For my book The Year of Living Biblically, I spent 12 months following the rules of the Old Testament. All of them. Hundreds of them. I followed the famous ones, such as the Ten Commandments and ‘Love thy neighbor.’ But I also followed the often-ignored ones, such as don’t wear clothes of mixed fibers, don’t shave your beard and, yes, stone adulterers.
It was an amazing, enlightening and life-changing year. It was a spiritual journey that moved from irreverence to reverence. You see, I grew up in a totally secular home. No religion at all. I’m officially Jewish, but I’m Jewish in the way the Olive Garden is Italian. Which is to say, not very. But in recent years, I decided I needed to see what I was missing. Was I neglecting something crucial to being human, like someone who goes through life without ever hearing Beethoven or falling in love? I dived into the Bible headfirst. And lo, it was awesome. I was surprised by how relevant much of the Bible’s ancient wisdom was to my 21st-century life. I was surprised by how baffled I was by other passages. I was surprised by how a lifelong agnostic like I am could find solace in prayer. I was surprised by how the Bible revealed my flaws and challenged me to be a better person.
Since I’m officially Jewish, I spent most of my year studying and following the Old Testament (though I did devote the last four months to the New Testament). I know that most Christians don’t follow a lot of Old Testament laws. And in fact, neither do Jews. Jews may avoid shellfish, as Leviticus says, but they don’t stone adulterers or sacrifice animals. Those were abandoned after the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. But I wanted to try everything. As naive or misguided as it may have been, I wanted to get into the mind and sandals of my ancestors. And I’m glad I did. Because even the rules that seemed bizarre at first glance were thought-provoking and revealed important insights about faith, God and the Bible.
THE 5 MOST UNEXPECTEDLY WISE & LIFE-ENHANCING RULES
Keep the Sabbath.
I’m a workaholic (I check my emails in the restroom, in the middle of movies, anywhere). But the Sabbath taught me the beauty of an enforced pause in the week. No cell phones, no messages, no thinking about deadlines. It was a bizarre and glorious feeling. As one famous rabbi said, the sabbath is a “sanctuary in time.”
The Bible says to thank the Lord before our meals. I did that. But then I got carried away. I gave thanks for everything—for the subway arriving on time, for the comfortable cushions on my couch, for my high-speed DSL connection, etc. It was a strange but great experience. Never have I been so aware of the thousands of little things that go right in our lives.
Let your garments be always white. (Ecclesiastes 9:8)
I chose to follow this literally—I wore white pants, a white shirt and a white jacket. This was one of the best things I did all year. I felt lighter, happier, purer. Clothes make the man: You can’t be in a bad mood when you’re dressed like you’re about to play the semifinals at Wimbledon or go to P. Diddy’s party.
When you try to go on a gossip diet, you realize just how much of our conversations involve negative speech about others. But holding your tongue is like the verbal equivalent of wearing white. I felt cleaner and untainted.
Do not curse.
I used to curse a lot. In fact, my computer password was, at one time, a particularly adolescent bodily function. During my year, I tried to scrub up my vocabulary. My new curse words were: Fudge, sugar and shoot. Whenever I said them, my wife would respond by whistling the Andy Griffith theme song. She can mock me, but the weird thing is, I think my G-rated language made me a less angry person. Because here’s the way it works: I’d get to the subway platform just as the downtown train was pulling away, and I’d start to say the F-word. I’d remember to censor myself. So I’d turn it into “Fudge” at the last second. When I heard myself say “Fudge” out loud, it sounded so folksy, so Jimmy Stewart-ish and amusingly dorky, that I couldn’t help but smile. My anger receded. Behavior shaped emotions.
2 RULES I VIOLATED AT LEAST ONE TIME PER DAY (AND WHAT I TRIED TO DO ABOUT THEM)
You shall not covet.
This is like asking someone not to breathe. Especially in my hometown of New York. This is a city that runs on coveting. And on a typical day, I would covet dozens of things, everything from Steve Jobs’ latest gadget to my friend’s sprawling back yard. I came up with several tools for battling coveting. Perhaps the most effective was to overcome coveting with gratefulness. Every time I coveted something (like a flat-screen TV), I’d counter it with something I was grateful for (that I have a working color TV with good reception and a remote).
Be slow to anger. (Proverbs 19:11)
I knew I had to wrestle with my anger when I gave the finger to an ATM (in my defense, it did charge me a $2 fee). I never fully quashed my anger, but the best method for putting the brakes on rage came from the story of Jonah. It’s a wonderful story. God teaches Jonah—who was acting like a peevish teenager—to get some perspective. Jonah whines to God about the loss of a shady plant that was keeping him cool in the desert sun. So God asks him, “Do you do well to be angry?” And God reminds him what’s important: Jonah just helped God save Nineveh, a city of 120,000. Get some perspective.
THE 3 RULES THAT I FOUND THE HARDEST TO FOLLOW
You shall not trim the corners of your beard. (Leviticus 19:27)
I let my beard grow until I looked like Moses. Or maybe Ted Kaczynski. I got called both. I got searched at airport security. I itched like a madman. Plus I was subjected to every beard joke in the history of facial hair, including about 412 ZZ Top references.
