I recently reviewed The Source by James Michener at a well-attended Men’s Club Breakfast (on December 25th) and I thought I might use my new blog to open a discussion on the book and related matters.
I am not suggesting that this novel is great literature; the characters are often stick figures, mouthpieces for religions or movements in a transparent and unconvincing way. But the glorious and tragic facts of Jewish history are so moving that just telling the story is powerful and poignant. The Michener device of bringing a focus to one place over time (as he does in many other novels such as Hawaii and Centennial) works in a special way here as he creates a fictional site called Tell Makor as a window on the history of the land of Israel.
I read this novel when it came out in 1965, long before I even dreamed of doing real archaeology. It’s so different for me now that I’ve been involved in an archaeological dig. Now I understand that in the first section of the book, which I used to find boring, Michener really gets what a dig is like. I particularly liked how he draws attention to the fact that most digs only excavate a small portion of the potential site. I take this, in my own rabbinical way, as an analogy to the way most of us examine human history
Using the device of a tell, a man-made mound that has grown over time as layer after layer of human activity builds on the previous one. In a sense, many of Michener’s books are fictional excavations of tells, historical places that have been filled with important human activity over the centuries. If a tell is a time tunnel, Israel is the ultimate passageway to the past.
When excavating, one can feel like one is in a time warp and evidence can easily get mixed up; scientific study has to be careful and slow. Using the geological method of strata and utilizing the expertise that has been developed in studying ancient ceramics, archaeology can determine the date of a level and thus all the artifacts at that level.
Ha-Makor is a wonderful name for the site, because Israel is the Source of all Western religion. Judaism’s center is the Promised Land, Christianity celebrates the life of Jesus who lived in their Holy Land. Islam is an Arabian monotheism that originally prayed to Jerusalem, then discarded it in favor of Mecca, then claimed a connection to Israel once it realized the persistence with which Israel was looked to by the other monotheistic religions as the source of revelation.
Judaism is based on Monotheism, Torah, Sacred Poetry (such as the Psalms), Prophecy, the Law of the Talmud and the rabbis who interpreted it. Michener both criticizes the rigidity of Jewish law and understands that it is what preserved the Jewish community through history. The Law consciously or unconsciously prepares Judaism for Diaspora, for exile. It was not buildings or towns that constituted Judaism; it was Law and ritual.
I appreciated Michener’s attempt to create interesting female characters including a prophetess. He often creates minor fictional characters so we can view major characters such as Herod, Josephus, Rabbi Akiba and Muhammad (who massacres Jews, unfortunately a factual event).
There are parts of this book that are tough to read because they are so graphic in the descriptions of the horrible crimes of violence that were perpetrated on the Jewish people. As Michener says,
“It is history that does the scaring.”
Two chapters are spent on the Crusades that decimated Jewish communities in Europe and Israel. Makor becomes Ma Couer in the thirteenth century. There is a moving passage where a Crusader king visits a poor rabbi in Acre and sees that his home looks like a battered hovel from the outside but is clean and warm inside. The idea is that the Jews of the Middle Ages were battered but by keeping their laws and rituals maintained their sense of self.
We see how willing our people were willing to be martyred rather than give up their identity as practiced through circumcision and learning. They say, Without G-d, we are nothing.”
One could read The Source just for its discussion on the creation of the modern Jewish state in Israel. In a long debate between fictional characters, Michener reviews all of the reasons that Israel has a moral right to the land, including the fact that the Jewish people have practiced superior husbandry and productive and creative use of the land. But he concludes that the State of Israel will do better than anyone else at practicing morality for all who live in its borders. This was written in 1965; a lot has happened since then. To paraphrase Golda Meir, the worst thing that our enemies have done is to make Israelis into a people who must govern over those who hate them.
At the end of the book, Michener celebrates the fact that Judaism cares about this life and is unconcerned with Heaven and Hell, and that in seeking G-d, we seek ourselves.
In discussing the methodology of a tell, Michener notes that even the greatest archaeologists excavate a tiny portion of their sites. But there are reasons for this: scientific methodology, copious recording, lack of funding, etc. What’s our excuse for failing to search our history? There is no reason that we can’t know more about our past. It just takes reading a book like this.