A Doubter on a Mission From God
A.J. Jacbos discusses his extreme—and extremely funny—“Year of Living Biblically. ”
By John D. Spalding
Countless believers pride themselves on leading Bible-based lives, but let’s face it: there’s a big difference between donating to the Christian Children’s Fund and downloading Jars of Clay onto your iPod, and diving headlong into the ancient world of Moses and King David—swearing off clothing made of mixed fibers, stoning adulterers, and growing a beard that makes you resemble the Unabomber.
In his latest book, The Year of Living Biblically, Esquire editor A.J. Jacobs sought the “ultimate ancient-Israelite experience,” devoting 365 days of his life to following the Good Word—as literally as possible. Jacobs set out to obey every rule in the Bible. Thus, he: stopped working on the Sabbath, ignoring all voice messages and emails; swore off visual (graven) images, including photos, TV, films, and doodles; and, in perhaps the greatest test of his wife’s love and patience, refused to touch a menstruating woman or even contact any chair or bed in which she had sat or lain. Jacobs also found himself having to tithe his income and love his neighbor, as well as wear white robes, blow a horn on the first day of every month, and eat crickets.
A secular Jew and proclaimed agnostic, Jacobs aimed "first, to find out if I was missing something — like a man who had never fallen in love or had never heard Beethoven — or if half of the world is deluded." Though “The Year of Living Biblically” generates enough laughs to bring down the walls of Jericho, it’s also a deeply personal inquiry into the religious and moral life that—perhaps precisely because Jacobs pulls out all the stops in his crazy undertaking—is full of heart, yielding unexpected spiritual insights.
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Did you really find living according to the Bible’s more than 700 rules difficult? People talk all the time about leading biblical lives, and yet they rarely complain.
It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Before this, I read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica for my book, “The Know-It-All.” That was a challenge. But this project affected everything I did—the way I ate, the way I walked, the way I talked, the way I dressed. The way I interacted with other people—even the way I touched my wife. It was an extreme religious makeover.
What was the hardest rule to follow?
Well, I break it up into the two types of difficult rules. The first is the avoiding-the-sins-we-commit-everyday type: no lying, no gossiping, no coveting. I live in New York, Coveting Central, which made that rule particularly challenging. And then there were the rules that, if you actually obeyed them, could get you into serious trouble in modern-day America. Like the rule about stoning adulterers. That was not easy to follow.
Right, because you carried stones with you in case you met an adulterer…
Well, I never knew when I might run into one so, yes, I did carry a pocketful of stones—pebbles, actually. That was sort of my loophole. The Bible doesn’t say the size of the rocks required for a stoning, so I always kept a handful of pebbles at the ready. And I was able to stone—or pebble—one adulterer that I met.
That was the crazy old guy in the park who basically introduced himself to you as an adulterer. He didn’t take too kindly to the stoning, though.
No, he was very confrontational about it! I asked for permission to stone him, and I even showed him the pebbles. But then he grabbed them out of my hand and threw them back at me. So I felt that, an eye for an eye, I was justified in stoning him.
But if he’d been more clever, he might have argued that God didn’t command individuals to stone people. The idea was that a council of 70 elders would try a person for adultery, and there had to be two witnesses to the act…
Great point. The Sanhedrin council didn’t weigh in before I stoned the guy. But I don’t think he was in the mood for much of a theological debate.
Other rules could land a strict adherent to the Bible in hot water, too. What they considered normal child discipline back then many would call abuse today. Did you start parenting like a Patriarch?
Well, if you follow Proverbs literally, you cannot spare the rod. You have to hit your kid, which goes against my general parenting philosophy. Here again, I obeyed the rule but I found a loophole. Instead of a rod I used a Nerf bat. When he misbehaved, I swatted him with a Nerf bat. Unfortunately, he thought this was hilarious, and he’d hit me back with a Wiffle bat, and the whole thing was a disaster.
But I will say the whole idea of child discipline, even though I couldn’t go through with the rod part, there is something wise in the Bible’s teaching that you have to have a mixture of compassion and discipline with your children. I don’t know how you are as a father, but I know that I was, and I still am, a total pushover dad. I think the Bible helped me realize that you have to set firm limits.
What about lying? In “Liar, Liar,” Jim Carrey shows the horrors that ensue if you are totally honest in every situation.
