Shoshana Gugenheim is a social practice artist, Torah scribe, and the creator of Women of the Book, an exhibit that went up at the Stroum JCC earlier this year. In 2010, she helped lead the Women’s Torah Project at Kadima, where women from the community wrote a Torah together. We spoke to Gugenheim while she’s in the Northwest working toward an MFA in art and social practice at Portland State University.
What inspired you to write a Torah scroll in the first place?
I remember being at a morning tefillah when I was living in Jerusalem and at Hebrew Union College. I was becoming more observant. They held up the Torah, and it was this breathtaking moment: “Who does this?” It quickly became clear that scribing was not available to women. That was in the early ’90s. The first women who were becoming scribes were observant and following halachah [Jewish law] to different extents. From the beginning, I wanted women to do this together, and consistently the question would come up: “Would I be the halachah police? What is at the core of this?” I really wrestled with that for 15 years, and I looked for a teacher and didn’t find a teacher. I wrote my master’s thesis about women scribing. And then when I moved to Israel in 2000 I found someone, and I was still conflicted. It took me five years. Was I going to do this? And I said, “Yes, it’s time.”
How do you approach halachah, then?
In the Talmud, the conversation is not, “Is it halachically acceptable to scribe?” but, “What do you do with a Torah that was scribed by a woman, slave, non-Jew, etc.?” There is no issur [prohibition] for teaching a woman to scribe. My teacher: He looks Haredi, but is he? Deep down he is so liberal and understanding. But he knows he would lose all his business in Me’ah She’arim if they found out he was teaching a woman. In the certificate he gave me, he wrote that he would not accept my Torah for a public reading.
What is your next project?
I’m working on a project about ethically sourced parchment. In Israel we lived, coincidentally or not, five minutes from a parchment-making factory. It was owned by the only family in Jerusalem willing to work with women Torah scribes. Pretty much all the women Torah scribes get their parchment from them. I became very interested in the craft of making parchment. Ninety-nine percent of the skins come from animals in packing houses — and I mean the packing houses we hear about in the news. The skins are from fetuses of pregnant animals.
I want someone to expose this information, and I’m working on a film. I located a shochet [ritual slaughterer] who saves the skins [of ethically sourced animals]. We just did our first set of parchments: I delivered them to the factory in Jerusalem, and then the parchments were delivered to me here, and I sent them out to a bunch of scribes. I was disturbed by writing kedusha [holy words] given where these animals are sourced. This is what I mean by social practice. My goal is to change the entire industry, but I’ll start small.
Learn more about Shoshana Gugenheim’s art and life at shoshanagugenheim.com.