This is the third part of a three-part interview with AJ Jacobs about his book, The Year of Living Biblically.
In the first part I talked to Jacobs about his career and earlier book. In the second part we talked about the response he has received from his new book. And now… the final part, where he discusses what he has learned during this experience.
What do you make of this case in Alaska of the guy saying he was following the Bible literally?
Well, that’s disturbing to say the least. In my year, I found the Bible can be used to justify pretty much any behavior, from slave-owning to smoking pot (I found a website that says that Moses’ anointing oil had THC in it). One of the lessons from my year was that you have to be careful with the Bible. It’s important to focus on the parts in the Bible about compassion and tolerance instead of the parts about violence, sexism, homophobia and intolerance. Because there are, in fact, both in the Bible. You have to be able to pick and choose properly.
What did you learn from this project?
I learned a hundred things, from the inane to the profound. I learned that crickets are crunchy (I ate one, since it’s part of the biblical diet) and that the Sabbath can be an beautiful experience — a sanctuary in time, as one rabbi calls it. I learned how moving rituals can be, even those that appear to make no sense on the surface.
I learned my wife does not like the rules about menstruation being impure. I learned that the Bible is the most fascinating book I’ve ever grappled with. I learned that the forbidden fruit was not an apple. It was a fig or a grape or something else, because apples weren’t around in the Middle East then.
How did this project change you in a permanent sense? How many of the “rules” of the Bible are you continuing to follow?
It changed me profoundly. I still covet and gossip and lie, but I think I do it less. Maybe 35 percent less, if I had to put a number on it. I still try to keep the Sabbath. I’m much more grateful. Gratitude was a huge theme of the year. I became far more aware of my actions and their consequences. Also, I started out as an agnostic, and by the end of the year I became what a minister friend of mine calls a "reverent agnostic."
Whether or not there’s a God, there’s something important about the idea of sacredness — rituals can be sacred, and the Sabbath can be sacred, and there’s an importance to that. My wife and I also joined a temple at the end of the year. It’s reform, and we don’t really go, but we decided to give our sons just a little taste of religion so they can reject it or accept it as they please. I also learned that it’s important not to take the Bible too literally.
What did you do instead of sacrificing the ox? Was that the part where you instead had a chicken killed?
Yes, that was the closest I came to sacrifice. It’s an annual ritual practiced by some Orthodox Jews called kaparot. It was a fascinating experience, and, frankly, a troubling one. The year was not all light and fun.
Looking back what was the high point and the low points of the project and why?
One of the highpoints was doing this crazy ecstatic dance with Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn. I’d never seen such pure, unadulterated joy.
As for the lowpoint, well, my neighbor died right at the end of my year. And it was tough and moving time. I hope my year gave me some perspective to deal with it.
I read somewhere that a movie deal is in the works. How will that work? Someone will play you? We're talking fiction or non-fiction? Who would you like to play you?
Yes, they’re working on the second draft of the script. I’m cautiously optimistic, as they say. It’d be a fictionalized version. As for who’d play me, I’d be happy with anyone, as long as the movie gets made. I’d be happy with Fyvish Finkel. Or Alfred Molina. Or Adam Sandler. Or Colin Farrell. Or anyone in between!
Is there anything you were hoping I’d ask but didn't? This is your chance to say something that's driving you mad because all the interviewers forget to ask it of you.
No, your questions were delightful. Plus, it’s not biblical to get mad.
Thanks again to A.J. for doing the interview. This book will probably make my top ten books of 2007 list, which I'll be writing up in the next few weeks. I strongly encourage you to read it.
As for the movie I'd rather have seen it done as a documentary but that's just me. Reality is always weirder than fiction, as I think the first article I linked to – the Alaska nut – proves.