The interest in finding one’s individual or communal origins has been bolstered recently by the availability of genealogical information through historical records (Ancestry.com), genetic analysis (23andMe), and popular media (the PBS show “Finding Your Roots,” among many others). While all of these resources extol the possibilities of tracing a person’s origins back many, possibly a great many generations, Steven Weitzman’s treatment of the origin of the Jews focuses on the limits of such endeavors. In fact, if you are interested in a definitive answer the question of Jewish origins—when do the Jewish people, Jewishness, or Judaism begin—this is not the book for you. Weitzman does not presume to offer such an account. Rather than a history of origins, this book is a history of the search for origins, how other scholars (and non-scholars) over the past two hundred years have attempted to answer the question. What Albert Schweitzer did for the historical Jesus, Weitzman now does for the historical origins of Jews. Although where Schweitzer ultimately thought he could say something constructive about who Jesus was and what he taught, Weitzman provides little to no hope for any such possibility for his particular quest. Knowing that neither Weitzman nor scholarship in general has produced an answer to the question of Jewish origins, and they seem to be perpetually in doubt, one might discount the book as not worthy of attention. That would be a mistake. The great value of the book—and it is substantial—comes not in the destination, but in the journey. Over the course of eight chapters, Weitzman, our tour guide and interpreter, leads us on a spirited journey of scholars and disciplines that have attempted to identify the origin of the Jews. Our travels begin with the search for ancestors arrived at through genealogical information (for example, Josephus, Seder Olam Zuta, those in the Middle Ages who presented a genealogy claiming Davidic ancestry). This is not only how the biblical stories and later Jewish writers understand their origins, but also the focus of modern genealogical research. While reading the book on an airplane, I was told by the man sitting next to me, “I know the origin of the Jews. It’s Russia.” And for many Jews today that is as far back as most can go to identify their ancestors. Weitzman introduces us to those who are not content to stop there, and have attempted to go back much further, such as to King David (as in the Davidic Dynasty Project). Moving on, we encounter a multitude of other approaches, including linguistics, archaeology, psychology, sociology, and genetics. Along the way we come across efforts to identity the moment of origination in the Late Bronze/Early Iron Age (Mendenhall and the Habiru; Albright and the conquest of Canaan, Lederman and Bunimovitz and the resistence to Philistine incursions, Freud and the collective trauma inherited from those who killed Moses); the Persian period, when the Israelites were dislodged from their natural habitat in the land and forced to live a maladapted life guided by the ossifying powers of priests and rabbis (Julius Wellhausen); the Hellenistic period when Jews emerged as a voluntary ethno-religious society influenced by Hellenistic culture (Shaye Cohen); the Roman/Byzantine period, as a postcolonial move internalizing the Christian concept of religion (Daniel Boyarin); or as a people who were invented only recently under the influence of nineteenth century European nationalism (Shlomo Sand). The final chapter takes us into the realm of contemporary science and the field of genomics, wishing to see whether population genetics can shed its association with past racial theories and offer a better understanding of the “interrelations and geographic origins of diverse Jewish populations and vestigial castes” (301). Weitzman sees some of these theories as intriguing possibilities, others as wild possibilities, and some as complete dead ends. Weitzman’s presentation is wide-ranging, always lively and sometimes chatty, and filled with all sorts of tidbits and trivia. Along the way he feeds us numerous tasty morsels. Some prove very satisfying, others seem like empty calories. For instance, did you know that the English term “pre-historic” was introduced by the Scottish archaeologist Daniel Wilson in 1851? While sometimes the information seems extraneous, such as the previous factoid, and hardly necessary for understanding the issues, you forgive him because these musings and detours make the journey all the more interesting. Weitzman’s coverage is extensive but not exhaustive (as if one book could be). A few notable theories go unmentioned, such as the twentieth century cultural-political movement of Jews who adopted the moniker of “Canaanites,” viewing themselves as Hebrews rather than Jews and positing a connection between themselves and the earliest people of ancient Israel. The book’s greatest contribution is the way in which Weitzman throws open to doubt not only the conclusions reached through these theories and methods, but the very nature of