Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Steven Weitzman's "The Origin of the Jews"

Steven Weitzman is the Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures and Ella Darivoff Director of the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His books include Solomon: The Lure of Wisdom and Surviving Sacrilege: Cultural Persistence in Jewish Antiquity.

Weitzman applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age, and reported the following:
As it happens, page 99 registers an important transition point in the book. To explain, let me offer a few words about the book’s larger goals.

Many Jews—and Christians too— assume they know how the Jews originated. The story of the Jews, we are taught, begins with the story of Abraham, Jacob, and Moses. Over the last 3 centuries or so, however, scholars have come to challenge that narrative, just as scientists challenged the biblical account of creation. I realized that no one had pulled all the research together into a single account, and bringing the reader into all that research was my main objective in this book.

But I had another goal too. One reason it is difficult to pinpoint the origin of the Jews is that it isn’t exactly clear what an origin is, and that fascinated me. Origins are like time—the more one thinks about them, the more puzzling they become. I saw this project as a chance to think about what origins are and how scholars go about finding them.

Page 99 comes at the end of a chapter called “Roots and Rootlessness” which explores how scholars have tried to use linguistics—and more specifically the root letters of the word “Hebrew”—to retrieve the pre-biblical ancestors from which the Israelites are thought to have originated. Scholars would go on to use other methods to investigate the origin of the Jews—archaeology, psychology, genetics—but etymology, the search for the origin of names, was one of the first to be applied to the question.

If the use of “linguistic paleontology” to understand the origin of the Jews wasn’t entirely successful in the end, it is not just because there was so little evidence to work with but also because many scholars have turned away from the concept of origin that informed this kind of research, a kind of genealogical thinking that aims to explain the characteristics of a living people by tracing it back to a distant ancestor who is thought to have bequeathed his qualities to all his descendants. Page 99 is part of a description of how this method has fallen into disfavor, and what it illustrates is how earlier scholars’ optimism about their ability to recover origins—linguistic and ethnological—has given way to skepticism about origins and about the kind of scholarship that claims to be able to retrieve it.
Learn more about The Origin of the Jews at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue