Book Review: Year of Living Biblically

A.J. Jacob’s The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible is an entertaining read. Jacobs, who is a typically secular Esquire editor of Jewish descent, spends a year obeying as many of the seven hundred plus rules and commands he identified within the Bible as possible, which leads to some pretty interesting changes in his personality and lifestyle. There may be some familiar moments for polytheists who have used reconstructionist methods in their practice, though of course there are some big differences as well.

While seemingly strange taboos and commandments (such as avoiding bodily contact with women for a week after menstruation and men for a day after emission of semen) comprise perhaps some of the most entertaining and interesting portions of the book, The Year of Living Biblically also describes a process of spiritual growth.

Jacobs is fairly agnostic, but he intentionally spends time praying every day. He describes his prayers as an act of cognitive dissonance: “If I act like I’m faithful and God loving for several months, then maybe I’ll become faithful and God loving. If I pray every day, then maybe I’ll start to believe in the Being to whom I’m praying” (21). Or, in other words, he hoped that his attempts at orthopraxy would lead to a better understanding of Judaeo-Christian orthodoxy. AKA, “fake it ’til you make it.”

Jacobs doesn’t quite give Canaanite polytheism enough acknowledgment for its shaping of Israelite culture, and he speaks irreverently of the Hellenic theoi at times, but I didn’t really expect otherwise given the religious tradition he was trying to connect with. He seems to have quite some difficulty intellectually accepting polytheism though.

At one point, he does cite Karen Armstrong’s A History of God regarding the polytheism of the ancient Israelites (which inadvertently reveals itself in the line “you shall have no other Gods before me,” implying the existence of “others”) but wonders to himself, “Could I ever hope to get into the skull of an ancient Israelite who believed in several gods? Do I want to?” (183)

One little detail that stood out to me was how fastidiously he followed Exodus 23:13, “make no mention of the name of other gods, neither let it be heard out of thy mouth.” He started referring to days of the week by number, rather than by their names, which are derived from Anglo-Saxon deities.

The only idol he smashed was a “faux Oscar statuette that my wife bought as a party favor once. I got out some of my hostility toward celebrity culture. But frankly, it didn’t feel like it merited a chapter” (337). Personally, I’m glad that he picked a target for his iconoclasm that I approve of. A lot of other choices would have been much more controversial and offensive.

He mentions “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18) in passing, in the context of commandments that are “federally outlawed” (8). So it seems like he opted to follow secular over religious law in that case.

Hilariously, he gets an unpaid intern at one point, whom he takes on with the condition that he could refer to the intern as his “slave.” There is also a funny passage where an old guy in the park starts a fight with him and proudly admits to being an adulterer. Jacobs throws a few pebbles at the man, thus fulfilling the letter of the law, if not the spirit. This is the approach he takes to some of the more objectionable passages in the Bible.

On the other hand, he does genuinely try to get into the mindset of the ancient Israelites. For instance, he comes to certain realizations about the concept of intergenerational punishment:

[The] ancient Israelites didn’t have the clearly formed concept of immortality of the soul, as we do now. You achieved immortality through your children and children’s children, who were physical extensions of you. The basic building block of society was the family, not the individual.

With no afterlife, God dispensed justice to a family—a person’s actions reverberate through his descendents lives. The most extreme example: When Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the fruit of knowledge, the family of humanity has been paying ever since.

I can’t say why for sure—maybe the Bible has seeped into my brain, maybe there’s an inevitable mental shift that accompanies parenthood—but I’ve edged away from extreme individualism. My worldview is more interconnected, more tribal (145-6).

In his notes, he points out that this tribal view was later diluted, even in the Torah: “Later parts of the Bible seem to reject the notion of intergenerational punishment. Most notably, Ezekiel 18:20: ‘The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son’” (338).

Later in the book, though, he returns to the question of individualism:

My quest is a paradoxical one. I’m trying to fly solo on a route that was specifically designed for a crowd. As one of my spiritual advisers […] told me: “The people of the Bible were ‘groupies.’ You did what the group did, you observed the customs of your group. Only the crazy Europeans came up with the idea of individualism. So what you’re doing is a modern phenomenon.”

I’ve loved that crazy European individualism all my life. […] This year I’ve tried to worship alone and find meaning alone. The solitary approach has its advantages—I like trying to figure it out myself. I like reading the holy words unfiltered by layers of interpretation. But going it alone also has limits, and big ones. I miss out on the feeling of belonging, which is a key part of religion. […]

Maybe I have to dail back my fetishizing of individualism. It’d be a good thing to do; the age of radical individualism is on the wane anyway. (213-4)

The paradox he created for himself can be seen as a spectrum between rabbinic Judaism and Protestantism:

In a sense, my project is steeped in Judaism, since I’m spending a lot of time on the Hebrew Scriptures. But in some ways, it’s actually more influenced by the Protestant idea that you can interpret the Bible yourself, without mediation. Sola scriptura, as it’s called. […]

In some ways, going literal is turning out to be easier than rabbinic Judaism. Do I need to wear a yarmulke? No, the Bible doesn’t mandate it. That came from the rabbis. But in some ways, it’s infinitely harder. I’m trying to follow the word. When the Bible says, “an eye for an eye,” I don’t want to soften it to the rabbinically approved “some money for an eye.” (69-70)

Jacobs does try to connect to more traditional practice of Judaism at times. For example, he describes how he felt when he had tefillin, Jewish prayer straps, wrapped around his arm in the traditional Orthodox way: “I feel relief. Not just that I hadn’t totally messed up the ritual. But relief that, after trying to do DIY religion for months, I’d finally done it the approved way. The Vilna Gaon [a famous rabbi who was one of his distant ancestors] would be happy” (199). I definitely recognize this feeling of relief; in fact, I felt it fairly recently.

Jacobs is a bit squeamish about animal sacrifice (which isn’t practiced anymore anyways, since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem), though he does admit his hypocrisy: “I know the rotisserie chicken I get at Boston Market did not die of natural causes” (164). He attends a kaparot, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish ritual of killing of a chicken on the night before Yom Kippur (but which isn’t technically a sacrifice), to get a feel for the experience of seeing an animal killed as part of a religious ritual.

Later, he also tries to “Re-create that very first Passover as much as I could” (234). He makes his own matzoh, rather than buying it at the store, by carrying the dough around on his back and letting the sun harden it. He plans to re-enact the painting of lambs’s blood on the doorposts of his apartment but finds out that it is illegal to sell lamb’s blood in the United States, so he resorts to “using the lamb juice from the saucepan, which I figure contains at least a hint of blood” (235).

Now, this attempt to consider a by-product of the cooked meat “blood” is highly questionable in a devotional context, as Saigh rightly denounces on the Dùn Sgàthan Homestead blog, but a kosher lamb is drained of all of its blood at slaughter because of the Biblical taboo on eating blood. So it’s a pretty tenuous attempt at reconstruction, honestly.

As it turns out though, he finds more connection from reading his grandmother’s descriptions of her Passover dinners as a child than in his attempts at re-creating the first Passover anyways:

My Biblical rituals—the door painting and sandal wearing—were interesting on an intellectual leve,l but frankly, I wasn’t as moved as I hoped I might be. I didn’t feel like I had been swept back to the time of the Pharaohs.

But this writing from my grandmother—that did sweep me back. Perhaps to make a ritual resonate, I can’t skip directly from my stain-resistant dinner table in New York to a desert three thousand years ago. I need some links in between. I need my grandmother and her memories of the leviathan-sized carp of Hinsdale Street in Brooklyn. (236)

Personally, I think it’s definitely possible to perform ancient rituals in a meaningful way, but I agree that it isn’t the easiest thing, and that looking to more recent ancestry may be a helpful way to connect to the past. It really depends, though.

One other random detail. I’ve heard of Christian dominionism before, but apparently its most conservative wing is called reconstructionism: “the differences are subtle, but as far as I can tell, dominionism is for the slightly less-extremist extremist” (293). Maybe you knew that already, but I didn’t.

The book is written in an entertaining and engaging voice, and it was a pretty quick read for me. If you’re a fast reader as well, I’d recommend checking it out from your local library and reading it for fun.

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6 responses to “Book Review: Year of Living Biblically

  • Thorsvin

    Sounds fascinating, I might have to check it out. Thanks for the in depth review. 🙂

  • Damocles Loraine

    Took a while to come via our sole cultural link, the mobile library van, but well worth the wait. I found it amusing, informative, yet creepily blasphemous. This latter in the brazen, “I’m out to make a buck from what others hold sacred but it’s all cool coz I’ve got a book deal”, harlotry that is the sorry norm of empires in terminal moral decline. I still enjoyed it and thank you for drawing it to my attention. I take comfort that there are blogs on this site of others who, like myself, strive to live to lofty moral ideals for the inner rather than the outer.

    • heathenchinese.wordpress.com

      Yes, this book is very strange, because the author seems to make a genuine effort to be pious during his year of experimentation, and yet there is a fundamentally irreverent profit motive involved. “Empire in terminal moral decline” sounds about right. 🙂

  • Damocles Loraine

    What is awaiting moderation? For a first-timer it sounds like I’d submitted my comment to the “Comite de Salut Publique” and that some latter day Robespierre might, in consequence, demand my head.

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