Where did the Jews come from, and what does that question really mean?
Weitzman (Hebrew and Semitic Languages, Judaic Studies/Univ. of Pennsylvania; Solomon: The Lure of Wisdom, 2011, etc.) explores the question of Jewish origins in almost tortuous detail, demonstrating that what seems like a basic inquiry is in fact a tangle of theories, approaches, and prejudices. The author explains that three viewpoints prevail in the search for Jewish origins. The first is that simple “sleuthing” will lead to a single, obvious answer to the question, “where do Jews come from?” The second is constructivism, a view that origins must be seen as a story or narrative. The third is a postmodern view that is critical of the very search for origins at all. Weitzman begins with genealogy, which may seem an obvious tool but which the author soon discounts. From there, he explores linguistic and source document theories for the origin of Jews from Near Eastern ancestors. Alternatively, he looks at theories that emphasize the origin of Jews as a people distinct from the biblical Israelites. Weitzman goes on to explore ideas of Jewish origins as espoused by Darwinists and by Freud, the archaeological evidence for Jewish origins, and ideas on Hellenism’s effect on Jewish identity. Finally, he examines the role of DNA testing in understanding ethnic origins, a practice filled with promises and pitfalls. In the end, readers may be disappointed by Weitzman’s anticlimactic (though perhaps inevitable) conclusion: “The history of the Jews has to start somewhere, but it is not clear whether, after many centuries of trying and failing to establish that starting point, scholarship has developed or will ever develop the ability to do so.” The author is comprehensive, erudite, and honest, but the book is too academic and theoretical to assist general readers with questions about what it means to be Jewish.
An accomplishment for the academy. Readers seeking a less theoretical approach would do well to try Jon Entine’s Abraham’s Children (2007).