February 22, 2020

The Origins of the Jews exchange, part 2: On the gaps between the Jewish public and the scholars

Steven Weitzman is the 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. Professor Weitzman received his Ph.D. from Harvard University after completing his B.A. at UC Berkeley and spent several years teaching in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University, where he served as director of its Jewish Studies program for six years. Before moving to Penn, he was the Daniel E. Koshland Professor of Jewish Culture and Religion and the director of the Taube Center for Jewish Studies at Stanford University. Professor Weitzman is the author of several books, including Surviving Sacrilege: Cultural Persistence in Jewish Antiquity (Harvard University Press, 2005); Religion and the Self in Antiquity (Indiana University Press, 2005); The Jews: A History (Prentice Hall, 2009); and a biography of King Solomon (Yale University Press, 2011). 

The following exchange will focus on Professor Weitzman’s new book, The Origins of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age (Princeton University Press, 2017). You can find part 1 right here.


Dear Professor Weitzman,

At the end of your last answer, you said the following:

I must acknowledge that the book will probably frustrate some readers, especially those who want a clear-cut answer or want to be reaffirmed in what they already believe. If I was to offer an accurate and comprehensive depiction of the scholarship, I would have to introduce readers to theories and information at odds with how some Jews see themselves and consider some challenging ideas and ways of thinking.

My second-round question: where, in your opinion, are there the biggest and most substantial gaps between the general Jewish public’s perception of their origins and the scholars? What information and debates are most “at odds with how some Jews see themselves”?




Dear Shmuel,

For decades, archaeologists from places like Tel Aviv University have been challenging the conventional understanding of Jewish origins by calling into question the existence of Abraham and the other ancestors described in Genesis, the Exodus from Egypt, Joshua’s conquest of Canaan and other events known from the Bible. Archaeologists have also challenged the Bible’s claim that the earliest ancestors of the Israelites came to Canaan as outsiders by uncovering continuities between ancient Israelite culture and earlier indigenous Canaanite culture. Many archaeologists now hold that the earliest Israelites were in fact Canaanites who came to see themselves as non-Canaanites for some reason.

This kind of research isn’t exactly new, but it remains unfamiliar to many people and continues to upset and provoke opposition because of the way it challenges Jewish self-understanding. This challenge—the clash between how people see themselves and how their history has been reconstructed by scholarship—is part of what can make it difficult for readers to have an open-mind about some of the scholarship I am describing in the book.

The problem here isn’t just that people are working with different understandings of what counts as a fact or who counts as an expert: the real gap runs deeper than that, reflecting a clash between different ways of thinking about origins.

My understanding of my own origin as a Jew is one I absorbed as a child. Why do I attend the Passover meal every year and try to visualize myself as if I had been present during the Exodus? Why do I feel kinship with Jews in Tel Aviv or Paris who I have never met? It is in part because of an origin story I learned as a child from parents and Hebrew school teachers who taught me that Jews share ancestors who went through the Exodus and were present at Sinai together. This answer to the question is something I imbibed early on from the people who shaped my sense of identity, and it is tied up with my feelings for them.

Secular scholarship, on the other, tends to be skeptical of the kinds of origin stories told by earlier generations, and this is true not just of how it accounts for the origin of the Jews but for how it explains the creation of the universe, the origin of humanity, and so forth. Apart from wanting to be true to reason and the evidence, scholars initially embraced such theories because they were seeking to liberate themselves from the grip of religion and tradition, of having to think in certain ways because the Church or rabbinical authorities told them they had to think in that way. To challenge the biblical account—to argue that the world originated in a way that was different from what religious tradition taught—was to challenge religion’s power to define what was true and to assert one’s freedom from its control.

The clash between these approaches to origin—religious/personal versus secular/scholarly—is one reason why I expect the research I am reporting on will provoke frustration and anger from some readers: some of this scholarship challenges their religious beliefs or their beliefs about who they are, and it can be hard to think clearly about the subject because the scholarship can feel like an attack on one’s sense of identity and feeling of connection to one’s forbearers.

Another reason for a divide between the scholarship and some parts of the public is political, the way the scholarship has become part of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.

In one chapter, I look at a book entitled The Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand which provoked controversy a few years ago because of its critique of Zionism. Sand makes his argument against Israel by trying to disprove the origin story which he believes underpins Zionism’s claim to the land of Canaan and justifies Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians. I subject Sand’s approach to critique, but it should be noted that the right has produced its own share of origin stories that can be critiqued on the same grounds. I just read a report about a book called A History of the Palestinian People that was a best-seller on Amazon last week before it was removed from the site. What was offensive about the book is that it is completely blank, the author’s way of arguing that the Palestinians are not a real people and have no real history—an argument that other scholars have made in more conventional ways. This is Sand’s argument in reverse, applied to the Palestinians instead of the Jews, and it is wrong for very similar methodological and historical reasons even though it is coming from the other side of the political spectrum and makes its argument in a different way.

Here I am sympathetic to those who want to keep their distance from the scholarship. To me, it is fair to be skeptical of scholarship that wants to be accepted as true because of its appeal to the facts and yet so clearly misrepresents those facts—or buries them—to advance a particular political argument. This book is not an attempt to convince the public to accept the scholarship: it is an effort to present its pros and cons to help readers form their own informed opinions.

The scholarship I review can never answer the question of Jewish origin in the personally satisfying way that religion can—in truth, it may never be able to answer the question at all—and that may be a reason for some readers to simply ignore it. But for me, as a scholar and as a Jew committed to learning as a supreme value, I think the best way to counter objectionable or confusing scholarly ideas is not to brush them off but to learn about them and engage them.

Steve Weitzman