One morning shortly before Purim, the Seattle Times actually showed up at my door well before it was time to dash off to minyan. A headline about record prices at the gas pump distracted me from the mishna I was preparing for my morning chevruta at shul. And then, because an entire issue of the Times requires roughly one eighth of the mental energy expended in learning a single line of mishna, I had enough unused 6 a.m. consciousness to notice a story way back in section A.
It announced: "Best Seller Figured in Survival of Hostage."
There, while reflecting on the mishna's ruling that produce of the sabbatical year may be sold neither "by volume, by weight, nor by number," I read the amazing story of Brian Nichols and Ashley Smith. Surely you remember it. If not, here are the basics.
Nichols, on the lam after shooting up an Atlanta courtroom and killing the judge and three bystanders, eludes a massive manhunt by hiding for almost eight hours in the apartment of Ms. Smith, a single mother whose husband was murdered four years ago in a stabbing. Apparently, Nichols intended to use Ashley as a hostage, an expendable bargaining chip in his desperate attempt to elude capture.
But a strange thing happened: Ashley opened up Brian's soul and convinced him to release her unharmed. Her principal method? Well, she took from her night table a copy of Pastor Rick Warren's book of Christian inspiration, The Purpose-Driven Life, and read to him. One thing led to another and, by the time the mishna was informing me that it is permissible to pay a worker to pick up some groceries from farmers who are selling sabbatical year produce out of the backs of their wagons, Ashley was out the door and on her way to a phone booth to call in the cops to get their man.
"What is this remarkable book," I asked myself, "capable of transforming a murderer's heart in the time it takes a Jew to learn that one may barter with a baker for a loaf of bread made from sabbatical year grain -- unless the exchange is construed as a purchase on credit?"
The Times article answered my question. It so happens that Pastor Warren's book has sold some 21 million copies in 30 languages and, in Christian evangelical circles, is as well-known as The Grinch That Stole Christmas. How had this nugget managed to fly under my comparative religionist's keep-in-touch-with-popular-culture-you-never-know-when-you'll-need-a-random-fact radar?
I had to cut off that thought prematurely in order to race to shul, trying to recall whether it is the House of Hillel or the House of Shammai that permits the sale of bundled sabbatical year greens in the market as long as the bundling is done in a fashion appropriate to domestic rather than commercial use.
Later that morning, at the U, I googled The Purpose-Driven Life. One Web site offers sample chapters, which I read with great interest. Pastor Warren is a gifted writer, who uses simple, effective prose to drive home a single idea: genuine self-esteem and self-worth comes from a life lived for others in the light of that Ultimate Other, God (well, not exactly God, but the other one they made the movie about recently).
I sat and pondered. This is a hiddush that 21 million people are paying to read? Why, the Lubavitcher Rebbe (as interpreted by Simon Jacobson) says the same thing in Towards a Meaningful Life (note, even, the similar titles!), got it into print long before Pastor Warren, and has the advantage of being a Messiah in Occultation rather than a mere founder of the Saddleback Church of Lake Forest, Calif. (membership 20,000, alright -- but the Rebbe has 100,000 Hasidim). Where are his sales?
Maybe the explanation is simple: books written by bearded Jews in black hats are simply not going to compete in the American inspiration market with those written by pink, cheerful, Protestants in Ralph Lauren suits. It's the medium, not the message that matters.
But what about all those other inspirational books, written by Jews just as pink as any Protestant pastor, thank you very much, that never become crossover hits, and languish year after year on the shelves of Jewish bookstores? Why only one blockbuster like When Bad Things Happen to Good People in all these years of Jewish inspirational publishing?
Has the Inspirational Jewish book business made a wrong turn? Maybe it's not so crucial for God to be a guest at our seders or for our counting of the Omer to constitute the reconstruction of the original face of our Inner Child.
Maybe the secret of Inspiring Judaism lies in that part of Jewish living that lives and breathes the mundane and the ordinary, that dares us to imagine that the Blessed Holy One, when all is said and done, cares as much about how we bundle our veggies in the sabbatical year as He does about how desperately we seek to know His face and his unfathomable name. Maybe even more.
And one last thing. You'll recall that it took one of 21 million copies of The Purpose-Driven Life to save Ashley. Consider, then, the following: one year, I assigned a textbook of mine for a class on Western Religions. Maybe it sells 500 copies a year. Anyhow, a student happened to be sitting in the park one fine afternoon, reading his assignment, when a gang of mean baddies approached. Surrounding him, they began to taunt and threaten.
Then, out of the crowd came a voice: "Hey, what are you reading?"
My student timidly held up my text, Jews-Christians-Muslims: An Introduction to Monotheistic Religions. "Hey, that's pretty good," The voice again rang out. "I read it in prison. Leave him alone!"