"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Saturday, March 5, 2011

"Life is a jigsaw puzzle"

Recently a friend of mine told me that her husband was reading The Year of Living Biblically by AJ Jacobs and suggested that I might like it as well. I looked it up, found it at my local library and put it on my list of books to check out which I did Thursday night soon after I published my last post.  I thought it would be something quite different than it's turned out to be so far. I was expecting a much more serious book filled with -- what? Um, something different than this. But, hey, I like it very much actually!

Growing a beard was part of AJ's living the Bible project.


So AJ decides to live the Bible as literally as possible.  The book is quite funny in many parts, but also it's "serious" in that AJ, an agnostic who grew up in a secular Jewish family, comes to discover some appreciable aspects of living the Bible.  Frequently he gives a spiritual report and declares "I'm still agnostic but..." and will talk about how something - prayer or giving to charity or realizing discipline is important for his child - makes him feel better.

Anyway, I still have over half the book to read, but I thought I'd share one scenario.  On Day 80 AJ is at a family gathering. Most of the family is not religious, however, one aunt is an Orthodox Jew. Her name is Kate.  So AJ's grandfather asks about the strangest rule AJ has to follow. 

"I mentally scan my list of Five Most Perplexing Rules. I choose one at random.  'Probably the one about how if you're in a fistfight, and the wife of your opponent grabs your private parts, you must cut off her hand.'"


Kate hears this and her face falls.  Maybe she didn't realize her beloved Torah had such a strange command. But there it is in Deuteronomy 25:11-12.

11 If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, 12 you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.

The next day AJ gets a phone call from Kate. She'd talked to her rabbi who said, yes, it was in the Torah,

"But...it's supposed to represent something broader: Do not embarrass others.  The wife here is embarrassing her husband by assuming he needs help. And the wife is embarrassing the husband's opponent by, well, grabbing his privates.  Plus, adds Kate, you didn't actually chop off the wife's hand. That's metaphorical. The woman was required only to pay a fine."


AJ admits this sounds more rational interpreted this way, but questions why didn't the Bible just come out and say not to embarrass others? "Why the mysterious code?"

He asked his Jewish advisers and the best answer he received was from Rabbi Noah Weinberg:  "Life is a jigsaw puzzle, he told me. The joy and challenge of life -- and the Bible -- is figuring things out.  'If a jigsaw puzzle came numbered, you'd return it to the store.' Same with life." 



I've heard people say before that part of the joy of life and the goodness of God is that He left things for us to discover.  Wouldn't life be different and less satisfying if everything were already figured out? If there were no mountains to climb on the hunt for that thrilling view from the top, no waterfalls to discover hidden on a trail, no medicinal or scientific or oceanic discoveries to make? No gems to dig for, no birds to watch and learn their habits - how that mothering instinct is present. Isn't it fun to watch young children discover their toes or noses or ears?  Isn't it exciting to go to the zoo or circus or even Walmart and see a little one's face light up as he discovers new things?  On a related note, I've heard people say heaven will still be full of discoveries.  Not sure how they deduced that, but it makes sense to me that God would want to see the pleasure on our faces when we discover wondrous things He has created.  Maybe He has new things for us to discover throughout eternity.  Who knows?

By the way AJ said this explanation wasn't totally satisfying, but did somewhat and vowed to keep on learning.


What do you think of the rabbi's explanation about God not spelling out the rules and the whole jigsaw puzzle bit?  Do you think it's gift from God that we are able to discover or do you wish things were discovered already as they could be beneficial to humanity?  How would you interpret the Deuteronomy passage above?  Thoughts or questions?

quotes from pg. 111-112

12 comments:

sanil said...

First off, SO HAPPY you're reading this book! It's been on my list for awhile...right under God Is Not One.

That is a great story. I had never really thought about that commandment, just grouped it with "crazy things that are never going to come up in real life," because really, why on earth would anyone do that? :D

But I like the explanation on both the interpretation of the rule and the reason for the mystery. It makes sense, in the weird lateral thinking sort of way I got used to when I was reading a lot of Jewish sources. (That's not meant to be insulting, I really really love that sort of thinking and got a lot out of those readings.)

While I like the mystery interpretation, I also think that there's a more straightforward one - the Torah (and also Jesus' teachings) goes to extremes to make a point. A lot of the instructions in the Torah are similarly harsh to our modern ears - and I would argue, to ancient ears as well. I remember as a teen being horrified to read that the death penalty was given for dishonoring parents - I dishonored my parents all the time!

But then when you actually look into the Jewish perspective and history, I remember reading somewhere that the death penalties were rarely carried out - as this story confirms. They are the most extreme allowable penalty, but in practice, a court that used them was considered bloody and murderous. The purpose of the Law is life, and so it generally should not be interpreted to lead to death. Rather, the extreme penalties and innocent-sounding offenses emphasize the importance. In this commandment, it's hard to see why it should be so harsh. The wife is acting to protect her husband, what can be wrong with that!? But it makes the point - she did it for a great reason and with great intentions. But it was still wrong, and it shows that there is no situation in which you should embarrass someone in this way. They are so extreme so that they will make an impression, while we tend to de-emphasize the offenses today by making the punishment fit the crime and noting how out of proportion these punishments are.

How many teenagers would be so disrespectful to their parents if they remembered that it was perfectly within the court's right, technically, to kill them for it? They didn't, but they could, and I think the severity served an important purpose in reminding the community to take their values and laws seriously.

Tauqeer said...

I agree with this part : "'If a jigsaw puzzle came numbered, you'd return it to the store.' Same with life."

Very true.

