January 19, 2020

The Origins of the Jews exchange, part 3: Between roots and politics

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 parts 1 here and here.


Dear Professor Weitzman,

In your last response, you mentioned your book’s treatment of the controversial idea of the “invention of the Jewish people.” Now, the careful, nuanced reading you present in the book about the scholarly debate between constructivists (who see nations as artificial constructs created by cultural elites and historians) and primordialsts (who see them as an organic continuation of deep premodern social relationships and self-identity) could be, I believe, of interest to anyone who is interested in the current state of Zionism and Jewish peoplehood.

In your second-round response, you stated that your book “is not an attempt to convince the public to accept the scholarship.” But it seems difficult to imagine anyone not being affected by seeing that the idea that “nations are ‘invented’ out of scratch” is actually “the dominant model for how to understand the rise of nations” among scholars.

For my third question, I’d like to ask you to elaborate on the effects of the general public (and the Jewish public in particular) taking this debate seriously. My question: what, if any, political positions and attitudes, or political uses of formative myths, are harder to accept after exposure to this debate and the research that informs it? And is there really a way to engage in this subject in a completely non-political way?

I’d like to thank you once again for the book and for doing this exchange,




Dear Shmuel,

For those who take the scholarship seriously, there is (possibly) bad news and there is good news.

First the bad news, or at least the confusing news. Scholarship cannot resolve the debate over the origin of the Jews, and what it has learned, in my view, is helpful to neither the right or the left of the political or religious spectrum. It challenges the classic Zionist narrative of continuity between the biblical age and the present, but it also challenges the anti-Zionist views of people like Shlomo Sand who believe that Jewish nationhood is a modern (and destructive) invention. If approached in an honest and clear-eyed way, the scholarship in this case just doesn’t cooperate with people’s political agendas.

This isn’t to suggest that scholarship can never address political questions. I am speaking only about the scholarship of Jewish origin. From a scholarly perspective, the beginning of the Jewish story is a kind of blank slate. We just don’t know for certain how the Jews originated–we can only speculate–and that gap has been filled in by people’s biases and political agenda. Since people’s efforts to answer the question have done a lot of damage along the way, fuelling antisemitism and political conflict, it is in my view better to simply acknowledge that the question is one that scholarship can never resolve. Especially for a scholar, it is really hard to admit that there are questions beyond one’s reach, but this is one of those cases.

In case you are curious about my own politics and how it shaped this book, I can offer the following. I’d like to think that I did not allow politics to color my own view of the scholarship. I tried to be as open minded and even handed as I could in the treatment of others’ research, taking seriously views I disagreed with myself and always trying to look at both sides of the various debates that the issue has provoked. But I can’t kid myself; the scholarship of Jewish origin has always been colored by politics, and I’d be foolish to think my own account was exempt from that.

For me, what the scholarship suggests politically is the need to be humble and self-reflective in one’s treatment of others and their origin stories. I am proudly Jewish myself and strongly identify with the people of Israel. What I learn from the history of scholarship is that I do not understand as much about my origins as I thought I did, and that has implications for how I think about others and how they understand their origins. I suppose that conclusion supports a politics of modesty, empathy and reconciliation.

But the fact that scholars bring political views to their scholarship does not negate the value of scholarship as a collective enterprise. The scholar is one who undertakes the struggle to apprehend the truth of things from within the limits of human perception and judgement. We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, if scholarship mirrors the political commitments of the scholars who produce it. But human beings haven’t found a better way to step outside their own parochial political views, or a better way to see beyond the limits of their own self interest, and so, even as I admit that the scholarship of Jewish origin has been led astray by the politics, I still fully embrace scholarship itself as the best way for human beings to apprehend the truth of things.

I’ve enjoyed our exchange very much, Shmuel, and wish you the best in your own quest for understanding.

Steve Weitzman