In two recent publications—Solomon: the Lure of Wisdom and The Origin of the Jews: a Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age—I have written works that seem to be about antiquity but are really about how we relate to antiquity from a vantage point in the present. I write as someone genuinely curious about what we can learn from ancient texts by reading them in relation to their history, and for much of my scholarly career, my goal has been to avoid casting the past as a projection of the present. In these works, however, I have tried a different approach, allowing myself into the story in the hope that doing so can lead to a deeper understanding of how we relate to antiquity. Focusing on the Origin of the Jews, I want to reflect on what I was able to learn about my subject from mixing the personal and the scholarly in this way.
The Origin of the Jews is an attempt to rethink a set of questions that scholars have been seeking to solve for centuries—when did the Jews (or Judaism) first emerge and in what circumstances? Several centuries ago, scholars began employing the methods used by their contemporaries to investigate the origin of language, religion, and ethnicity in order to understand the origin of the Jews. Some of this scholarship is likely to be familiar to readers of AJR—historical scholarship, source criticism, philology—but scholars of antiquity haven’t been the only ones interested in the question: so too have political scientists, psychoanalysts, and geneticists. The book brings together all the different threads of scholarship, aiming to situate the different approaches within the historical contexts that produced them, to weigh their pros and cons, and thus to better understand what we know and don’t know about Jewish origins.
Why investigate this topic now? In some ways, it is a very old-fashioned topic. The search for the origin of the Jews began as a 19th/early 20th century project, reflecting prevailing assumptions about race, ancestry, and inheritance that have grown outmoded or been discredited. The most notorious example is race science and its use of anthropometrics to extrapolate the origins of the Jews from their alleged physical traits. Still the entire search lost its appeal in the second half of the twentieth century as scholarship came to question “the idol of origins”—the idea that one can understand a thing by going back to its earliest history or by recovering it in its primordial form. In an age shaped by post-modernism and its allergy to origins as a way of understanding the world, curiosity about the origin of the Jews is seriously out of date.
But in recent years, the question of Jewish origins has come back into vogue. Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People, created a stir about a decade ago by challenging Jews’ self-understanding as an ancient nation. Scholars like Shaye Cohen and Daniel Boyarin have offered ideas about the emergence of Judaism, describing how it is that an ethnic identity transitioned into a religious one. Genetics research has offered yet another way to investigate the ancestry of Jews by tracing lines of biological connection to ancient populations. Interest in lineage, ancestry, and inheritance had been making a come-back as witnessed by the success of genetics ancestry testing companies—an industry that now makes billions of dollars from people’s curiosity about their origins—and Jews are among those who share this interest.
There didn't exist a single book that brought these kinds of scholarship into conversation with one another, and I thought it would be helpful to offer a kind of guide through the relevant scholarship, past and present, in a way that would put it into perspective for fellow scholars while also opening the subject up to general readers.
But the book is not just about the Jews: it is also—primarily, really–about origins. I found in my research that historians of the Jews seemed confused about what they meant by an origin. This is not a criticism. An origin is indeed a confusing thing, seemingly self-evident but becoming more puzzling the more one thinks about it. For some scholars, the concept of origin represents a point in time. For others, it is a slow moving process like evolution. For yet others, it is a figment of the imagination, a story always invented after the fact. I realized scholars had been operating with very different ideas about what an origin is, and I wanted to bring their preconceptions out into the open—to reflect on the origins of their thinking about origins, as it were.
Realizing this about my subject, I knew this book would have to be a meta-study more than a historical one, an exploration of how we think about origins more than attempt to solve the riddle of origin. But beyond reflecting on how other scholars thought about the question, I also realized I would need to get a little personal as well and examine my own thinking. The question of origins isn’t a strictly scholarly question, after all. It is often very personal, connected to one’s sense of identity and primordial relationships. It is not clear why people care so much about their origins—why some of us invest so much effort in tracing our family trees or feel nostalgic for homelands we’ve never been to—but the feelings can be intense, tapping into something deeply rooted in human psychology. I surmised this must be true of my own curiosity about the origin of the Jews—I am myself Jewish, after all, and have a personal stake in the story I was trying to tell.
That is how I realized I would have to bring myself into this inquiry, that it would need to combine introspection as well as scholarship. Much of this self-reflection didn’t make it into the final draft of the book, but I can lay a bit of it out here— some belated insight into my own origin as an influence in how I thought about origins in general.
