Steve Weitzman reflects on what matters to him and why

Weitzman
Steve Weitzman

There’s a certain irony to STEVE WEITZMAN‘s life and work. The religious studies professor is Jewish, specializes in Jewish literature, religion and culture, directs the Taube Center for Jewish Studies, is married to a rabbi and is raising his children in the Jewish tradition.

But he wouldn’t actually call himself religious.

Weitzman, who came to Stanford from Indiana University in 2009, was the first speaker in the recently reinvigorated “What Matters to Me and Why?” noontime speaker series. The popular series, which has been on temporary hiatus, asks campus speakers to reflect on what matters to them in their lives and work.

“I don’t have a sense of the divine,” Weitzman told an audience recently assembled in the Center for Inter-Religious Community, Learning and Experiences in Old Union. “Religion for me is something that other people seem to have, but I don’t.”

Nevertheless, Weitzman said he’s pretty clear about what matters to him: other people. Better understanding the complexity of people in all their depth and mystery is what drives him. Questions about life’s purpose particularly obsessed Weitzman as a teenager. But that has occupied little of his time since – at least until he was asked to speak on the subject.

“It’s an unbelievably disruptive question!” he said to appreciative laughter.

During his talk, Weitzman described his struggles to understand both himself and others and to avoid viewing individuals only as “instruments” in his life. People are infinitely more interesting than what they reveal on the surface, he said. So, the struggle to understand others led him to a life of scholarship, then to humanities scholarship in particular, then to religious studies and finally to ancient history. He traced the progression for the audience.

Weitzman described his youth in a Los Angeles suburb as “very, very boring,” with life seemingly revolving around a shopping mall. It was a comfortable life, he remembered, but one without choices or the freedom to pursue an unexpected life, including that of a scholar.

Reading Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the works of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius helped Weitzman realize that scholarship, especially in the humanities, could lead to a better understanding of others.

“Scholarship is a form of liberation, allowing you to transcend your circumstances,” he said.

His interest in ancient history was spurred by the 1980s excavation of a Native American archaeological site – called the Lost Village of Encino – in his community. The discovery prompted him to look for the possibility of history hidden beneath the surface of everyday life.

“I had an epiphany that something must have happened before this suburb was born,” he said. “A lot of what I try to do today is at the intersection of the study of the ancient world and our current experience.”

That epiphany turned Weitzman to the humanities with its emphasis on the pursuit of meaning because he saw in such scholarship “a way to reach beyond the surface into the depths.” Religious studies, given its universality among all cultures, he said, became a way to “embrace the complexity of human life, allowing the study of both the rational and irrational sides of people.” And studying the ancient world, he humorously added, “was as far back as I could get into the human experience.”

It was this search to know that led Weitzman to study King Solomon, a man who supposedly knew everything. Solomon: The Lure of Wisdom was published by Yale University Press in 2011. In that book, Weitzman reviewed how little we actually know about Solomon, but how much his wisdom has influenced Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Weitzman’s next project is a history of biblical miracles. He seeks to better understand how miraculous religious experiences reflected the world in which they occurred and affected the lives of witnesses.

But for all the joys of a scholarly life, Weitzman, who is also resident fellow of Roble Hall, said scholarship also presents challenges and frustrations.

“I find that students come with questions such as ‘Is there a God?’ or ‘What is the meaning of life?’ I have to say that I don’t know,” he acknowledged.

He also worries that the pursuit of wisdom as an end in itself – along the lines of Plato or Aristotle – has been lost to the modern world.

“Where is the Socrates in our culture? Some would argue,” he said, “that, in the modern world, wisdom has lost its luster.”

Learn more about “What Matters to Me and Why.”

—KATE CHESLEY