Yeah, that’s a recipe for disaster. But I did at points try for complete and utter honesty, no lies whatsoever, and it was a huge challenge. Once I went to a restaurant with my wife, and she saw an old friend who wanted to get together. And I had to tell the truth—I didn’t really want to get together, because I had no time for my current friends, so I don’t want to take on new friends. My wife did not appreciate my honesty. I really got dagger eyes for that one.
So I don’t recommend total honesty. There is something to be said for white lies. But I will say that I have become more honest since my year of living biblically. I tell fewer white lies, cutting them down maybe by 40 percent. The Proverbs say it is better to be frank than to flatter, and there is something to that.
As long as we’re being frank, there are other ways in which you, as a husband, did not live completely biblically. For example, Hebrew scripture approves of multiple wives.
[Laughs] This is true, and I did look into that. As you say, Solomon had 700 wives and David had eight…
And God didn’t mind.
No! So I actually called the head of the polygamy movement here in America, and I asked him how I might convince my current wife that polygamy is a good idea. His advice was: “Don’t ask your wife. Go out, find a second wife, and consummate the marriage. Then go back and tell your first wife.” The idea is that if the second marriage is a done deal, then it’ll be harder for the first wife to object.
How’d that work out for you?
Well, I did not take his advice. As much as I loved my project and found it transforming in many ways, I didn’t want it to end in divorce.
Then I guess you didn’t have sex with prostitutes, concubines, or slaves, all of which is cool with the O.T. In fact, you could have slept with anyone you wanted to except for married women—and men. Speaking of slaves, did you own any?
No, but I did have an unpaid intern, which was as close as I got to Hebrew slavery. He was a nice young college guy who worked for me over the summer, and he was fantastic. And I decided not to beat him, which the Bible permits slave owners to do. Nor did I drill a hole in his ear.
What makes your book compelling is that you started with little understanding of the Bible, but over the year your knowledge and appreciation of religion deepened in unexpected ways. Just how non-religious were you?
As I say in the book, I’m Jewish in the same way that the Olive Garden is Italian. Which is, not very. I didn’t attend Hebrew school. I didn’t eat matzoh. The closest my family came to observing Judaism was putting a Star of David atop our Christmas tree.
For your quest, you developed an alter ego named Jacob. Tell us about him.
Well, this project represented such a radical change in thinking and behaving that I felt at times like I’d split off into a whole other person. So I named him Jacob, because it’s similar to my last name and it sounds biblical. And it was interesting to watch Jacob progress, and I sort of grew into the character. Initially, I felt like I was playing Jacob. Toward the end of the year, I felt as if I had become that person.
The first time the wall between you and Jacob dissolved was when you danced drunk with hundreds of Hasidic men at a religious celebration in Brooklyn, right?
Yes, exactly, and it was a profoundly moving experience. As a secular person, I’d always focused on the negative aspects of religion—the guilt, the sin. But then I went to this annual festival, which was almost like an Orthodox Jewish rave, a mosh pit, where thousands of men were dancing with an utter joy unlike anything I’d ever seen before in my life. That’s when I really understood that religion doesn’t just make people miserable. It can also be a portal to joy and profoundly enrich your life.
At first, I thought you pulled some stunts just for entertainment. Like carrying around pebbles to stone people. But the more I read, the more I realized that by taking everything so literally, you gained some insight you could not have drawn unless you’d gone to such extremes.
Well, I think so, and that’s nice of you to say. I mean, it was a huge learning experience for me, and much of what I learned came from the living through it. I could have just read a lot of Bible commentaries, but that would not have allowed me to learn through experience. You know, like, it’s one thing to learn about Rome by just reading travel books. It’s another to go there, and to walk the streets and to eat the pasta yourself.
Which was why you built a hut in the middle of your New York apartment—to get a sense for, as best you could, what the ancients experienced celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles.
I felt like I was walking in their sandals, if you will. And that was another amazing revelation I had doing this project—how much behavior shapes our thought. They talk about this in cognitive psychology: If you act a certain way, you will become that way. This happened to me, ethically. I wasn’t allowed to gossip, so eventually I had fewer things I could gossip about. C.S. Lewis wrote about this phenomenon—that pretending to be better than you are is better than nothing. And it may even be the first step to self-improvement.
