The Year of Liv­ing Biblically

  • Review
By – December 9, 2011

A.J. Jacobs is clear­ly a writer on a mis­sion; mul­ti­ple mis­sions actu­al­ly. Jacobs’ pre­vi­ous book, The Know-It-All, took him on a hum­ble quest to be the world’s smartest per­son” by read­ing the entire Ency­clo­pe­dia Bri­tan­ni­ca in a year. His lat­est effort fol­lows him through anoth­er year-long endeav­or, The Year of Liv­ing Bib­li­cal­ly: One Man’s Hum­ble Quest to Fol­low the Bible as Lit­er­al­ly as Pos­si­ble. This par­tic­u­lar under­tak­ing sees him explore many facets, famil­iar and obscure, of both the Hebrew Bible and New Tes­ta­ments. His year of bib­li­cal lit­er­al­ism takes him from Crown Heights to Israel to Appalachia, and a few places in between.

Jacobs begins by explain­ing that he’s Jew­ish but only in the same way the Olive Gar­den is an Ital­ian restau­rant.… Not very.” The agnos­tic Jacobs says he was raised in an ultra-assim­i­lat­ed house­hold com­plete with a Star of David on top of our Christ­mas tree.” Upon read­ing these facts, you won­der why some­one total­ly unfa­mil­iar with reli­gion (let alone Judaism) would take on such a task. When asked why he under­takes such large chal­lenges Jacobs explains that it’s his favorite thing to do because he gets to live anoth­er life for a year.” This was cer­tain­ly true with this endeav­or of bib­li­cal pro­por­tions. Jacobs con­tin­ues to explain that he’s been fix­at­ing” about reli­gion over the last num­ber of years because of our geo-polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion. In addi­tion, he wants to clear his con­science regard­ing the impor­tance of spir­i­tu­al upbring­ing for his small sons. On the oth­er hand, when asked if he would ever do some­thing more phys­i­cal­ly demand­ing” such as trav­el­ing the world in a year his reply was sin­cere and fam­i­ly – ori­ent­ed say­ing, he has a fam­i­ly to think about and likes liv­ing in one spot. 

At the begin­ning of Jacobs’ work he lays out his guide­lines for his bib­li­cal­ly lit­er­al year. He explains that he’ll stay away from things like ani­mal sac­ri­fice and any­thing else that seems vio­lent or anachro­nis­tic. He assem­bles a spir­i­tu­al advi­so­ry board. He makes a vast wish list of what he’d like to accom­plish. He debates which ver­sion of the bible to fol­low. He pon­ders whether or not to fol­low just the Torah or include the New Tes­ta­ment as well. Jacobs admits ear­ly on to his mon­u­men­tal igno­rance, [and] lack of prepa­ra­tion.” It would seem that this is hard­ly a project to enter into light­ly. In addi­tion, Jacobs feels as if he could have eas­i­ly spent a life­time with this top­ic, as many peo­ple do all over the world, search­ing for mean­ing, guid­ance, wis­dom, and faith. 

When asked what his favorite and least favorite things were dur­ing his year he responds with acu­men. He enjoyed get­ting a crash course in reli­gion” because he loves the idea of immer­sion. Jacobs says he also enjoyed meet­ing amaz­ing com­mu­ni­ties and peo­ple of var­i­ous faiths. With those meet­ings also came pro­found lessons from which he learned to be hum­ble and grate­ful on a dai­ly basis. On the neg­a­tive side of things, he did not enjoy look­ing like a com­plete and total freak.” Jacobs also wasn’t fond of his beard, but that played sec­ondary to the clash between his reli­gious and sec­u­lar lives, and espe­cial­ly his marriage. 

Jacobs’ writ­ing is light-heart­ed through­out, but in a few instances it’s too soft to be tak­en seri­ous­ly. Once you get used to Jacobs’ style, he is a joy to ride along with on his bib­li­cal jour­ney. His sar­casm and social com­men­tary are sharp and bit­ing. At times, when he seems to be triv­i­al­iz­ing a top­ic that is immense­ly impor­tant to many, many peo­ple, he is actu­al­ly try­ing to demon­strate the vast array of view­points on a top­ic that is sub­ject to end­less debate. 

It may seems like an oxy­moron to tack­le the Bible with so much gus­to only to point out its foibles, but Jacobs man­ages to bring a sense of humil­i­ty and grace few would be able to exhib­it in sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances. For exam­ple, Jacobs said that when he was begin­ning the project his wife said: you can go bib­li­cal, but I’m not.” Through the course of his year, it was most dif­fi­cult liv­ing under Jew­ish puri­ty laws for the first time in the mar­riage. But, in the end Jacobs’ wife enjoyed learn­ing right along­side him. 

There is no get­ting away from Jacobs’ self-con­scious, neu­rot­ic nature, which some will find endear­ing. Jacobs wants to live by the Bible, so he wades into the deep Sea of Lit­er­al­ism, but can only go so deep while still keep­ing his head above water. This is prob­a­bly a good thing, since tak­ing on this momen­tous task is prob­a­bly big­ger than most any­one could dream of. 

One of Jacobs’ ulti­mate goals was to see whether or not reli­gion was impor­tant enough to impart to his young chil­dren. Because he grew up in a sec­u­lar house­hold, Jacobs want­ed to make sure his par­ent­ing machine wouldn’t be miss­ing a key cog. His wife, Julie, has a spe­cial code word for when he’s being a lit­tle too cau­tious and not let­ting his son explore. When ques­tioned after the project if he is still a para­noid par­ent, Jacobs responds that he’s still a bit of a micro­man­ag­er.” One can hard­ly blame him with so many bib­li­cal sto­ries of father-son rela­tion­ships gone awry. In terms of Jew­ish edu­ca­tion, Jacobs now wants to give his chil­dren the knowl­edge of their reli­gion so that they will be able to make edu­cat­ed choic­es in the future.

Going through this year has left an indeli­ble mark on Jacobs. He says that he is now won­der­ful­ly grate­ful for the lit­tle things in life, such as get­ting on an ele­va­tor and not hav­ing it plum­met to the ground.” Jacobs also thor­ough­ly enjoys the Sab­bath, the manda­to­ry day of rest. Maybe unex­pect­ed­ly he is also try­ing to wear white more often as it says in scrip­ture to let your gar­ments always be white.’ Jacobs says this has made him hap­pi­er, clean­er and more spiritual.” 

Ulti­mate­ly, it is the con­cept of this book that is fas­ci­nat­ing. Rarely does a work of mod­ern non-fic­tion com­bine the ele­ments of mem­oir, pop cul­ture, and humor with a top­ic as vast as reli­gion, but Jacobs pulls it off. It is a book that could spark deep con­ver­sa­tions and cause audi­ble laugh­ter. And as for the recent­ly passed fall Jew­ish hol­i­days, there was no Sukkah this year for Jacobs, but he does have a won­der­ful new sense of com­mu­ni­ty and con­nec­tion to Judaism. 

Ethan A. Zim­man is a Pro­pos­al Writer for an IT Gov­ern­ment Con­trac­tor by day and free­lance writer by night in Arling­ton, VA.

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