The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible - A.J. Jacobs

I'm a big fan of social experiments, documentaries and the like. I came across A.J. Jacobs' book The Year Of Living Biblically (complete with a picture of him dressed all Moses-esque on the cover) one day during one of my secondhand book shopping binges and immediately chucked it into my husband-cringe-inducing pile :-P.  Jacobs, himself a self-described agnostic (who, as a child, was raised Jewish -- in fact, he says, "I'm Jewish in the way that The Olive Garden is Italian.") had his first taste of literary fame and started his career as a human guinea pig with his book The Know-It-All in which he describes his experiences with reading an entire Encyclopedia Britannica set cover to cover. Admittedly, I have yet to read The Know-It-All, but I tend to find these sort of why-we-do-the-things-we-do projects fascinating. In The Year Of Living Biblically, Jacobs explores how one might pull off actually living by the Bible's laws verbatim (or as close to the actual words as possible). He grows out his beard, does away with any clothes of synthetic origin (at least for the year of his experiment), adopts diet restrictions that I'm sure I'd buckle under in a heartbeat, tries to work through numerous biblical contradictions and embraces the idea of absolutely no work on Sundays. None. Much to the annoyance of his wife -- at least at first. That one in particular is a tough one to take on in today's work-centric lifestyle. While taking on this transformation in his personal life, Jacobs figures while he's at it he can meet up with various respected religious leaders from all different types of faith, mainly to get their take on important questions of faith and see how the different views compare, presenting it all from a mostly objective perspective. All in all, this turned out to be one impressive, enlightening read. 

 

{Know-It-All is currently sitting in my immediate TBR pile by my bed :-) }

 

Jacobs' year-long transformation 

 

 

 

Jacobs describes his struggle with the idea of the right way to pray. Personally, I think the idea of "the right way" is a bunch of BS. Say what you have to say the way you want to say it. You're talking to your higher power, I like to think the big guy in the sky can catch my meaning even if I might fumble on the words from time to time. But I found it interesting how Jacobs approached prayer using cognitive dissonance. In other words, if you think or act a certain way, even if you don't believe it in your heart at first, eventually those actions become reality. Or as I like to think of it, fake it til you make it. See, no wrong way to go about it as long as you get your thoughts and concerns out there and find comfort either in the process or afterwards.

 

The one big bummer for me about this book was how Jacobs' wife seemed to get the raw end of this project. There are a number of instances where I got this impression, but the one that disturbed me most was  how in the course of this year, she gets pregnant and during the pregnancy (at her 7 month mark, when I'm sure she's just completely in Playmate mode, right? Not feeling any body discomfort at all... ) he's talking about how he's working on keeping his libido in check and later, after the birth of his progeny, she asks to hold his hand and celebrate the moment. What's his reaction? You're unclean"You're impure for a week after the birth."  I've never gone through pregnancy myself, but I've seen what a rollercoaster it is for my friends and family who experience it. Seeing their experiences, and being a woman myself, I found that this scene really bothered me. 

 

 

Jacobs also mentions in this book that his wife's ex-boyfriend invented the  Light Wedge --

the very first Christmas present my husband ever gave me! (back when he was the boyfriend)

I primarily use the Zelco Hydra booklight now for my non-Kindle reads -- I like that the lights can be adjusted --

but still have my Light Wedge sentimentally retired on my collectible hardbacks shelf :-D

 

 

It made me think -- regardless of how important work is to you, and regardless of what the work is itself, shouldn't there be a point where you say it's not worth ruining a sacred moment for my loved ones? Is it a moment they can never have back (I guess technically every moment is one you can't have back but you know what I mean, right?) Maybe it's a trial every couple goes through. Husbands are notorious for those foot-in-mouth moments, aren't they? :-P I know there are memories of moments I have with my husband that I don't think of every day but when I do, they still sting a little because something that was important to me was ruined on a careless whim or joke gone too far. I can't ever have these moments back. I can't relive them in their newness. I can try to recreate them but it won't exactly be the same. Do I love him any less? Not at all. He's still the best man I've ever known. He'd die before ever intentionally hurting me. I know that, and that's why I don't let it poison our relationship. I've equally said things that have made him cringe. Did he leave my brazen ass? Nope, he was full aware he was meeting a redhead at the altar. We've talked over the hurts and realize that these moments, though they may continue to hurt, remind us to be diligent in being gentle with each other. Not to walk on eggshells necessarily, but to strive to always be conscious of how we treat each other, what we say. Thinking before putting it out there never to be retracted. Are we going to fail at this some days? More than likely, but the commitment to be gentle eases the sting. This goes for both of us, and I imagine Jacobs and his wife had a similiar discussion. In fact, he brings up something that makes me feel a little guilty that I can still be even remotely bothered by said irretrievable moments:

