If it hadn’t been for a cousin’s protracted bat mitzvah, Slate editor David Plotz might never have picked up the Hebrew Bible. But to pass the time until the Kiddush, he scooped up the translation from the seatback of the synagogue pew, and opened it at random. He happened upon the story of Dinah’s rape — a crime that, in short order, leads to mass circumcision, mass enslavement and mass murder. Until that moment, Plotz was sure he knew what was in the Bible. “I thought, ‘Gosh, they didn’t teach me this in Hebrew school,’” he recalled. “And it’s not a story from the books of Zechariah or Nehemiah; it’s right in the middle of Genesis. I wondered what else I could have missed.”
Plotz spent the next year trying to find out. His efforts are documented in his new book “Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible,” in which he reads the Hebrew Bible “for pleasure” and writes about each chapter. In the process, he draws parallels to history and popular culture: the decline of the Roman Empire, “The Godfather,” Martha Stewart. The book is adapted from the “Blogging the Bible” series that he wrote in 2006 and 2007 for Slate. In an interview with the Forward’s Gabrielle Birkner, Plotz discusses the two most oft-repeated commandments, how reading the Bible changed his life, and why he’ll never blog the Book of Mormon.
Gabrielle Birkner: Do you have a favorite story or portion of the Hebrew Bible?
David Plotz: There are parts of Leviticus that are just the best anywhere. Leviticus is the most underrated book of the Bible.
Why does Leviticus get a bad rap?
Leviticus is mocked and derided because the first 13 chapters are a combination of tedium, irrelevance and weirdness. But the second half is, literarily, so wonderful; legally, it’s wonderful, too. Leviticus 19, in particular, is majestic in its call for justice, about not picking your land bare and not putting stumbling blocks in front of the blind. And at the end of Leviticus, there’s this super-duper vitriolic speech about what God will do if we’re not obedient; that rhetoric is really powerful.
During the year you spent reading the Bible, were you also studying biblical commentary? Or were you purposefully reading the text in isolation?
As much as possible I was just reading it — in a couple of different translations, but mostly I was reading the Jewish Publication Society’s translation, which I commend. … Now and again I would look at commentaries when I was reading, and they were deeply interesting. But I also felt that they were choking. They were guiding me down a path that was chosen by the commenter, not my own path. So I quickly stopped. The commenters and the rabbis and pastors have a conclusion in mind, which is fundamentally that God is ultimately good and the Bible is teaching us wonderful things. That’s why they became rabbis and pastors. But it puts the fix in, and gently steers you toward different conclusions than you might reach yourself.
So did the conclusions that you came to while reading and writing about the Bible change the way you practice Judaism?
There are certain aspects of the tradition that I no longer understand as mumbo-jumbo. The Shema, for example, is not some prayer that was invented in the 18th century; it’s right there in Deuteronomy. … It has also made me a better Jew, in the sense that I’m in this argument with God. I think about Him in a way that I didn’t before. But in a way it has made me less want to believe in Him because his presence is so mysterious, and so often depressing, in Bible stories.
Did it change the way you speak with your children about religion?
I thought it would make it so much easier for me to tell Bible stories to the children, but it has actually made it harder. Now that I’ve read them, the stories seem so much more morally complicated. I sort of feel like it has paralyzed me. I want them to learn this, and to have a chance to love God — or to decide not to — but all that I have learned has made me feel less equipped to tell them.
In “Good Book,” you write that if one were to boil down Hebrew Bible into two lines, they would be “Don’t worship false idols” and “Keep the Sabbath.” Why do you think the Bible emphasizes these two commandments?
My speculation is that, every society has a law about not killing and not stealing and not committing adultery. But keeping the Sabbath and not worshiping false idols — and the dietary laws, too — are what make Jews distinct. The Bible is, in many ways, about preserving Jewish identity, and these are the defining laws; they are the ones that keep Jews being Jews, and not just being anybody.
You also evangelize that everyone, and especially non-believers, should read the Hebrew Bible. Why?
There are a few reasons: One, it’s just a pleasure as a book to read; it’s really fun. Two, you are truly blind to your culture without it. So much of the language we use, the references we make come out of the Bible. If you don’t know it, you can obviously live in society, but it’s like living with a veil on. For non-believers, the fact is that the Bible has enormous value in shaping our politics — in shaping the laws, rules, customs of our society. People who believe fervently in the Bible help decide the kinds of laws that are passed, and what children should and shouldn’t be taught in school. And unless you understand the Bible, you will be very ill equipped to either spar with them or to work with them to reach the results you want.
Any plans to blog any other scriptures — say the New Testament or the Koran or The Book of Mormon?
No. Going into the New Testament, and saying the same kinds of irreverent things that I say about the Old Testament is to risk being very insulting. I felt a great degree of freedom writing about books that are my books; I felt entitled to do it because it’s my heritage, my tradition, my people. … And there is something about Judaism that lends itself to taking this approach. Judaism is a religion in which this kind of fighting about texts is taken as a given.