Stone men and women who commit adultery.
Thanks to those pesky U.S. laws—and my conscience—it was particularly difficult to abide by this Old Testament law. I did, however, manage to stone one adulterer. Here’s what happened: I was in Central Park. I was wearing my most biblical garb—sandals, a walking stick, white clothes—and an elderly man came up to me and asked me why I was dressed so “queer.” I explained I was following all the rules of the Bible, right on down to stoning adulterers. He said, “I’m an adulterer, you going to stone me?” I said, “Well, yes, that would be great.” And I took out of my pocket some pebbles that I was saving for just this occasion. (The Bible doesn’t specify the size of the stones.) The old man actually grabbed the pebbles out of my hand and threw them at me. So I figured I should toss one at him in self-defense. And in that way I stoned.
You should not lie on a bed where a menstruating woman has lain, and you can’t sit on a chair where she has sat. (Leviticus 15:20)
My wife hated this rule above all others. She told me she felt like a leper. To get back at me, she sat on every seat in our house. I was reduced to sitting on the floor or standing.
Some Orthodox Jews still follow a version of the purity laws. And they say it’s not as crazy as it appears from the outside. The ritual is actually about a respect for life. Every time a woman has her period, it’s as if a potential life has been lost. You show your reverence by abstaining.
3 RULES THAT I SUCCESSFULLY KEPT THE ENTIRE YEAR WITHOUT EVEN VIOLATING ONCE
You shall not plant your field with two kinds of seed. (Leviticus 19:19)
My attempt at agriculture—some cucumber plants in flowerpots—wasn’t too successful. (The cucumbers got to be the size of Good and Plenty candies and mysteriously stopped growing.) But … I made sure the seeds were purely cucumber, not mixed.
Do not sacrifice your children to Molech. (Leviticus 20:5)
In fact, I didn’t sacrifice my children to any pagan god whatsoever.
You shall not take on your wife’s sister as your second wife.
Well, it does help that my wife doesn’t have a sister.
THE 5 MOST BAFFLING RULES (AND SOME POSSIBLE EXPLANATIONS)
This was a big lesson of my year: Even the most curious rules might make sense once you understand them. I found it’s important to read the Bible with an open heart.
You shall not eat bugs—except for locusts. (Leviticus 11:20–22)
Possible explanation: Bugs were considered dirty. But during locust invasions, there were no crops left to eat. Only locusts. So God wisely made an exception for locusts to keep the Israelites from starving. The locust loophole is actually an example of the Bible’s mercy.
You cannot wear a garment made of mixed fibers. (Deuteronomy 22:11)
Possible explanation: The Old Testament paid a lot of attention to separating things. Don’t wear mixed fibers. Don’t mix milk and meat. Many commentators believe the idea was to drill the idea of separation into the ancient Israelite mind. This way, the Israelites would remain separate from the pagans and not intermarry. This way, they kept their faith in God.
If your wife is suspected of cheating on you, she must drink a potion made up of holy water and soil. If that causes her stomach to swell, then she is guilty.
Possible explanation: This might have been a form of ancient marriage counseling. If the woman is, indeed, innocent of adultery, all she has to do is drink some water with a little dirt in it, and her husband’s mind will be put at ease. Marriage saved.
Do not eat fruit from a tree unless the tree is at least three years old.
Possible explanation: Waiting for a tree to turn three years old teaches us discipline and patience. And patience is one thing we need in life—especially if you’re trying to abide by hundreds of rules of the Bible.
Do not wink.
The Bible has no fewer than four anti-winking passages, including this one: “He who winks with his eye is plotting perversity” (Proverbs 16:30).
Possible explanation: Many believe that the Bible’s “wink” referred to a tacit approval of evil. As in “I saw what you did, but I won’t tell.” But let’s face it. The wink is a creepy gesture no matter how you cut it. So the Bible is correct to condemn it. If only the Bible condemned people who call strangers “captain.”
4 BIBLICAL COMMUNITIES THAT I VISITED AND WHAT THEY TAUGHT ME
I went on a series of adventures during my year to embed myself with various groups that, in their own way, took the Bible literally. Here’s a sampling.
What they taught me: The beauty of silence.
I live in New York, where everyone talks nonstop. Jibber-jabber all the time.
I stayed with an Amish family in Lancaster, Pa., and I was struck by their reticence. The man of the house, Amos, talked slowly and carefully, like he only had a few dozen sentences allotted for the weekend and he didn’t want to waste them upfront. I read later in the Amish book Rules of a Godly Life that you should “let your words be thoughtful, few and true.” By adopting minimalism, Amos avoided all the gossiping and complaining that I too often fell back on.
