While A. J. Jacobs has given up the pursuit of adulterers to stone, he still maintains many of the practices he adopted during his “Year of Living Biblically.”
Jacobs, the featured speaker at last night’s Pacesetters thank you event for the United Jewish Federation, catalogued his year-long experience of literally adhering to every commandment in the Bible in his book, “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.” The book has won wide critical acclaim, and appeared on The New York Times bestseller list.
“A lot of things definitely stayed with me,” Jacobs said in a telephone interview with The Chronicle. “Although I stopped stoning adulterers, and I went back to wearing clothes of mixed fibers, I still try to observe Shabbat. I think it’s a beautiful ritual. I still say prayers of thanksgiving and gratitude. I try to be thankful for the hundreds of things that go right each day, rather than focus on the three or four that go wrong.”
For an entire year, Jacobs donned white garments and sandals, did not shave his beard, procured a walking staff, and set forth in New York City, determined to live as is mandated by the Good Book.
“I’m still wearing white clothes,” Jacobs noted. “It puts you in a better mood. How can I be in a bad mood if I look like I’m playing the semifinals at Wimbledon?”
Jacobs said his biggest challenge during that year was avoiding sins, particularly the sins of lying and
“I live and work in New York City, and work in the media,” he noted. “Lying and gossiping are a big part of my life.”
Still, Jacobs pulled all the stops in halting the sinning. He even frequently called a gossip hotline, run by Orthodox rabbis in Brooklyn.
“When you get the urge to gossip, you call the hotline, and they talk you down from the ledge,” he said. “It’s like a suicide hotline. I called them all the time.
“Once, I was writing an article for Esquire Magazine, and I was going to say something mean about director Michael Bay,” he continued. “I was really torn, but I called the hotline, and they talked me down.”
Jacobs said that being conscious of controlling his gossip was a turning point in his life.
“You start to realize how much of our speech is the evil tongue. One of the best parts of the year was realizing that when you stop saying negative things about people, you start thinking more positively about them.”
One of the greatest lessons Jacobs gleaned from his experiment was learning “how much the outer affects the inner. By pretending to be a better person, you become a better person. The idea of deed before creed is a very Jewish idea. You do the mitzvahs first, and then you start to understand why.”
Although Jacobs tried to follow every commandment in the Bible, he admits there were some that were difficult to practice.
“Things like sacrificing oxen and goats,” he said. “Those are hard to follow in modern day New York. I didn’t do those as much.”
On the other hand, Jacobs found that many mitzvot were rather easy to keep by default. “I never sacrificed my son to the pagan god Moloch.”
Neither did he have to worry about the commandment to amputate the hand of a woman who grabs the private parts of a man fighting with her husband.
Still, Jacobs was able to stone one adulterer.
“I was wearing my biblical clothes —my white robe and my sandals — and I had my walking stick. I was walking through Central Park when a man came up and asked why I was dressed like that. When I told him what I was doing he said, ‘I’m an adulterer. Are you going to stone me?’ He offered it up.”
“I said, ‘That would be great.’ I took a handful of stones from my pocket that I had because I had been hoping for an interaction like this for some time.”
Jacobs said the man took the stones (which were really small pebbles) and threw them in Jacobs’ face, so that he would feel justified in throwing one in return.
“It was an odd experience,”
Though raised as a secular Jew (he has been quoted as saying, “I’m officially Jewish, but I’m Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant”), Jacobs was an agnostic when he began his year of living biblically.
Now, he refers to himself as a “reverent agnostic.”
“Whether or not there’s a God, I believe in the idea of sacredness,” he said. “The awareness of that changed my life for the better.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)