The Year of Living Biblically


I have not read the book The Year of Living Biblically, in which A.J. Jacobs writes about his experiences trying to spend an entire year living according to rules spelled out in the Bible. However, some internet research into examples of what he thinks it means to "live Biblically" provides an example of how taking the Bible literally and taking it seriously can be mutually contradictory.

I honestly don't know if the point the author is making is to mock some of the evidently absurd (by our modern standards) rules that are found in the Bible, or if he is trying to make fun of biblical literalism, or if he just thought this would make an entertaining premise for a book. The problem that I see is that if he is mocking literalism (which is, after all, an easy target), he seems to do so by being ridiculously literal himself in ways that make you wonder if he gets the point.

For example, Jacobs explains on his web site that he carried out the Biblical requirement to stone adulterers by throwing pebbles at "a grumpy seventysomething man" whom he "met in the park." The grumpy man was presumably an adulterer, and somehow Jacobs felt that by throwing pebbles at him he was able to live up to the letter of the biblical law while not actually having to kill him, which of course would have been problematic.

Obviously, this is a highly legalistic approach to this project. He satisfied his self-imposed requirements by living up to the letter of the text, rather than its spirit. But it also seems to me--and perhaps I am wrong about this--that a rule of punishment like that was meant to be carried out by society within the context of a legal system. So unless he could actually recreate ancient Jewish society from more than 3000 years ago as part of his project, then the context necessarily to live out that principle is just plain missing. Throwing pebbles at someone is thus neither faithful to the letter nor the spirit of that rule.

I think furthermore that any attempt at treating Biblical laws from that era as a personal rulebook really misses the societal and justice-driven goals that lay behind at least some of those laws; for example, if he did this for seven years instead of just one, how exactly would he be able to carry out on a personal level the dictum of societal debt forgiveness every seven years, which was an effort at redressing discrepancies in accumulated wealth? Again, without recreating ancient Israel, he cannot.

But the real point of a law like the one about stoning adulterers, harsh and brutal as it obviously is to our sensibilities, would seem to be to make it plain that this ancient society didn't want its people to commit adultery. So the best way for him to implement the spirit behind a rule like that would be for him to--well, to not commit adultery. But that wouldn't have been as entertaining and maybe he felt he could not write a book about what he didn't do.

As Rabbi Hillel once allegedly said, the Torah can be summarized quite simply as this: "That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah. The rest is commentary." If he really wanted to live a year biblically, all he needed to do was to live out this version of the Golden Rule. But I guess that wouldn't have been as much fun for him.


Yael said...

I think the whole thing is a publicity stunt to sell a book. As you say, he's making his own interpretations. How can that be called 'Biblically' at all? He makes a mockery of all of us who sincerely desire to live according to our traditions.

The good thing is he's a Jew. We're supposed to be deluded anyway, so his book will hold no surprises.....

Mystical Seeker said...

Yael, Thanks for sharing your perspective on this. I would agree that he seems to be just mocking the traditions in order to sell books.