How can we find modern meaning in ancient rituals? From our "greatest hits" collection comes this episode from March 2019, featuring Rabbi Rick Jacobs in conversation with acclaimed author A.J. Jacobs, perhaps best known for his book The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally As Possible. Together, they talk Parashat Vayikra, the evolution of Jewish tradition, and adopting an attitude of gratitude.
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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by reformjudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the Torah portion, in just about 10 minutes or less. But for the first time in four years, this podcast is going to go on a little bit of a hiatus as we work on some new and exciting ideas for its future.
But in the meantime, we are reairing some of the best episodes of years past, our greatest hits, if you will. This week we're sharing a podcast from just about a year ago, when Rabbi Jacobs spoke with AJ Jacobs, the author of The Year of Living Biblically and Thanks a Thousand-- A Gratitude Journey, as they talk about Vayikra, the laws of Leviticus, and choice.
[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week we focus our attention on Parashat Vayikra, the first Torah portion in the book of Leviticus. We begin, therefore, a new book this week. And the book of Leviticus is oftentimes that book that people kind of say, oh, my goodness. What are we to make sense of here? There is description of an ancient ritual that doesn't really describe what we do today, an ancient ritual that included animal sacrifices for sin, for guilt, for thanksgiving.
And our whole notion of prayer is quite evolved. And yet we get in this week's parashah something very elemental about human experience, which leads me to introduce a remarkable guest that we have on the podcast this week. His name is AJ Jacobs. We're not related, at least not that we know of, although I would be very thrilled to be a cousin or someone in AJ Jacobs' family.
You may know him as this brilliant author who's written a number of books that are, I think, not only quite powerful, but really unique in how they approach the world we're living in. I want to particularly give a shoutout to his Year of Living Biblically, where AJ spent an entire year living as a biblical Jew, following the instructions and the obligations set forth in the Bible, and all the challenges, and frankly all the learning that comes with that.
And he's the author of a new book on gratitude, which also is amazing that expressing gratitude could really reshape kind of not only our personality, but the way we live in the world and the way people respond to us. These are, by the way, two things that I'd love to use as lenses to see this week's parashah. So AJ Jacobs, welcome to the podcast.
[AJ Jacobs] Thank you, Rabbi Jacobs. And, by the way, you were mentioning that you don't think we're cousins, but we most certainly are. I wrote a book a couple of years ago on how everyone on earth is related. And as you might know, Jews are especially closely related. And it depends which geneticists you talk to, but somewhere around seventh or eighth cousin is the average for two Ashkenazi Jews.
[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Fantastic. All right, so I'm glad to have my cousin AJ Jacobs on the podcast today. Can I start, AJ, by asking you-- and you've just immersed yourself in your prior book, in the reality of the biblical texts. I don't think you, on a daily basis, slaughtered lambs and rams, and covered the altar with blood. So there had to have been some adaptation.
But as you lived that year, what sense did you make out of so much of what Leviticus is focused on? And what do you think are some of the enduring teachings that we could draw from them?
[AJ Jacobs] I was, as you say, trying to follow all 613 rules, including the sacrificing of she-goats and turtledoves. But that was a tough one. Leviticus really is the biggest challenge to my quest because, first of all, I'm a vegetarian. So I didn't really like the idea of-- and also, I didn't want to get arrested for slaughtering a goat in Central Park. So I had to make do.
I did-- Leviticus does talk about sacrificing fruit and grain and dates and olives and such. So I did do some of that. But yeah, it was one of those I had to interpret a little more metaphorically than-- my goal was to do it as literally as possible. But sometimes, if you want to remain out of jail, you've got to take a little more meta--
So as you say, there were a couple of things that Leviticus really taught me. The first is, as you point out, a lot of these sacrifices have to do with gratitude. So that was a good lesson. If I could sort of be thankful without slitting any throats, that would be good.
And the other part of this that Leviticus was really helpful to me was my background is very secular. So that was partly why I dived into this. And I was very skeptical of rituals because they seemed so irrational to me.