 

....I've cleaned the slate with Julie. I know it may seem like a small thing, but the "Stuff" incident made me realize my worldview is too much about quantification. It consists of thousands of little ledgers. Everything -- people included -- comes with a list of assets and liabilities. When I forgive, I file away the other person's wrongs for possible future use. It's forgiveness with an asterisk...There's a beauty to forgiveness, especially forgiveness that goes beyond rationality. Unconditional love is an illogical notion, but such a great and powerful one.

 

 

...Leonard Nimoy -- Star Trek's Mr. Spock himself -- as it turns out ...is also a photographer and 
quasi-religious Jew.You know Spock's famous split-fingered "Live long and prosper" salute?
It's actually a sacred hand position used by the Jewish priestly class, the kohanim.  ~~ A.J. Jacobs, YOLB

 

While I was in the middle of reading YOLB, a friend of mine posted this photo from the

Jefferson Memorial on Facebook. It was connected to a different topic but I thought it fit

into the theme of Jacobs' project nicely. 

 

 

Okay, so to end on a lighter note, I wanted to include this bit about Jacobs investigating capital punishment within the Bible. He's trying to carry out the law of stoning people for transgressions but wants to be subtle about it, so he decides to use small pebbles that he carries in his pockets. To me, his attempted execution of the law is one of the funniest passages in the whole book:

 

Here's the thing, though: Even with pebbles, it is surprisingly hard to stone people. My plan had been to walk nonchalantly past the Sabbath violator and chuck the pebbles at the small of his back. But after a couple of failed passes, I realized it was a bad idea. A chucked pebble, no matter how small, does not go unnoticed. My revised plan: I would pretend to be clumsy and drop the pebble on his shoe. So I did. And in this way I stoned. But it was probably the most polite stoning in history -- I said, "I'm sorry," and then leaned down to pick up the pebble. And then he leaned down at the same time, and we almost butted heads, and then he apologized, and I apologized again. Highly unsatisfying. Today I get another chance. I am resting in a small public park on the Upper West Side, the kind where you see retirees eating tuna sandwiches on benches.

 

"Hey, you're dressed queer."

 

I look over. The speaker is an elderly man, mid-seventies, I'd guess. He is tall and thin and is wearing one of those caps that cabbies wore in movies from the forties. 

 

"You're dressed queer," he snarls. "Why are you dressed so queer?"

I have on my usual tassels, and for good measure, have worn some sandals and am carrying a knotty maple walking stick I'd bought on the internet for twenty-five dollars. 

"I'm trying to live by the rules of the Bible. The Ten Commandments, stoning adulterers..." 

"You're stoning adulterers?"

"Yeah. I'm stoning adulterers."

"I'm an adulterer."

"You're currently an adulterer?"

"Yeah. Tonight, tomorrow, yesterday, two weeks from now. You gonna stone me?"

"If I could, yes, that'd be great."

"I'll punch you in the face. I'll send you to the cemetery,"

He is serious. This isn't a cutesy grumpy old man. This is an angry old man. This is a man with seven decades of hostility behind him. I fish out my pebbles from my back pocket. 

"I wouldn't stone you with big stones," I say. "Just these little guys." I open my palm to show him the pebbles He lunges at me, grabbing one out of my hand, then flinging it at my face. It whizzes by my cheek. I am stunned for a second. I hadn't expected this grizzled old man to make the first move. But now there is nothing stopping me from retaliating. An eye for an eye. I take one of the remaining pebbles and whip it at his chest. It bounces off. 

"I'll punch you right in the kisser," he says.

"Well, you shouldn't really commit adultery," I say.

We stare at each other. My pulse has doubled.

Yes, he is a septuagenarian. Yes, he has just threatened me using corny Honeymooners dialogue. But you could tell: The man has a strong dark side. Our glaring contest lasts ten seconds, then he walks away, brushing by me as he leaves.

 

There is a ton of information and ideas to process in this book. Seriously, it's gonna leave you pondering about a good many things. But even if you take it a little at a time, it's so worth it. Chances are you'll come out at the end feeling that much more enlightened about the world and life in general. And if not, well... you'll will have gotten an impressive bullet-points education on the basics of Jewish culture. So there's that! Enlightenment whether you like it or not :-P