“The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age” by Steven Weitzman— An Attempt at an Answer

Weitzman, Steven. “The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age”, Princeton University Press, 2019.

An Attempt at an Answer

Amos Lassen

Steven Weitzman gives us the first major history of the scholarly quest to answer the question of Jewish origins. The Jews have one of the longest continuously recorded histories of any people in the world, but what do we actually know about their origins? Many think the answer to this question can be found in the Bible, others look to archaeology or genetics. To believe the Bible as a place of origin is to believe the entire Bible as truth and this is surely not easy to do. Some skeptics have even sought to debunk the very idea that the Jews have a common origin. Weitzman takes a learned and lively look at what we know (or think we know)- about where the Jews came from, when they arose, and how they came to be.

There has been a great deal written on the topic and there are many explanations, theories, and historical reconstructions, but this is the first book to trace the history of the different approaches that have been applied to the question, including genealogy, linguistics, archaeology, psychology, sociology, and genetics. We see that religious and political agendas have something to add to the question and that anti-Semitism has cast its long shadow over generations of learning. Recent claims about Jewish origins have been difficult to disentangle from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We get no neatly packaged conclusions and instead we go on an intellectual adventure that sheds new light on the assumptions and biases of those seeking answers “and the challenges that have made finding answers so elusive.” This is essential reading “for anyone who wonders or cares about what it really means to be a Jew.”  Until now, no one can say how and why being a Jew got started. Steven Weitzman makes a wonderful effort to survey some partial answers.

The long history of the Jews is paralleled by an almost equally long tradition of searching after roots. Weitzman, uses a rich array of disciplines ranging from biblical philology and archeology to psychoanalysis and genetic science. He argues compellingly and is very original. He approaches his material with honest academic caution and weighs different ideas considering their pros and cons and leaving most issues unresolved, rather than accept a theory that is speculative. He looks at genealogy, linguistics, archaeology, psychology, sociology and genetics and gives each a chapter, presented in a roughly chronological order. Weitzman clearly presents contemporary ideas of postmodern thinkers like Deleuze and Foucault and nonlinear, non-developmental perspectives which can upset our conventional understanding. This contributes to his discussion of the uncertainty in all these discussions.

Weitzman’s honesty in describing the uncertainty in all these subjects is what has made me continue looking at this whole discussion and it does not look like we will be ending it anytime soon.

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