But when I thought about it, and I talked to scholars, it occurred to me that secular people have rituals too. There's the birthday cake. And if a Martian came down and saw the birthday ritual of putting a fire on top of some sugar and eggs, that's not any less or more rational than, say, avoiding clothes made of mixed fabrics.
The key is that sometimes the ritual can be meaningful if you repeat it. It's something that brings people together. It binds the community. And the rituals in Leviticus where you kill animals, that's not my favorite kind of ritual, so I would avoid that. But the Bible has many other rituals that I ended up-- I do now like to participate in.
[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Beautiful. Beautiful. And I think you're right 100% about we, human beings, create ritual. Sometimes there are secular rituals, whether it's around birthdays or on retirements. You name it. We are a ritual-based group.
So one of the questions is, how do we find the most meaning in our rituals? And obviously, to do a slavish literal-- try and reenact the biblical text is challenging all through, as you did for the year, but particularly about things that have evolved dramatically. Can we think particularly about the rituals around both thanksgiving, which isn't directly, necessarily, purely the same as gratitude?
But the idea that when something wonderful happened in my life, I would show up in the temple and offer, to say thank you, to express gratitude to the Holy One, that it wasn't just my good fortune that something happened. But it somehow reflected the larger purposes of the universe.
So can we talk-- I know just in reading your book on gratitude, one of the things that motivated you was to express directly to the people who otherwise you wouldn't ever express gratitude towards-- the person who grew the coffee, the person who trucked the coffee from the fields to the market. And all of the-- just like the whole world was a part of this. So how might that have also been expressed when you showed up in Jerusalem with your-- it could've been a meal offering, as you say, fruit? It didn't have to be an animal sacrifice.
But I just see you showing up in antiquity and saying thank you to the priest, and to the Levites, and all the people that you met along the way, as well as in a more traditional religious way, to say thank you to the Holy One for all the gifts, whether one is secular or not. How do you think these rituals in antiquity-- and as we are updating them throughout the ages-- how effective are they as core expressions of gratitude, in terms of what you've learned in your book on gratitude?
[AJ Jacobs] Yeah, a couple of things occurred to me first. This book on gratitude was partly inspired because of the Bible. I've learned the importance of gratitude. And I actually adopted a sort of a-- I created my own ritual before dinner where I would thank the people. I would try to say out loud, thank you to the farmer who grew these tomatoes, and the cashier at the grocery who sold me these tomatoes.
And my son, who was 10 at the time, said, you know, Dad, that's fine. But you should-- you know, these people can't hear you. So it's kind of a waste. If you really cared, you would go and thank them in person.
And that's when the light bulb came on and was like, you know what? That is a pretty good book idea. So he earned his supper that night. And I spent the next several months, as you say, traveling the world, thanking all the people who had even the tiniest role in making my cup of coffee. And it made me realize just how many people we take for granted.
And so it was a lovely ritual. It was a pain in the butt to try to recommend it for everyone who doesn't have a book contract. But I do think the general idea of thanking all-- just being more grateful and aware of how much goes into every little thing in our lives-- and I can actually tie it quite closely to Judaism because I wrote a piece about gratitude in Judaism for the Forward, which, unfortunately, is no longer in print but will live on the internet.
And I learned about this scholar named Ben Zoma. I don't know if I'm pronouncing that right.
[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Perfect.
[AJ Jacobs] But he was a scholar in the second century. And he commented about how-- he was amazed about how much Adam, from Adam and Eve fame, how hard it must have been for Adam to have clothes. He had to get the wool and shear it and spin it and weave it.
And by contrast, even back then, Ben Zoma said, he would get up in the morning and find all of this prepared for him. His clothes were made for him. Artisans had made his house. Artisans had gone to the fields. I mean, farmers had picked up dates in the field.
So this is an ancient notion but, I think, an incredibly important one, just how interconnected we all are and how much we take for granted. It's amazing how many people it takes to create just one delicious cup of coffee. And it's just a radical shift in perspective because, I think, I am generally-- I was born with a Larry David state of mind, sort of very good at finding the negative. So I've been fighting that, and this was a very helpful tool.