scholarship on this question. Weitzman’s primary goal is to understand the “the motives, premises, and prejudices that color how scholars think about this subject” (24). Here the book provides great insight and a sobering reminder of the deep embeddedness of modern scholarship. Weitzman methodically describes the biases and prejudices, social, cultural, political, and psychological, that have shaped and otherwise influenced the various theories and the ethical implications of their findings. This line of investigation proves to be not only the most fascinating aspect of the book, but at times the most problematic, particularly in those instances where he seems to psychoanalyze his subjects. Weitzman is fully aware of the limits of this type of investigation: “It is a tricky business,” he tells us, “figuring out how scholars’ biographies colored their scholarly conclusions” (271). For instance, when analyzing the work of the twentieth century historian Elias Bickerman, Weitzman writes that, “it is impossible to know for certain what was going on in Bickerman’s mind” (232). He furthermore acknowledges that a theory may stand as valid regardless of the psychological processes that produced it. When describing the work of Shaye Cohen, Weitzman writes that tracing his influences “is not to discredit his account but rather to historicize it” (239). Despite these disclaimers, it seems at times that Weitzman does believe he can enter the inner mind of these scholars. Returning to the example of Bickerman, Weitzman claims that Bickerman’s scholarly theories on the Maccabees should be read as a result of his conflation of ancient Greek culture and contemporary German culture; particularly the concept of Bildung, something Bickerman was never able to achieve fully while in Germany. Weitzman concludes, “Bickerman’s account of the Maccabees and Pharisees mirrors his own biography as a Jewish semi-outsider who never fully fit into the German academic system that would eventually have no place for him” (235). In perhaps the most questionable instance of this type, Weitzman suggests that Shlomo Sand, author of The Invention of the Jewish People (Verso, 2010), rejects the Zionist connection between the Israelite past and the Israeli present because of his “own experience as a student in the school system that [the Zionist leader Ben-Zion] Dinur helped to bring into being” (266). His evidence for this comes from a reference by Sand to his secondary school experience as a “nightmare” (269). I am sure many Israelis had nightmare experiences in high school, but few went on to reject Zionism in the way that Sand does. Also puzzling, but in a different way, is Weitzman’s decision not to subject some of the scholars he discusses, such as the anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj, to the same level of interrogation. Why? After over three hundred pages, Weitzman arrives at a somewhat disappointing conclusion. He notes that “scholarship has produced many accounts of the origin of the Jews: some can be shown to be false; others stretched beyond what can actually be known; all are uncertain and subject to debate, and there seems to be no way beyond this impasse” (318). Even more dispiriting is the position that any search for the origin of Jews is doomed to fail in part because of the lack of reliable information, but also is in itself a fool’s errand since, as many modern scholars from a variety of perspectives have argued, the very concept of origins is at best suspect if not illusory. Coming to the end of the book, one natural conclusion would be that all scholarship on the origin of the Jews is a sham whose theories lack evidentiary and methodological soundness, and are more the product of cultural and psychological influences. Ultimately, Weitzman suggests, nothing in modern scholarship has done a better job of explaining the origin of the Jews than the very first attempt provided by the book of Genesis. If Weitzman is correct, then no attempt to describe the origin of the Jews can be free from the types of external influences he has described. Indeed, one might wonder whether his analysis of scholarship on the origin of the Jews might apply to scholarship more broadly. Why should we think that scholarship on other subjects is immune to the problems exposed by Weitzman? What is it of our past that we can know for certain? Rather than ending on what for some would be an unsatisfying note, Weitzman offers one ray of hope with the concept of geneaology. While genealogy, not unlike the kabbalistic search for the Ein Sof, can never get to the ultimate identification of a common ancestor or inaugural moment, nonetheless it can reveal partial and tentative answers, although with “frustration built into it” (328). While scholarship has not and may never help us to arrive at the final destination, what a long, strange trip it’s been. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Journal of the American Academy of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 10, 2018
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