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The Year of Living Biblically
By A. J. Jacobs
Simon and Schuster
389 pages; $25.
A.J. Jacobs likes books. The books. The serious books. The Esquire editor who shared his adventures reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica "from a-ak to zywiec" in 2004's The Know-It-All has now tackled the Bible.
Jacobs's second book, The Year of Living Biblically, chronicles both the author's own attempt to follow the Bible literally and understand other groups who claim to do the same. Over the course of 12 months, Jacobs, an avowed secular humanist (yes, he's Jewish) looks not only at Judaism's wildly variant streams but also at the Amish, Jehovah's Witnesses, creationists, Red Letter Christians and Appalachian snake handlers.
The book is not, however, the story of a disenchanted Manhattanite who finds his way to God. In his introduction, Jacobs discusses his motives for delving into the Bible. First, he acknowledges, the Bible is the "only intellectual adventure that seemed a worthy follow-up" to the hallowed Britannica.
He also concedes, hedging his bets, that living the Bible is a good idea if God is lacking in his life, and if he has a spiritual side and if he wants to "understand his forefathers." The "ifs" are key - with few exceptions, Jacobs maintains an impenetrable critical distance from the x-factor of religious devotion that will surely frustrate devout readers who desperately want him to have an epiphany. He seeks to understand, not to believe.
Jacobs starts off by visiting a Bible store in Manhattan and Amazon.com and amassing a waist-high stack of texts. He opens a 72-page "rules" file on his laptop. Feeling justifiably overwhelmed, he meets with Rabbi Andy Bachman, who tells him the midrash of Nahshon ben Aminadav and advises him to "jump in."
And so his year begins. With great humility, irony and curiosity, Jacobs begins to relate his entanglements with biblical precepts. Not surprisingly, he often finds himself at a loss. Should he accept change from a female clerk? Erring on the side of caution, he asks her to put the money on the counter - but tells her he has a cold. "In trying to avoid one sin, I committed another," he writes ruefully.
Jacobs also explores prayer, admitting frankly how uncomfortable it makes him. "If I don't believe the holy words I'm saying, isn't that taking the Lord's name in vain?" he ponders.
But Jacobs presses on. He joins a group of hassidim for a Simhat Torah celebration. "I've never seen such joy... there's no choice but to go along with it... I don't know if I feel God... but a couple of times that night, I feel something transcendent..." he writes, in one of the few moments in the book in which he allows himself to be swept away.
The Year of Living Biblically details Jacobs's personal life as well as his biblical research. Jacobs's wife, Julie, has always been "the mildly pro-religion one." But while Julie has sanctioned his project, she is not a partner. "I feel her drawing away... it's the difference between living the Bible and living with someone who is living the Bible," he confides.
In The Know-It-All, he recounted the difficulty Julie was having getting pregnant. At the end of the book, she conceives, and an afterword informs the reader of the birth of their son, Jasper. Now, coping with the pain of infertility as he and Julie try for a second child (she wants a girl), Jacobs, while "reading and pondering the Bible," mulls over the commandment to be fruitful and multiply.
"It's the alpha rule of the Bible," he writes, describing the marital tension caused by his and Julie's unsuccessful attempts to conceive.
Jasper also becomes an unwitting partner in his father's quest when Jacobs decides to relieve Julie of the "bad cop" role and set some limits for his son. Jasper is also the focus of some of Jacobs's more touching musings - how can he protect his child? What, if any, religious tradition should he pass on?
At one point, Jacobs slips and lets fly with a certain curse in Jasper's hearing. The toddler quickly adds the word to his own vocabulary, and Jacobs realizes that a parent's "moral failings will affect [his] kids' ability to make the right choices." He notes that his worldview has become "more interconnected, more tribal," and wonders about the shift. Is it the natural result of becoming a parent, he asks himself, or "the Bible seeping into [his] brain?"
Jacobs - a descendant of the Vilna Gaon - starts out on his biblical quest something of a maverick. Whereas most people who explore religion seek out a community, he goes it alone. While willing - even eager - to consult spiritual "advisers," Jacobs chooses to go directly to the source and interpret the Bible for himself. He also skips the commentaries, despite being admonished by an Orthodox aunt that without the rabbinical footnotes, the Bible "doesn't make any sense."
Tradition, however, is inseparable from community. Over the course of the year, Jacobs begins to consider Jewish tradition, as opposed to limiting himself to the literal text of the Bible. In February, halfway through his venture, the ritual of wrapping tefillin sparks his interest. As usual, his first reaction is to ask questions. Where does the ritual come from? What does it mean? But Jacobs move from the "why" to the "how" and asks his "adviser" Uri to help him. "It was far more moving than I thought it'd be. As strange as the ritual is, it also has beauty," he writes.
While Jacobs devotes most of his project to the Hebrew scriptures and their precepts, he acknowledges that to give the New Testament a miss would be to "ignore half the story."
He concedes that fundamentalist Christianity is a social force to be reckoned with in the America of 2007. For the last four months of his biblical year, he delves into the Christianity of both the "hard-core" Falwell-style evangelists and more liberal sects who seek to apply the teachings of Christ to the dilemmas of the 21st century.
Jacobs recounts his year with intimacy, honesty and humor. He examines some truly odd aspects of religious life (visiting a new creationist museum, an Amish baseball game and a former cult leader ex-uncle who became haredi and lives in Jerusalem) but strives, always, to focus on the essence of Biblical literalism.
The Year of Living Biblically is not about finding religion. It is about finding the people who have found religion and trying to understand what makes them tick.
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