Book Review | The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age by Steven Weitzman

What Defines Us?
By | May 24, 2017
2017 May-June, Jewish World

Princeton University Press
2017 / 408 pp. / $35

In a sermon delivered during Passover in 2001, David Wolpe, a distinguished Conservative rabbi in Los Angeles, told his congregation that there was no reliable evidence that the Exodus from Egypt ever took place, and that even if it did, it almost certainly did not take place the way the Bible recounts it. An uproar ensued. If the Exodus story is not true, his congregants replied, why should we celebrate Passover? What is the basis of our claim to the land of Israel? What are our foundations? Are we truly a people? In response, Wolpe tried to reassure his congregants that the historicity of the Passover story did not much matter, because the truth of the story lay not in its facts but in its message. That is, the Torah’s story should not be judged as if the narrator were a reporter, whose only responsibility was to get the facts straight. No, the Torah’s story belongs to a different genre entirely, what modern scholars call a myth, a story expressing a society’s core values and beliefs. In this case, the Exodus story, as told by the Israelites of old, shows us what the Israelites believed (and, Wolpe went on to explain, what we should believe too): that we are to hope and pray for God’s redemption, that we are to trust in God’s protective concern for his people and that we are to believe that historical events are not random but purposeful. These are the truths that the story articulates; as to the facts of the Exodus, the story teaches nothing. (I hasten to add that Wolpe, as far as I know, did not use the word “myth.”)

This is the perspective of The Origins of the Jews by Steven Weitzman, a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He critically reviews various theories and suggestions, some ancient, some modern, for these origins. He finds all of the proposed theories wanting, either because of the insufficiency of data or, more commonly, because of methodological imprecision. Many of the proposed explanations tell us more about the beliefs and perspectives of the storytellers than about the alleged origins of the Jews. In every case Weitzman tries to penetrate the façade of the story. Why do these scholars and storytellers want us to believe their tale of Jewish origins? What do their tales reveal about themselves and about their beliefs?

Weitzman begins his survey with the biblical narrators and genealogists who would like us to believe that the Israelites, the presumed progenitors of the Jews, descend from a single set of ancestors, namely the 12 sons of Jacob. These same narrators would like us to believe that the Israelites were strangers to the land of Canaan twice over—their progenitor Abraham emigrated there from Mesopotamia, and they themselves emigrated there from Egypt. But these genealogists and narrators have ulterior motives. They wanted the Israelites to believe that they constituted a coherent group, held together by blood ties, and they wanted the Israelites to believe that they had no connection with the Canaanites. In reality, modern scholars argue, the Israelite nation began its life as a collection of groups and tribes, including Canaanites.

Weitzman closes his survey with modern genealogists who are searching for the elusive, probably nonexistent “Jewish gene.” The key question is whether, genetically speaking, Jews have more in common with their fellow Jews than with the non-Jewish populations among whom they have lived. In the first part of the 20th century, with the rise of racial conceptions and anti-Jewish politics, Jewish scholars were eager to deny that the Jews constituted a descent group—after all, did not Polish Jews look Polish, Yemenite Jews look Yemenite and Hungarian Jews look Hungarian? But with the growing sophistication of genetic science and, not coincidentally, the growing impact of Zionism on Jewish thinking, geneticists have looked for—and found—genetic markers that set off Jewish populations from their gentile neighbors. Most famously, statistically significant percentages of Cohanim (male Jews of putative priestly descent) from Jewish populations around the world share a genetic marker known as the Cohen Modal Haplotype. Traditionalists argue that this fact “proves” the truth of the biblical account that all Cohanim derive from a single male ancestor, namely, Aaron the High Priest, brother of Moses. Weitzman sensibly objects that the presence of the Cohen Modal Haplotype among non-Jewish populations too suggests that the marker is not exclusively Jewish at all. Genetic science has not yet given us a firm basis on which to build our notions of Jewish origins.

But between the biblical genealogies and the genetics, Weitzman takes us on a journey that covers the crypto-Jews of New Mexico, Aryans (Aryanism) and Semites (Semitism), the Habiru of ancient Egypt and their alleged connections with the Hebrews, the documentary hypothesis and the theory of evolution, the archaeology of ancient Israel, Sigmund Freud and the origins of monotheism, the Khazars and the “invention of the Jewish people.” Weitzman has done his homework; he has read widely and writes well. He has done an excellent job at presenting technical material in an accessible manner. He freely acknowledges his lack of expertise in genetics, but otherwise writes with authority and expertise.

Chapter six happens to be devoted largely to a critique of an essay of mine that appeared in my 1999 book The Beginnings of Jewishness. There, I argued that Judaism (or “Jewishness,” as I called it) emerged in the Hasmonean (Maccabean) period (mid-1st or 2nd century BCE). Confronted by Hellenism, a trans-ethnic portable culture, which was open to all those who were willing to embrace its tenets and its language, the Jews created Judaism, a competing trans-ethnic portable culture, open to all those who were willing to embrace its tenets and its rituals (notably circumcision). Evidence for this transformation is the institution of formal conversion to Judaism, which is unknown to the Hebrew Bible and is attested for the first time in the Hasmonean period. So, I concluded, the Jewish self-definition as it emerged in the 2nd century BCE was inspired by, perhaps even copied from, the self-definition of the Greeks. Weitzman observes that my understanding of Judaism as portable culture may mirror the notion of Bildung, character formation through education, an idea that was popular among German-Jewish writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and that I may have been inspired by the work of my teacher Elias Bickerman, a great scholar of Hellenistic period Judaism. Weitzman may or may not be correct in his analysis; I can only say that if there was any influence it was not conscious—but I have not found anything in his argument to convince me to change mine. In any event, Weitzman is a well-mannered gentleman, and I am grateful to him for treating his subjects politely and respectfully.

My main complaint is that Weitzman has stitched together two queries which would have been better kept separate. One is the origin of the Jews. This is a quest for the origins of an ethnos, a people, a nation, and is irretrievably bound up with modern concerns: Who are these people who once populated eastern Europe—and elsewhere—by the millions, who went on to establish a state of their own in the land of their ancestors (alleged ancestors, some would say), many of whom went on to fame and fortune in the United States? Who are they, where do they come from, do the “facts” buttress or call into question the national myths that they tell about themselves? Are these people European or non-European, Middle Eastern or non-Middle Eastern? Since historical inquiry seems unequal to the task of answering these questions, we pin our hopes on the science of genetics, which until now at least has been unable to give an unambiguous answer. A second and separate question is the history of Judaism, for which the science of genetics is irrelevant. Scholars will argue about what makes Judaism, and will then set out to investigate the key moments in the development from biblical Israel to post-biblical Judaism, from temple to synagogue, from priest to rabbi, from homeland to text, from ethnos to religion. Who the Jews are and whence they come are questions irrelevant to this inquiry. Most chapters of Weitzman’s book deal with the origins of Jews, but some, notably chapter six, deal with the history of Judaism. I know that without Jews there is no Judaism, but still the questions are not the same, and Weitzman has muddied the waters by combining them.

As the subtitle of the book says, we live in a rootless age. People everywhere, not just Jews, seek their roots, their ancestry, their genetic makeup. We yearn to discover who we are; alas, our tools are not always up to the task. But there is pleasure in the pursuit, and we should be grateful to Weitzman for being a reliable guide.

Shaye J.D. Cohen is a professor of Hebrew literature and philosophy and chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University. He is currently coediting a new translation of the Mishnah.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.