Baffling Babel

Thoughts from scribe-in-residence Julie Seltzer on what she's writing, her process, and the experience of writing a Torah on public view.

“You began learning scribing just two years ago. Is this, perhaps, hubris?” asked the reporter. “I’m not sure what hubris means.”
“Arrogance. Over-reaching.”


So I’m writing the story of the Tower of Babble: the people were of “one language, of unified speech,” and they aim to build a city that reaches the heavens. Ambitious indeed! In the Torah narrative, this qualifies as hubris, and God makes sure they fail by confounding their language, losing their collective power. And as I’m writing the story, I get a bit confounded myself. Let me explain:

The Torah text states: “Therefore its name was called Babel (בבל Hebrew root BBL), because there God Baffled (בלל Hebrew root BLL) the language…” The two Hebrew words are related, hence the city’s namesake, but they are not the same word. In my baffled state, however, I wrote the word “Babeled” (בבל) instead of “Baffled.” (בלל)

I shook my head. Was this a joke? Some kind of divine humor? Or irony if you will, that my language gets baffled just as I write about language getting baffled? But as this error has sat with me for a week or two, I’m thinking there is more at play here.

One of the questions I routinely get asked at “Q&A with the scribe” is:

Q: “What happens if you make a mistake?”
A: “I correct it [I then explain how].”
Q: “Are you sure it’s kosher to fix a mistake?”

This is such an interesting myth. The myth seems to be that scribes can’t make errors, and if they do, they have to start over from the beginning. As in, start writing the torah all over again! I wonder if a Torah would ever get completed if this were the case…

A Torah must be written by hand. Computers could easily generate a Torah with no worry as to mistakes, but that’s not the direction our tradition went in with the advent of computers, nor of the printing press for that matter. Writing a Torah is a human endeavor, purposefully so. And a human hand is…well, human. And humans err. If we didn’t err, we might start to think we were all-powerful or god-like, just like the people of Babel. We also might start to think that the Torah is God, instead of a human reflection of divine revelation.

So is my endeavor hubris? I hope not. Writing a Torah is one of the 613 mitzvot, or commandments, that our tradition sets before us. And I’m trying to fulfill this commandment as best as I humanly can.


Anonymous said…
So how do you correct the mistake given that it's ink on parchment?

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