I was lucky enough to catch an Amish baseball game. I watched 18 Amish teenage boys, their sleeves rolled up, their shirts and suspenders dark with sweat playing ball in a field near some farms. These kids were good, but something was off about the game. I realized after a few minutes what it was: This was the quietest baseball game I’d ever seen. No trash talk. No cheering from the parents in the stands. Near silence, except for the occasional crack of the bat. It was eerie and peaceful
By the way, I also learned the Amish are not humorless. The Amish man I stayed with told me this Amish joke: “What happened when the Mennonite man married the Amish woman?” Julie and I didn’t know. “She drove him buggy.”
We laughed. It wasn’t Chris Rock, but you have to remember: Amos was working with some pretty stringent preconditions.
The Hasidic Jews
What they taught me: The importance of joy
There’s a section in the Bible where King David celebrates the arrival of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. King David celebrates by dancing. And man, does he dance. He dances with such abandon, with such joy, that he doesn’t notice that his robe is flying up, exposing his nakedness to the young handmaids in the kingdom.
His uptight wife Michal is appalled. She makes the mistake of scolding King David and, as a result, is cursed with childlessness.
The unhappy ending seems unduly harsh. But I do love the image of the king doing a wild holy jig. The joy of religion—that’s what David was feeling, and that’s something I underestimated—or pretty much ignored—in my secular life. I got a taste of this joyous dancing when I visited the black-hatted Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn one October night. The occasion was a Jewish holiday called Simchat Torah. It was a wild ride. Inside the Hasidic headquarters, I saw an ocean of undulating black hats. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of men in a hall the size of a large gymnasium, singing “Ay-yi-yi.” The floor was exactly like a Seattle mosh pit circa 1994. Everyone was bumping, smacking, thumping into each other. One guy barreled into me so hard he sent me stumbling.
If you looked up, you could see the occasional Hasid bounce up in the air like a pogo stick. When there was a patch of free space on the floor—which wasn’t often—a reveler would do a somersault. Two men were swapping their black hats repeatedly as if they were re-enacting a Laurel and Hardy scene.
I tell you, I’ve never seen such pure joy. It was thick, atmospheric, like someone had released a huge canister of nitrous oxide into the room. Here we were, hundreds of dancing King Davids. Even for a control freak like me, there was no choice but to go along with it. You were overwhelmed. You followed the sweaty, bouncing, shouting, “ay-yi-yi-ing” hordes, or you were trampled.
Shepherding in Israel
What it taught me: Leadership
To really get into the mind-set of the ancient times, I decided I should try my hand at shepherding. Most of the biblical patriarchs were, at one point or another, shepherds: Jacob, Moses and King David, to name a few. During a weeklong trip to Israel, I spent a day with a Bedouin shepherd in the Negev desert. It was an amazing day. My mind was uncluttered, settled, still.
Theoretically, if God is everywhere, then He should be just as present in a New York forklift as He is in an Israeli sheep pasture. But what can I say? Maybe I lack vision, but the idea of God was just easier to sense out there, away from the beeping of backing-up trucks and the sight of racy underwear ads.
Occasionally, one of the sheep strayed too far away. The shepherd taught me to chuck a rock near it to get it to return to the flock. It’s the method that’s been in use since the days of King David, which is how David was so adept at embedding a rock in Goliath’s forehead. Perhaps the biggest revelation from my afternoon of shepherding was this: It’s astoundingly good for your confidence. I have minimal management skills, but even I could handle a couple hundred sheep. Because in addition to “ba-a-a-ing,” sheep fulfill another stereotype: They are sheepish. A loud “Hey” or a tossed stone, and the sheep fall right into place. Everyone can be a Jack Welch on the pasture. You can see why shepherding was the ideal first job for patriarchs. There’s a reason Moses led sheep before leading the Israelites out of bondage.
The Red-Letter Christians
What they taught me: Not to trust stereotypes
During my year, dozens and dozens of my stereotypes crumbled. Before my adventure, I had a very narrow view of evangelical Christianity. I was embarrassingly ignorant of the broad range of opinions and nuances within the movement.
I had no idea, for instance, that there was a group that called itself the Red-Letter Christians, which stresses Jesus’ actual words. I loved meeting its leaders, including the reverends Tony Campolo (author of Letters to a Young Evangelical) and Jim Wallis (author of God’s Politics). Their position on the poor resonated with me—they point out there are thousands of passages in the Bible about poverty, more than almost any other topic except idolatry. “The Christian call is to share,” says Campolo. “There’s nothing wrong with making a million dollars. There is something wrong with keeping it.” And I was also taken with the Red-Letter Christian position on homosexuality. As a lifelong secular, moderately liberal New Yorker, I wrestled a lot with the biblical passages that condemn homosexuality. They went against my deeply held beliefs. Campolo, for one, doesn’t endorse gay marriage. But … neither does he publicly condemn it. He believes it’s not a major biblical issue; it wasn’t what Jesus preached about. He says it’s not something on which we should waste spiritual capital, and points out that Jesus was concerned with breaking down barriers and embracing society’s outcasts.
Plus, Campolo called me “brother” several times throughout our conversation, which was inspiring and wonderful in its own right.
Originally published in RELEVANT Magazine issue 29. If you enjoyed this article, consider visiting your local newsstand to pick up the latest issue or subscribe online and save up to 71% off newsstand.