Thursday, January 7, 2010

Proofreading, part 23

The misplaced expectation that a computer can infallibly check a Torah also touches on a deeper concept, that of the experience of writing.

What does it mean to write? is a question that has always been part of the Torah-writing rules. Could you, for instance, embroider the Torah? Is that writing? What about carving letters into plaster-covered monoliths? Embossing them onto metal headbands? What about printing? Jewish communal narrative recognises these processes as producing letters, more or less, but also recognises that this is not how people normally write: you wouldn't embroider your account book, and if you were embroidering accounts you wouldn't say you were writing. Experientially, producing letters is not necessarily the same as writing.

By axiom, the Written Torah has to be written, and if it's going to be a proper written document, it needs to be properly written. It's got to be produced by someone having the experience of writing, not someone simply having the experience of doing embroidery or whatever.

But for your average North American Jew,* the experience of writing involves a keyboard. It makes absolute intuitive sense that computers would feature in any act of writing, not excluding that of writing a Torah. Computers are how we write things. Handwritten material is positively extraordinary; the skill of penmanship is practically unknown. No-one would expect to see an embroidered book; similarly, people frequently assume Torah scrolls are printed – no-one expects to see a handwritten book. Intuitively, it makes a twisted sort of sense that the Torah should be typed.

Fortunately, we don't take it that far; even though typing is the more common writing experience these days, pen-and-ink is still, culturally, the more authentic writing experience. Pen-and-ink is associated with real writing in a way that typing is not.**

Indeed, way way back in the days of the first Torahs when literacy was limited to an elite few, a Torah scroll - a written document - probably had an air of mystique about it simply because so few people could write, so few people could conceive of producing one. Nowadays also, a Torah has mystique by virtue of being written, because again so few people can write in this way.

An interesting example of history coming full circle, there. Writing the Torah starts as a skill limited to a small group of people; as literacy spreads but before printing is invented, writing sifrei Torah becomes less remote, such that some authorities even equate sifrei Torah with printed books containing Torah material. Then, once printing is ubiquitous, writing again becomes a rare skill and Torahs are elevated back into the inaccessible.

* By way of example, not by way of exclusion

** Which is one reason I'm not keen on silk-screening Torahs. Halakhically it's justifiable – ink in the forms of letters is, technically, laid down onto the klaf by hand – but intuitively it isn't right, because any fool knows that silk-screening isn't really writing.

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