[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Well, first of all, you may not be the only one among the Jewish people that has that Larry David inclination. And, by the way, we may not have cornered the market as the Jewish people. But it's powerful what you're describing because for you, again, prompted by your 10-year-old, it wasn't simply a great idea for a book. And obviously, when you're a writer, writing a great book is itself a very wonderful thing.
Tell me if I got this wrong. I sensed in the motivation also a kind of more self-improvement, actualization, which I think is at the heart of religious life. I think it was true to the time of the Bible. I don't think it was just to check all the boxes. Honey, did we do the guilt offering? Let's make sure to do this.
And the truth is that it's about trying to become the best incarnation of ourselves that we can be, and that rituals and practices-- and, by the way, saying a prayer before eating and a prayer of gratitude afterwards, those are sort of standard Jewish ritual practices, not just to check the box, but also to refine us, to make us, as Maimonides says, the mitzvot were to make us more refined as human beings, make us better.
And I guess one of the questions is, how effective are they? We can't, necessarily, other than your book, go back and interview people who are trying to live biblically. But how powerfully was this ancient ritual in refining the people and making them the best that they could be?
And did these rituals function in a cathartic way, in a self-corrective way? If I had so many guilt offerings in a row, is there a point where, hey, you could stop doing all these things and just get on the other path? And you can then show up for thanksgiving rituals. So is part of that in your both book and in your learning, both the book on living biblically and the book on gratitude?
Yeah, I love that.
How effective was it in changing you?
Yeah, it depended on the ritual. But I think that the gratitude rituals in particular were really effective in making me a little bit of a better person. I still am, I think-- I still struggle, and I still gossip and covet and lie all the time.
But I think that I have improved. And a lot of it is because of this idea of gratitude. And when it's practiced properly, it is a two-way street because you're not just doing it for the other person. But you become a little bit of a better person. You recognize the human-- like, just something as simple as looking the barista in the eyes and saying, thank you.
Because when I interviewed the barista, she said the worst part of her day is-- well, first of all, it's a tough job because people are coming to her uncaffeinated. So right there, that's not easy. But people just don't even look up from their phones. They just thrust their credit card at her and treat her like some sort of vending machine.
And she said just taking two seconds to look someone in the eye makes all the difference. And when I do that, it made a difference for me because, I think, humans are programmed to like contact. So I really do think that gratitude rituals will make you better.
And there's fascinating research on this-- it's in my book-- about how, granted, when you're feeling grateful, you're more pro-social. You're more likely to pay it forward.
Beautiful. So, first of all, I love that it does affect us. And what you did in the gratitude book is also the thing that sometimes our religious traditions are accused of being very scrupulous about what we do in ritual, what we do in the temple or the church or the mosque, how we pray, and whether we've performed them all correctly, more important sometimes than how we live everyday life, when we look the barista in the eye, or when we pass someone on the street.
And what you've done, I think, is to connect for us, as a Jewish community, it's how we are every day and every moment, whether it's dinner with our family, a stop to pick up groceries. How do we embody the very best of our Jewish tradition? And, you know, the rituals can be powerful and helpful, but the truth is integrating all those values in how we live our lives.
And then the most important thing, let those values make us better and better as we go through our lives, prompted and elevated and, frankly, enriched by a life of serious engagement with these values. So if you had only written The Year of Living Biblically, dayeinu, it would have been enough. If you had only written the book about gratitude, it would have been enough. But I want to say on behalf of your many, many readers, thank you.
We are grateful to you, AJ Jacobs, not only for your insights on today's podcasts, but for the way that you have gone all in to try and understand, what are the enduring values and impacts of these both texts and categories of, I would say, religious expression? But even more, how do we make our world more whole, more compassionate, more grateful, all those things?
You've done them in your books. Now you've also shared it with our podcast listeners. AJ Jacobs, thank you. Thank you. And thank you.
Thank you, Rabbi Jacobs. And thank you for your podcast, which I love. And thanks, Skype, for making this call possible.
You got it. Thanks so much. And we look forward to the next book. We'll be grateful for that one as well.
[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts, or Google Play, or Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend.
For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events, and more, visit reformjudaism.org and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @URJPresident. On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, [HEBREW].