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.