Prayer is another example. You prayed as often as some of the most devout believers I know, and yet you’re agnostic, unsure if anyone or anything ever heard you. Still, regular prayer yielded some surprising benefits.
Definitely. I talk about how it was a very weird experience for me to pray. I’d never done it before, and I’d rarely said the word “Lord” without following it by “of the Rings.” So here I was praying for the time, and feeling uncomfortable, but eventually I became comfortable with it, and even started to really relish prayer. Especially two kinds: prayers of thanks, and prayers for other people. I really took to those forms.
Why? Was it simply because they made you more appreciative and less wrapped up in yourself?
That’s it exactly. I still don’t know if my intercessory prayers did anything for others. Did my friend heal faster because I prayed for him? I remain agnostic about that. But it was good for me in the sense that I viewed it as moral weight training. Here were 10 minutes a day that I was forced to think about other people. I couldn’t be self-absorbed and selfish. Prayer helps you get beyond myself, which can be liberating.
You write that you suffer a mild case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, you discovered that living biblically suited your O.C.D. traits perfectly.
Yeah, they couldn’t have dovetailed each other better. Especially with regard to the Old Testament, where most of the rituals are just that—rituals. I’d been practicing my own rituals for 37 years, these odd behaviors I’ve come up with, like touching the sink faucet four times. And here the Bible had provided me with these time-tested rituals with which I could replace my own.
Are you calling Abraham and Moses obsessive-compulsives?
[Laughing] I don’t know about that. Freud would certainly say they were.
You also attended a meeting of New York City Atheists. What did that teach you about belief versus non-belief?
I thought it was a paradoxical organization, because it struck me as difficult to rally around a lack of belief. It’s sort of like holding an apathy parade: what’s the point? And these people get together on Sunday, and all my non-believer friends became atheists partly because they didn’t want to get together on Sunday.
But if there was one thing I underestimated, it’s the new atheist movement. Non-believers have gathered a lot of steam lately, with the success of all these books. So if there’s one section I could go back and change in my book, it’s the part on atheism.
Now that your yearlong project is finished, do you still follow any of the odder rules you had to observe?
What do you mean, odder rules?
Well, I assume you still adhere to the more common ones, like “Thou shalt not kill.”
Ah, that is true. I have not returned to murdering. And, yeah, I stopped stoning adulterers, and I’ve gone back to wearing clothes made of mixed fibers. But there’s a huge number that have carried over. I love the Sabbath, and I try to observe it. This idea of a sacred day of rest in which you can reflect on the previous the week is wonderful no matter what your beliefs are. I continue to say my prayers of thanks. The biblical idea of gratefulness has totally sunk in and changed me.
But I also made more minor changes. There’s a line in Ecclesiastes that says that “your garments should always be white,” and I decided to follow that literally. For most of the year, I still try to wear white.
Really? Even after Labor Day?
Even after Labor Day. There are no asterisks in the Bible.
So, Mark Twain, Tom Wolfe, now A.J. Jacobs—three writers in white…
Now that is good company. At one point in my project, I did sort of look like Tom Wolfe in white. Though more like Tom Wolfe of the first century. But again, it was a case of the outer affecting the inner. I felt happier wearing white clothes—more pure and spiritual—even if it was difficult to do in New York, where basically no one ever wears white.
You started your project as an agnostic. Where did you end up?
I became what a minister friend calls a “reverent agnostic.” I love the term, even though it sounds paradoxical. Whether or not there is a God, I believe in the idea of sacredness. How the Sabbath and our prayers and rituals can be sacred—hugely important parts of our lives. So I evolved in that sense.
Does your alter ego, Jacob, still exist?
Well, the enormous beard I grew still exists. I shaved it off but I kept it in a plastic Ziploc bag, because I felt that it had taken on a life of it’s own and become a member of the family. I keep offering souvenir tufts to people, but no one has accepted yet.
I can’t imagine why.
I know! It’s shocking. But if I were to think of Jacob metaphorically, then I’d say that, yes, I dropped my alter ego just like I shaved off the beard. And as with the beard, there will always be a shadow of him, maybe a three-day shadow. Because I think that the impact of this project was enormous on me, and it will always be there, even if I’m no longer dressing in robes and constructing biblical huts in my apartment.
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John D. Spalding is the editor of SoMAreview.com. His last piece was Reshaping Religion Journalism in the 21st Century.
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