This is spiritual life
This week's portion: a poem about the Golden Calf

A.J. Jacobs' Year of Living Biblically

When A.J. Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically first came out, I ignored it. Pretty resolutely. It sounded gimmicky to me: seriously, this guy was going to spend a whole year trying to live according to what's in the Bible? Did he not know, or not care, that his chosen enterprise was not actually how any living religious tradition really relates to this text?

Maybe I had a chip on my shoulder because I was afraid that he would use the experience as an excuse to mock the Torah (which I hold dear) and religious practice (ditto.) Granted, there's the idea within Judaism that one does mitzvot because they're commanded, and understanding (and meaning) will follow (see Rav Soloveitchik's classic Halakhic Man), but Jacobs wasn't going to be observing Shabbat or keeping kosher because they're mitzvot, he was going to be doing those things as part of a year-long stunt, a follow-up to reading the whole encyclopedia and writing a book about that.

Judaism as it has come down to us is a rabbinic tradition; the Torah is always understood through the lens of commentary upon commentary. Written Torah matched with Oral Torah, in one paradigm -- or historical text filtered through the lens of generations of interpreters, in another. One way or another, what Jacobs intended didn't sound to me like authentic relationship with Torah. I just didn't see how the end result would be interesting to me.

Then my friend Emily read the book for her book group. "I'd love to know what you think of it," she told me. "He starts out completely skeptical, but he takes on practices like daily prayer, and the experience changes him. It reminds me of some of the things I've heard you say about the purpose of spiritual practice, actually." So I said okay, fine, lend me the book.

Now that I've read it, I have to admit, this is a much better book than I expected! It's well-written. It's sharp and funny. Jacobs doesn't refrain from poking fun at himself (he makes frequent reference to his OCD qualities, and tells us that his wife Julie has developed a code word, "helmet," to nudge him when he's being a ridiculously overprotective parent) but he's surprisingly generous with others -- even with people one might reasonably expect a skeptic to skewer, like the Amish innkeeper with whom he and his wife stay early on, or his crazy neighbor who's writing a memoir about knowing Jimi Hendrix back in the day.

And it turns out that even as he begins his journey, he's not being quite as much of a literalist as I had feared. Jacobs acknowledges upfront that "[i]t's a good bet that, at some time or other in history, every single passage in the Bible has been taken as literal. I've decided I can't do that. That'd be misleading, unnecessarily flip, and would result in missing body parts." (What was that you just said about unnecessary flipness? Oh, well.) Instead he decides to try to discern the original intent of each Biblical passage, and to follow that. And he goes into this nutty enterprise with a council of clergy who have agreed to be on-call for him, a group of advisors on whom he can (and frequently does) call for help in understanding the Bible and how it's been read. That mollified me somewhat.

Though Jacobs does engage in some bizarre acts which seem to me to cross the boundary into stunt -- for a while he wears a white robe and carries a staff; he grows a beard of which the Unabomber could have been proud, and tries growing herb seeds in his apartment so he can leave the corners of his "field" ungleaned; one day he carries pebbles in his pocket in order to try to stone an adulterer -- he also opens himself up to the terrifying possibility that acting Biblically might change him. And I think that it does. Here's one of my favorite passages in the book:

I have my head bowed and my eyes closed. I'm trying to pray, but my mind is wandering. I can't settle it down. It wanders over to an Esquire article I just wrote. It wasn't half bad, I think to myself. I liked that turn of phrase in the first paragraph.

And then I am hit with a realization. And hit is the right word -- it felt like a punch to my stomach. Here I am being prideful about creating an article in a midsize American magazine. But God -- if He exists -- He created the world. He created flamingos and supernovas and geysers and beetles and the stones for these steps I'm sitting on.

"Praise the Lord," I say out loud.

I'd always found the praising-God parts of the Bible and my prayer books awkward. The sentences about the all-powerful, almighty, all-knowing, the host of hosts, He who has greatness beyond our comprehension. I'm not used to talking like that. It's so over the top. I'm used to understatement and hedging and irony. And why would God need to be praised in the first place? God shouldn't be insecure. He's the ultimate being.

