish law] that says that every letter must have kavanah," using the Hebrew term for spiritual intent.

If she writes a letter without this all-important element, she says, "even if it came out beautifully, I erase it. The letter receives the energy of thoughts; it is very difficult to concentrate on sanctity."

Klebansky does not want to turn the Torah into a symbol of the struggle against the segregation of women. "A Torah scroll is inscribed with a quill made of a feather, and not of iron, because iron is used to make war. War is not fitting here. I have another way, a more positive statement," she says.