Art figures into the work scribe-in-residence Julie Seltzer creates at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in more ways than one. Commissioned by the San Francisco museum to write the Torah, Judaism’s sacred text, from beginning to end using scribal techniques and traditions passed down for thousands of years, Seltzer must follow strict rules governing the document’s production. And she faces the added challenge of completing the lengthy spiritual practice in plain view of museum visitors observing her progress.
One of very few soferets — a soferet is a woman trained to write the Torah — Seltzer is performing the ritual as part of the museum’s As It Is Written: Project 304,805, a yearlong living exhibition allowing public access to a private religious act almost exclusively performed by male scribes. According to tradition, Seltzer will handwrite the 304,805 letters of the Torah on 62 sheets of paper using parchment ink and feather quills she sharpens by hand.
As she works, Seltzer follows tradition and states out loud the words she is about to write. She then creates the sacred text using calligraphy lettering techniques learned during an apprenticeship with Brooklyn-based soferet Jen Taylor Friedman, widely considered to be the first known woman to write a Torah from beginning to end. Rules dictate how many columns of text appear on each page, how many lines make up a column, and the spacing and formation of each letter.
Seltzer’s work is as potentially controversial as it is methodic and meditative. Performing an act long reserved for men, Seltzer is producing a text that many conservative Jewish communities will not consider Kosher or suitable for religious use. Ultimately, the Torah she completes will be given to a Jewish congregation that is accepting of its origins.
Before becoming the scribe-in-residence at the museum, Seltzer was a baker at a Jewish retreat center, where she often created challah bread depicting Torah scenes and letters from the Torah. Seltzer started her writing of the Torah at the museum in October 2009. The project continues through October 2010.