Living the Bible

I recently finished reading a great book by A.J. Jacobs which I remember hearing about when it first came out in 2007.  The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.  Living as I do in Jerusalem, I’m used to people who are very serious about their version of the Bible.  However, I’d not yet come across this – someone who attempts to follow the Bible (first the Hebrew Bible and then also the New Testament) completely literally.

There are a few big problems with this.  First of all, the Jewish Bible (Torah) was not meant to be followed literally nor was it meant to be followed on its own, without the understanding provided by the Oral Torah, the Talmud.  It’s impossible to follow the Torah without it.  For example, it stipulates to sit in a Sukkah.  How are you supposed to know what a Sukkah is and how to build it?  Jacobs recognizes this and other flaws in the methodology in the introduction of the book.

So, no, it’s not an honest foray into religion, but rather a quest to undertake something really big (His first book, The Know It All, documents his quest to read the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica from cover to cover).  It is well-written, it is highly entertaining, and it does shed a lot of light on the practice of ancient tradition in today’s world as well as the beauty and the ugliness of what it all can involve.

While I have a very different take on how I interpret the Bible, I could share in some of Jacobs’ frustrations.  The following is an explanation of part of the code of Jewish law, Halachah, which goes way beyond the Bible.

There’s a Jewish book that restricts choice even more — far more — than the Bible itself.  It’s a massive work from the sixteenth century called the Set Table — or Shulchan Aruch in Hebrew.  It’s an amazing book; it gives practical instruction on everything you can think of: eating, sleeping, praying, bathing, sex.  Some Orthodox Jews follow a lot of the Set Table‘s guidelines, but it’d be darn near impossible to follow every directive.  There are thousands of them.  One stipulates that when going to the bathroom outside, you should face north or south but not east or west.

The key question seems to be: How do you choose which choice-restricting rules to follow in the first place?  I don’t know.  It’s like an M. C. Escher drawing.  It hurts my brain. (pg. 143)

To a newcomer, as I once was, the list and lists of laws can seem daunting and even smothering.  But that’s why a very important teaching in Pirkei Avot (part of the Oral Torah Jacobs that doesn’t read) says to “make for yourself a rabbi” (1:6).  It’s important to have a rabbi to turn to for guidance in all matters, including how to grow in observance of halachah, Jewish law.

During the course of his year, Jacobs makes a pilgrimage to Israel.  I, too, began a new lifestyle shortly before arriving, and balancing feeling different from the mainstream secular society that I knew in the United States and vs. the style and lifestyle in Jerusalem is something I find myself adjusting to often.  He amusingly recounts the following:

As I wander over to a café near the hotel for a bagel, I realize something: Walking around Jerusalem in my biblical persona is at once freeing and vaguely disappointing.  In New York — even though it’s home to the Naked Cowboy and Gene Shalit — I’m still unusual enough to stand out.  But in Israel I’m just one of the messianic crowd.  A guy with strange outfits and eccentric facial hair?  Big deal.  Seen three dozen today.  Jerusalem is like the Galápagos Islands of religion — you can’t open your eyes without spotting an exotic creature. (pg. 220)

Recently I ran some errands and was feeling self-conscious about what I was wearing, though I also knew that it was probably all in my head.  Then I saw trotting into the store a man dressed in all white, including pants hitched up nearly to his knees so that you could see his socks and a kippah (skullcap) with a pom-pom on top.  That put things into perspective quickly.

By the end of his project, Jacobs develops an increased awareness about all of his daily actions.  He finds himself swearing a lot less and being kinder.  He also begins to pray from his heart, even when the experiment is over.  And he thinks about Gd.  At the end of the day, I think that is what religion and the mitzvot, commandments, even the obscure ones, are supposed to be about — becoming a better person and closer to Gd.


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Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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