Suroor said...

what do you think, Susie? Do you think God wants us to solve a fun puzzle or do you think we are trying to explain away the mistakes of others? If it was God's will for one was to chop off a woman's hand like that then it would have been taught by all prophets. Why didn't God incarnate, Jesus Christ, teach us that? Why did he choose to pardon a woman everyone else from Abraham to Muhammad would have stoned?

Mercy, I feel, can be divine but I'm not sure I would link patriarchal cruelty to God's mystical philosophies.

LK said...

I just wanted to say I LOVED this book so much.

Wafa' said...

seems like a good book, waiting for your other post about it.

Is life a jigsaw puzzle !! could be, i honestly wish that religious scripture are to the point and each for the "time being" which is impossible, so I will just watch and learn ...

Suroor said...

I just read Sanil's comment and I have to say I agree with her last paragraph. I think we have made punishment fit the crime. But then I think about Jesus and I think he too made punishment fit the crime and was often against the Jewish excesses.

Someone wrote on my blog why no one ever speaks out against the Jewish Law which is "barbaric and misogynist" whereas people are quick to condemn Islam. I think the most emphatic evidence of condemnation of the excesses of the Jewish Law and revision of it is the New Testament that DOES have material for a life changing experience - http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Christianity/Jan-2011/10-Radical-Sayings-of-Jesus.aspx?p=5.

I don't know, as you can see I'm pretty confused ;)

Lat said...

"I've heard people say heaven will still be full of discoveries. Not sure how they deduced that, but it makes sense to me that God would want to see the pleasure on our faces when we discover wondrous things He has create"

Yes this makes sense.Life is a jigzaw puzzle,an unnumbered jigzaw puzzle.But if we are presented with a different kind of numbering that doesn't include hate,anger and all that goes with it,it will be so much better.

Angry Panda said...

I just wrote this huge reply to this that was well thought out and everything and Blogger ate it. :(

I am so glad you picked up the book!! I felt the same way you did - it wasn't what I expected. A good read, but very different from my anticipation.

In response to your question about the rabbi, I feel completely boggled by the rabbi's interpretation (and his aunt's) that it meant the perpetrator had to pay a fine.

I mean - WHA?? I don't think God intended it to be that big of a mystery and I DO think it's supposed to be that literal. We're talking about The Chosen People who God was setting apart to Himself. The rules were different, their culture was supposed to be different.

I think that the rabbis who interpret it as being a fine have done so to help salve their conscious about such a harsh decree, honestly. If you're going to make it more palatable for today's culture at least admit it...

Amber said...

I read this book a couple of years ago and I loved it! :D

I'd comment more, but sanil said pretty much everything I had to say, so I'll just 'ditto' her and move on. :)

Susanne said...

Sanil, wow! I loved everything you said. And really your reply sounds quite like some things I read in "Is God a Moral Monster?" earlier this year. :)

" the Torah (and also Jesus' teachings) goes to extremes to make a point."

Very true! Jesus' plucking out an eye for those tempted to lust or cutting off a hand for thieves would qualify!

" The purpose of the Law is life, and so it generally should not be interpreted to lead to death. "

I love that you said this because it reminded me. When AJ would think about why women were 'unclean' during menstruation or men after a seminal discharge, he gradually got to understand it was because part of life was dying in a sense. And ritually when something or someone died or you were around a dead body, you were ceremonially unclean. It makes better sense when thought of in that way. It's NOT that periods are bad or something to cause shame. They are just perhaps symbolic each month of the sacredness of life. If we look at them that way it's much more positive.

"How many teenagers would be so disrespectful to their parents if they remembered that it was perfectly within the court's right, technically, to kill them for it? They didn't, but they could, and I think the severity served an important purpose in reminding the community to take their values and laws seriously."

Haha...for real!!

Thank you for taking time to leave a comment. Very enriching to me!





Tauqeer, I agree too! :)

Susanne said...

Suroor, you make valid points as always! Thanks for sharing them! :) Oh,I have "Radical" on my list of books to read. The library has it! I have some FB friends from church and also bloggers who have read it and said it's great! But oh-so-challenging!

"Someone wrote on my blog why no one ever speaks out against the Jewish Law which is "barbaric and misogynist" whereas people are quick to condemn Islam"

I hear a number of people speak out against Jewish law in this way. I think Judaism (in the OT) and Islam are very similar. Christianity is the odd man out in many ways and that is a GOOD thing to me. Hey, I'm all for oddity when it means God's grace is offered to me through Christ!

Nice reading your views. I have a summary post on the book coming up probably tomorrow. I hope you read and leave your feedback. I tried to tie in AJ's experience with God's grace.




LK, yes, was this the one you were reading a few months back that I thought sounded interesting? *wracks brain* You were planning to do a review, but got too busy? Ah, well, I'm glad I read it. I liked it a lot!



Wafa', yes, it seems it would be more helpful if it were written in plain English (so to speak) and not riddles. :)


Lat, true about the hate, but I'm afraid that would take all humans out of the equation! :)


Angry Panda, sorry your comment was eaten, but thanks for trying again and leaving your comment!

Yes, you may be right that they are just trying to make it more palatable for our modern culture. Good point!



Amber, ooooh, I'm glad you read it and liked it too. I was going to recommend it to you. Thanks for your feedback.




Thanks, everyone! For those interested my post from Monday night has a TED talk where AJ talked about this book. He's a better writer than speaker, but you can hear a few tales from his year-long project if you wish!

Becky said...

First of, I have to say I agree with Suroors and Panda's comments.

I find it difficult to understand why God would choose to write something like that, knowing that some fundamentalists would interpret it and use it for cruelty. (but then again you can say that about all the holy books, I suppose).

Also, as for heaven being full of new discoveries (and I'm not saying it's not), but putting the reason that God wants to see us discover new things, sounds rather stupid to me, since I'm certain that She can see us just as well here on earth discovering new things.