I come from a line of people who been compelled or have chosen to escape their origins: my grandparents left as soon as they could from Poland for the United States, my parents abandoned a downward-spiraling Detroit for Los Angeles. For them, origins, understood as a departure point, were something to be left behind, not worth remembering or talking about. My mother tried to escape her origins in another way; she made up an elaborate story of how her ancestors had fled from the Spanish Inquisition to England, a story completely at odds with history and her family’s origins in Eastern Europe. I have since learned that she was not the only Ashkenazic Jew to fantasize a romantic Sephardic origin story for themselves, but still I wonder why she felt compelled to tell her origin story as a story of a great escape.
I had not realized this about my family until I began to write this book. But once I did, I recognized it as a motive for my interest in Jewish antiquity, and I began to wonder how it shaped my perspective. But not only that; I came to appreciate that my aversion to origin was something I had inherited—it had somehow been transmitted to me by my parents, who received it in turn from their parents. Writing this book surfaced my very contradictory and entangled relationship to my own origins—my feelings of wanting to get away from the place of my origin, and an instinctive suspicion of origin stories as either being very banal or being interesting but completely made up, and it helped me to see that my aversion to origin was itself a line of connection to my origins, an inheritance that recapitulated my parents and grandparents’ efforts to get away from their places of origin.
More than that, I began to recognize a kindred impulse to escape one’s origins in some of the scholarship I referenced for this book. In an effort to understand why scholars approach origins in the ways that they do—why, for example, some are so intent on discrediting the origin story that Jews have told about themselves, depicting the Jews as a self-inventing people that have essentially fabricated the story of its ancient ancestry—I delved into the intellectual contexts from which such scholars emerged, their intellectual background, but I also sometimes probed the personal and psychological circumstances that shaped scholars’ approach as well.
I wasn’t relying on my own intuition alone for this part of my analysis but was able to tap into psychological research here and there. For example, in the book I address scholarship that explains Jewishness as an invention of modern political ideology, an adaptation of the “constructivist” approach to the origin of the nation-state. Constructivists explain national identity as a modern invention contrived by elites in the last two centuries and then instilled in broader groups through mass communication. This approach has been applied to the Jewish nation—the argument is that it is the invention of modern Zionist elites who used scholarship and journalism to foist it onto a broader population—but that argument is a variation of a theory used to explain all modern nations.
The opponents of the Constructivists, known as Primordialists, believe that modern nation states developed out of pre-modern social units. In their view, national identity cannot be fabricated or engineered in the top-down way that Constructivism alleges but emerges from pre-existing, primordial social relationships inherited from the past. Primordialists like Steven Grosby try to substantiate this point by tracing Jewish nationalism back to antiquity, thereby showing that it is not a modern invention.
I began to wonder why some scholars were drawn to a Constructivist approach to national identity while others embraced Primordialism, and I learned there are psychologists who have actually investigated the question, a team led by the late Peter Weinreich. In a nut shell, Weinreich’s team found evidence that people are more likely to take a Constructivist point of view if they have lived through a disruptive experience that has dislodged them from the identity they were born into—suffering exile, for example, or living through the end of a state. Weinreich’s research suggests that their experiences have shaped how scholars feel—and therefore think—about nationalism, fostering in some a predisposition to be skeptical of national identity as a self-serving and harmful fiction. Such research validated my intuition that scholars’ approach to the origin of the Jews, including my own, was shaped not just by the data or methods that scholars employ but also by their their relationship to their own origins.
No one would mistake this book for an autobiography—I still hesitate to blur the lines between the scholarly and the personal too much—but I let the non-rational part of my brain enter into the investigation more directly than I had done in earlier books, allowing myself to acknowledge conflicting feelings rather than speaking as if I were an authority figure with privileged access to the truth. From what I can tell from the emails I have received, the book seems to have connected with general readers in a way my earlier books did not—not hordes of readers to be sure but more than I normally reach—and I have the feeling that is because I let more of my inner life into the project.
Allowing the personal into my writing has helped me to better understand how to make a connection between my scholarship and general readers. That kind of writing is not just about making a book easier to digest or making it relevant to the present; it is also about making connections with people, revealing oneself to be a human being animated by the same questions they think about. Letting one’s life experiences and emotions into one’s scholarly thinking does not hew to the model of objective pursuit many of us are still taught to practice and respect, but it does lead to its own insights and opens doors to oneself and to others.
Steven Weitzman is Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures and the Ella Darivoff Director of the Katz Center of Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.