Now I can sort of see whhy. It's not for him. It's for us. It takes you out of yourself and your prideful little brain.

I suspect a lot of people who regularly pray could have told him that -- but it's still kind of neat to see him figure it out for himself.

My favorite sections of the book, not surprisingly, are those which paint religion in an interesting light. There's a scene where Jacobs goes with a friend to a Hasidic celebration of Simchat Torah, and is genuinely swept up in the joy of the dancing. Late in the book, once he's begun to delve also into the Christian Scriptures and the many communities which interpret them, he meets both with a group of gay Evangelicals -- and also with Rabbi Steve Greenberg, who has some marvelous things to say about Torah interpretation. Greenberg argues, compellingly, that it's our job to work with God to evolve the Bible's meaning in our own lives. "He says that just because you're religious doesn't mean you give up your responsibility to choose You have to grapple with the Bible," Jacobs writes. Well, yeah.

Along with the passages that had me nodding my head, there were also passages which made me twitchy. I squirmed reading his encounters with some of the people whose practice, or whose theology, are beyond my personal pale. The people who are trying to breed an unblemished red heifer in order to bring about Armageddon, e.g. Or the folks behind the Creationism museum. Or even the scene where Jacobs goes to meet the man who had previously inspected his garments for shatnetz, and has the chance to fulfil the mitzvah of shooing a mother pigeon off of her egg before removing the egg from its nest...and then replacing it again so the next guy can follow suit. He writes about that respectfully, but it's clear that the observance feels hollow and totally irrelevant to him, and that sparks a crisis of faith about the whole enterprise.

In the introduction, Jacobs quips that he certainly didn't expect to wind up fondling pigeon eggs. But, he adds, he also "didn't expect to confront just how absurdly flawed I am...And I didn't expect to, as the Psalmist says, take refuge in the Bible and rejoice in it." In the span of a couple of sentences, he goes from slyly poking at other people's religious practices to honestly acknowledging that there was something in this year which changed him. That's kind of this book in a nutshell. Ultimately I have to acknowledge that however bizarrely artificial his project seems to me, it became for Jacobs a meaningful way of interacting with the Bible.

As a side note: I'm wildly amused that while he was writing this book he had an intern named Kevin Roose, who at one point bakes him Ezekiel bread. Roose went on to spend a semester at Liberty University, the Evangelical college based on the teachings of Jerry Falwell (which Jacobs also visits, early in the process of writing this book.) Roose wrote The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University, which is a truly excellent book about his semester there and the ways in which it surprised and changed him. I recommend it highly. (I thought I'd reviewed it here, but apparently not; I read it early in Drew's life, which probably explains why I didn't manage to write anything about it, but I loved it.)

Anyway, back to the book at hand. Even though Jacobs went into this enterprise because it sounded like an interesting book idea, and even though he made fun of religion plenty, the experience clearly had an impact on him. He tells a pretty funny story about a Saturday when he got locked into the bathroom in their New York apartment, and spent four hours unable to get to his computer or mobile phone -- and found, by the end of that time, that being offline on Shabbat had felt liberating. (That's a practice it sounds like he's kept beyond finishing the book. Not getting locked in the bathroom, but observing Shabbat in some way.)

Jacobs started out saying thank-you to God for his meals because it's Biblically mandated, but by the end of the book, when someone pours him a glass of champagne, he pauses before drinking it and says a silent thank-you, and doing so feels meaningful and sweet.

Ultimately, living Biblically becomes an excuse to be living mindfully, with an eye toward gratitude -- and while that might initially be a stretch (especially for a New York hipster magazine editor), once he gets into the groove, the groove gets into him. Which, again, I suspect any serious practitioner of any religious tradition could have told him was likely -- but it's still fun to watch that shift, and the understanding that goes with it, take hold.