Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 641

Illustration of PDF document

Download The Source Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The Source is American author James Michener's 1965 novel about the history of the Jewish people over several millennia.

In the opening pages of the book, Michener establishes that it will be a sympathetic perspective on the history of Judaism when John Cullinane, an archaeologist from Chicago traveling to the Holy Land, observes a mosque, a Bahá'í temple, and a Catholic church from the tramp freighter on which he's a passenger.

"Just like the Jew," he said. "Denied religious liberty by all, they extend it to everyone."

This perspective—the tolerance and piety of Judaism—is one that Michener communicates through his characters throughout the book. For instance, in the chapter "The Law," Rabbi Asher recalls the following extended, religious anecdote:

A Roman came to Rabbi Gimzo the Water Carrier, and asked, "What is this study of the law that you Jews engage in?" and Gimzo replied, "I shall explain. There were two men on a roof, and they climbed down the chimney. One's face became sooty. The other's not. Which one washed his face?" The Roman said, "That's easy, the sooty one, of course." Gimzo said, "No. The man without the soot looked at his friend, saw that the man's face was dirty, assumed that his was too, and washed it." Cried the Roman, "Ah ha! So that's the study of law. Sound reasoning." But Gimzo said, "You foolish man, you don't understand. Let me explain again. Two men on a roof. They climb down a chimney. One's face is sooty, the other's not. Which one washes?" The Roman said, "As you just explained, the man without the soot." Gimzo cried,"No, you foolish one! There was a mirror on the wall and the man with the dirty face saw how sooty it was and washed it." The Roman said, "Ah ha! So that's the study of law! Conforming to the logical." But Rabbi Gimzo said, "No, you foolish one. Two men climbed down the chimney. One's face became sooty? The other's not? That's impossible. You're wasting my time with such a proposition." And the Roman said, "So that's the law! Common sense." And Gimzo said, "You foolish man! Of course it was possible. When the first man climbed down the chimney he brushed the soot away. So the man who followed found none to mar him." And the Roman cried, "That's brilliant, Rabbi Gimzo. Law is getting at the basic facts." And for the last time Gimzo said, "No, you foolish man. Who could brush all the soot from a chimney? Who could ever understand all the facts?" Humbly the Roman asked, "Then what is the law?" And Gimzo said quietly, "It's doing the best we can to ascertain God's intention, for there were indeed two men on a roof, and they did climb down the same chimney. The first man emerged completely clean while it was the second who was covered with soot, and neither man washed his face, because you forgot to ask me whether there was any water in the basin. There was none.”

Another major theme Michener explores is that of redemption and self-discovery. This, however, is interwoven with Michener's perspective on the fundamental goodness of Judaism. For instance, in the book's final chapter—when Cullinane asks Israeli archaeologist Ilan Eliav why "you Jews makes so life difficult for yourselves"—Eliav reflects that

no religion defended so tenaciously the ordinary dignity of living . . . he vowed that violence was behind him.

Several other important quotes from the novel follow:

No matter where the Jew wandered, if he took with him the Talmud he was home. . . .

A man is never old if he can still be moved emotionally by a woman of his own age. . . .

"I am that I am," the voice replied, echoing from all sides. "And I command you: Take your son up to Jerusalem!"