I may have been harsh on David Plotz and his book, The Good Book, about reading the Bible, in which case I apologize. Plotz himself fights back spiritedly in the comment box. When I’ve read his writing in the past, it’s always been charming and interesting. I’m sure the book is similarly well done, given the constraint. However I stand by my observation that reading the Hebrew Bible as you’d peruse the newspaper — or as A.J. Jacobs read the encyclopedia for the book he wrote before The Year of Living Biblically — is bound to produce results that I find it hard to believe could ever change the life of an adult.
What’s more, I wouldn’t exempt other holy books from this standard. I once wrote a piece for the Jerusalem Post about reading the Quran straight through — an experience I found disturbing and scary. But in retrospect, I’m sure I too missed much of the point. The Quran is part of a living tradition, not an isolated literary classic. Western writers who quote from it and think they are representing Islam, or anything particularly meaningful, are undoubtedly wrong. Yes, I was wrong about the Quran.
But consider Plotz’s reply to me.
He writes, “It’s certainly true that I didn’t read the Hebrew Bible in the way that many Jews traditionally study the Hebrew Bible. But you know what? I’m not an observant Jew!” Sorry, irrelevant. What is this arbitrary definition of being “observant”?
Whether Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or none of these, every Jew who is not totally alienated from his people is an observant Jew. That’s right. Every such Jew is involved in some way with mitzvot, commandments. So he’s not Sabbath-observant? Doesn’t matter — not in this context. Many Orthodox Jews observe the Sabbath but still gossip — a sin the rabbis compare to murder. Does that make them “non-observant”?
Whether he eats shrimp or not, or whatever, a Jew or a non-Jew who’s a sensitive reader and tries to read the Bible as you’d read a novel, should, I would think, come away asking, as the song says, “Is that all there is?