The Ori­gin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Root­less Age

Steven Weitz­man
  • Review
By – August 4, 2017

While many peo­ple look to bib­li­cal tales and archae­ol­o­gy in order to trace the roots of the Jew­ish peo­ple, under­stand­ing the actu­al ori­gin of the Jews is far more com­plex than we real­ize — as Steven Weitz­man demon­strates in his fas­ci­nat­ing new book, The Ori­gin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Root­less Age.

The term ori­gin” has con­cep­tu­al slip­per­i­ness,” writes Weitz­man. Some schol­ars sug­gest that in order to under­stand the ori­gin of the Jews, one needs to spend more time explor­ing their acquired char­ac­ter­is­tics. Oth­ers argue that one must delve into ear­li­est reli­gious or cul­tur­al char­ac­ter­is­tics, such as the monothe­is­tic idea and the Hebrew lan­guage, which have endured over cen­turies. Still oth­er schol­ars reject these ana­lyt­i­cal frame­works and offer oth­er ways to grasp the ori­gin of the Jews. Adding to the com­plex­i­ty of this area of study and the chal­lenge of pin­point­ing what we mean by ori­gin” is the dif­fi­cul­ty of defin­ing what we mean by the Jews.”

The term Jew” is not eas­i­ly defined. Attempt­ed def­i­n­i­tions often acquire a polit­i­cal dimen­sion,” writes Weitz­man, and this results in com­pet­ing ori­gin accounts of the Jews that mir­ror the con­flicts between the Jews and their ene­mies. For exam­ple, research on the term Habiru” has just such con­se­quences. Habiru” refers to a group iden­ti­fied on fourth cen­tu­ry Egypt­ian tablets and lat­er on doc­u­ments span­ning the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry BCE to the eleventh cen­tu­ry BCE. It refers to a social class,” an under­class of peo­ple liv­ing on the fringes of soci­ety” who are con­sid­ered trou­ble­mak­ers,” Weitz­man explains. But some researchers argue that the term Hebrew” emerged from Habiru,” and then pro­pose that the ear­li­est Hebrews orig­i­nat­ed not as a tribe defined by its ances­try or place of ori­gin but as an off­shoot of a broad­er class of semi out­siders defined by their mar­gin­al­i­ty.” Equat­ing of Habiru” and Hebrew” serves to fos­ter a neg­a­tive stereo­type of ear­ly Jews and to under­mine the Jew­ish claim to the land of Israel.

Weitz­man mas­ter­ful­ly explores the full range of schol­ar­ly per­spec­tives, mod­ern and post­mod­ern, despite their appar­ent con­tra­dic­tions” on the ori­gin of the Jews. His chap­ter top­ics include geneal­o­gy, pale­olin­guis­tics, pre­his­to­ry, doc­u­men­tary hypoth­e­sis,” arche­o­log­i­cal and psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic mod­els, Hel­lenis­tic influ­ences, and genet­ic ances­try research. Through­out, Weitzman’s approach is bal­anced and sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly rig­or­ous. This book is a joy­ful read for the eru­dite schol­ar and the every­day read­er eager to delve into the com­plex­i­ty and grandeur of Jew­ish his­to­ry and the Jew­ish experience.

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

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