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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Spirituality and the letters of the law

In this Books & Culture essay, Religion Reviews editor Jana Riess recounts the adventure of secular New York Jew A. J. Jacobs, who tried living for a year by the precepts of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments.

The Old Testament customs seem stranger to Jacobs than the New, but that's really no surprise. The Old Testament took shape in an ancient agrarian society, but the New Testament is largely a series of letters written to ancient people who lived in cities, just as Jacobs does today. So he encounters many fewer customs that he simply cannot understand, let alone carry out.

As to Jacobs' project in general, engagingly described by Riess, I think it is founded on a misunderstanding. We must get to the heart of what the Biblical customs are trying to achieve, as well as see how they tried to achieve it. For example, Riess writes,
Of course, some of the Bible's laws prove too strange even for Jacobs. The notion that one should break the neck of a cow near the scene of an unsolved murder (Deut. 21:4) is a bit too bizarre to be transforming the NYPD anytime soon.

But there is nothing bizarre about it at all. Deuteronomy 21:1-9 outlines the procedure by which an ancient community was to swear publically and officially over a sacrifice that no one in authority was concealing the murderer. There was no equivalent of the NYPD in those days, but there was a real risk of blood feuds if collusion were suspected.

Today's NYPD faces an unrelated set of problems, including many more unsolved murders than were likely in an ancient tribal community (where most people knew quite a bit about their neighbours' business). And breaking a cow's neck would not help.

What does happen to Jacobs is most interesting:
Despite the individualism of Jacobs' task and focus, the haunting and glorious truth of the book is that his most significant spiritual experiences all happen not as part of his solitary year-long quest, but in community. He dances exuberantly with the Torah scrolls with hundreds of black-hatted Hasidim on Simchat Torah, celebrating the joy of the Bible in a way he never did on his own. He delves into Jewish family rituals, like the bat mitzvah of his niece or the circumcision of his twins, because he has decided that indeed, it is not good that man should be alone (Gen. 2:18). He assembles a sort of spiritual advisory board and tries to meet with or talk to at least one member of that group each day. Along the way, he discovers that a vital part of religion is belonging in community, whether or not we always understand (or agree with) why that community does what it does. One of the book's most illuminating moments, in fact, comes when Jacobs tries to think like a biblical creationist and realizes that despite its abuses of science, creationism is actually about a theology of human relationship:

"The first thing I notice is that I feel more connected. If everyone on earth is descended from two identifiable people … then the "family of man" isn't just pablum. It's true. The guy who sells me bananas at the deli on 81st Street—he's my cousin."
Uh, ... yes! And it's more important to know that than to know the entire history of the world.

And how does Jacobs' quest end?
Despite his confusion about the Bible's quirky mishmash, Jacobs comes away, like any pilgrim, changed by his experience. From his beginnings as a person who says he never uttered the word "Lord" unless it was followed by "of the Rings," he now describes himself as a "reverent agnostic" who, though he is unsure about God, recognizes the existence of the sacred in prayer and in each life. He realizes that the Bible is far more than he—and many devoutly religious people—had reduced it to. It is more than a mere self-help tome or an extended history lesson. It is something that requires everything he has:

"It's not like studying sumo wrestling in Japan. It's more like wrestling itself. This opponent of mine is sometimes beautiful, sometimes cruel, sometimes ancient, sometimes crazily relevant. I can't get a handle on it. I'm outmatched."

Well, it's not for nothing that they say that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

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