Excerpt: 'The Year of Living Biblically'

It's debatable whether the New Testament even has a legal code -- it depends on your definition of "law" -- but it has many teachings that have been followed with varying degrees of literalness, from Jesus's "turn the other cheek" and "love your enemy" to the Apostle Paul's decree that men should have short hair. Frankly, I haven't hammered out all the details of my New Testament plan but hope to figure it out once I get my spiritual footing.

4. Should I have guides?

The Bible says, "It is not good for the man to be alone." Plus, I'm flying blind here. So over the course of a couple of weeks, I assemble a board of spiritual advisers: rabbis, ministers, and priests, some of them conservative, some of them one four-letter word away from excommunication. Some are friends of friends, some are names I stumbled upon in Bible commentary books. I'll be talking to them as much as possible.

Plus, I make a pledge to get out of the house. I'll visit a bunch of groups that take the Bible literally in their own way: the ultra-Orthodox Jews, the ancient sect of Samaritans, and the Amish, among others.

My guides will give me advice and context. But they won't be the final word. The Bible will. I don't want to follow any single tradition exclusively. As naïve or misguided as it may be, I want to discover the Bible for myself, even if it entails trekking down some circuitous paths. "DIY religion," as my friend calls it. Perhaps I'll find the beauty of a particular tradition fits me best. Or perhaps I'll start my own sect of Judeo-Christianity. I don't know.

As I expected, not everyone thinks my project is a great idea. My aunt Kate -- who has remained an Orthodox Jew even after her divorce from the controversial Gil -- told me I was, as our people say, meshuga.

I first floated the idea by Kate in early August. We were at my grandfather's house sitting around his big dining room table. Kate had just finished changing after a dip in the pool. (She won't wear a bathing suit for modesty reasons, so she plunged in with her long, black billowy dress, which impressed me. The thing looked heavy enough to sink a lifeguard.) When I explained the premise of my book, her eyebrows shot up to her hairline. "Really?" she said.

Then she laughed. I think part of her was happy that someone in our godless family was showing some interest in religion.

After which she got concerned: "It's misguided. You need the oral law. You can't just obey the written law. It doesn't make sense without the oral law."

The traditional Jewish position is this: The Bible -- known as the written law -- was composed in shorthand. It's so condensed, it's almost in code. Which is where the oral law comes in. The rabbis have unraveled the Bible for us in books such as the Talmud, which are based on the oral teachings of the elders. When the Bible says to "rest" on the Sabbath, you need the rabbis to tell you what "rest" means. Can you exercise? Can you cook? Can you log on to drugstore.com?

Without the rabbis, I'm like the protagonist of the early eighties TV show The Greatest American Hero -- he found a bright red suit that gave him all these superpowers, but he lost the instruction manual, so he was always flying into walls.

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