Aviel Barclay Rothschild
By Stephanie Persin
Aviel Barclay is a 36-year-old observant Jew from Vancouver, Canada. She is now known for her historic role as the first female soferet (certified Torah scribe) in Jewish tradition. To become a sofer, one must study under the supervision of a well-established rabbi or sofer. Traditionally, only men have been permitted to write copies of the Torah for use in synagogues. Aviel Barclay, however, has managed to reverse the assumption that a Torah scribe must be a man.
Barclay trained herself as a Hebrew calligrapher and spent years incorporating Hebrew lettering into her artwork. Recently, she decided to search out a sofer so that she could use her skills to script Torot. The task of finding an Orthodox scribe who would agree to certify Barclay as a soferet was extremely difficult. Most traditional scribes and rabbis rejected the idea that a woman was qualified to copy the Torah. According to some rabbinical scholars, because a woman is not required to study Torah or to wear tefillin, she is therefore also not permitted to copy the Torah.
After many rejections, Barclay found a mentor in Jerusalem, Israel. She convinced her teacher (who chose to remain nameless) that "there is room within the Orthodox tradition for a woman scribe." Barclay received eighteen months of training, and was then certified as a soferet.
Barclay's official title was not protested against until the Kadima congregation of Seattle asked her to write its first Sefer Torah. After her commission, some traditional members of the Jewish community insisted that Barclay was not a legitimate scribe. According to the Talmud, they said, women are forbidden to copy the Torah for use in Jewish rituals.
In response, Harry Zeitlin, one of Seattle's Orthodox rabbis, argued that although women are not obligated to wear tefillin or study Torah, they are indeed permitted to do so. Therefore, Zeitlin concluded, while a man might be obligated to study Torah and write a Sefer Torah, a woman can also partake in this mitzvah.
While Barclay's act of writing the Sefer Torah can be seen as a declaration of gender equality in Judaism, Barclay herself did not intend it to be so. Barclay merely wanted to participate in the mitzvah of lettering the Torah. Certain liberal rabbis have stated, however, that Barclay's controversial move will lead to a new generation in which many synagogues will commission soferot to script the holy letters of the Torah.