Prof. Steven P. Weitzman, University of Pennsylvania's Daniel E. Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and Religion (courtesy)
Prof. Steven P. Weitzman, University of Pennsylvania's Daniel E. Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and Religion (courtesy)
Interview'The very core of Jewish identity is genealogically based'

To dig up genesis of the Jewish people, a scholar goes back to the sources

National Jewish Book Award winner Steven Weitzman's 'The Origin of the Jews' is an odyssey into a nation's most basic need: To understand where it comes from

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

It was time to get to the root of the matter. Faced with conflicting narratives and dueling creation stories for the Jewish people, Prof. Steven Weitzman began an academic odyssey, going back to beyond the start of the Bible, to explore the Jews’ actual genesis.

The twists and turns found in Weitzman’s “The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age” at once entertainingly educate — and shake up centuries of charged beliefs and scholarship.

The cover of Prof. Steven Weitzman’s ‘The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots.’ (courtesy)

With dense, informative chapters, Weitzman takes a multi-disciplinary approach in his quest, delving into genealogy, linguistics, archaeology, psychology, sociology and genetics. In eight chapters, he deftly gives a wide-ranging overview of both traditional and irreverent thinking on the origins of the Jews.

Weitzman, who claims he lives “the life of the mind, not action,” is not shy about inserting his own voice: He describes giving up a scholar’s snobbery upon a chance meeting with a convention of Jewish genealogists, as well as anecdotes about how his time spent on archaeological excavations in Israel helped shape him to be the scholar he is today.

The synthesis of academia and the personal has proven successful: On March 6, Weitzman, the University of Pennsylvania’s director of the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, was honored by the Jewish Book Council as its winner in the category of Jewish Education and Identity.

It was in his role as educator that this reporter, then a student at Indiana University, first met Weitzman over 20 years ago. He was a young, fresh-faced Harvard PhD in his first teaching job at IU’s Jewish Studies Program, which he eventually headed for six years.

Like his recent book, Weitzman’s previous publications also illustrate his eclectic curiosity. They include “Surviving Sacrilege: Cultural Persistence in Jewish Antiquity” (Harvard University Press, 2005); “Solomon: The Lure of Wisdom” (Yale University Press, 2011); and “The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security before and after 9/11,” which he co-edited (University of California Press, 2017).

Weitzman is remembered by this reporter as a demanding, passionate teacher. In our recent conversation, Weitzman still lights up when asked a question by one willing to learn.

In one of the beginning chapters of the book you write about how until somewhat recently, the Bible was taken as a historical document. “The irony here is that if anyone bears responsibility for losing the origins of the Jews, it is probably the modern scholar.” 

Modernity is associated with rupture, a break from the past, and one of the groups of people who are responsible for that are scholars who called into question how people understood themselves and how people connected to themselves in the past.

The people who really challenged the Bible as an historical account, and challenged the Bible as an explanation for reality, those are really modern scholars who emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries. And by calling the Bible into question, they really destabilized how people understood their relationship to the past.

They introduced this feeling that “if we are not as connected to the past as we thought we were, then maybe the beginning of the story isn’t what we thought it was.” So these scholars – and I identify with them – these scholars introduced doubts about where we come from, and why we were created, and what our purpose is in life, and they also had doubts about the origin story that we told ourselves in order to explain where we come from and what our purpose is in life.

Isaiah bulla, a 2,700-year-old clay seal impression which may have belonged to the biblical prophet Isaiah. (Ouria Tadmor/© Eilat Mazar)

Recently Israeli archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar discovered what she said could possibly be a seal impression by the prophet Isaiah. Now, this is one of many such finds where archaeologists are attempting to “prove the Bible.” What are your thoughts on this tack in archaeology today?

The challenge lies in a word that you used in the very beginning of your description – “possibly.” The problem is that the evidence is ambiguous. And there’s evidence to support those who want to prove biblical history really happened, but there’s also evidence to support those who challenge the Bible as a historical source and want to argue that history really is very different from the way the Bible depicts it. Part of what fascinates me is when the evidence is not clear, and what different scholars do with that ambiguity.

What do you see as the motivation behind this drive of trying to find hard evidence to prove the Bible?

Archaeology became a kind of national pastime in Israel in the 1950s, right when the state was pretty new, and a part of what was going on there was that archaeology was a way for people to connect to the land. It was a way for them to trace the history of their ancestors in the land all the way back to antiquity. So from a Zionist point of view, archaeology has been a way to root themselves in a land that they’d settled in.

Now, religious people in America have a different set of objectives, and for some religious Christians in America, archaeology is a way to prove the truthfulness of their faith, of their religious perspective, by showing that the Bible is grounded in reality. So there are kind of different motivations.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks at the United Nations Security Council on February 20, 2018. (AFP Photo/Timothy A. Clary)

But it’s not only Christians and Jews. For instance, just recently, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas talked about how the Palestinians were descended from Canaanites.

Palestinian archaeology really has developed, on the one hand, in opposition to Israeli archaeology, but on the other hand, it has also developed under the influence of Israeli archaeology. So Palestinian archaeologists are doing the same thing that Israeli archaeologists have been doing: They’re trying to use archaeology to show their connections to the land, show how far back their history goes in the land. So in a way it kind of mirrors what Israeli archaeologists are doing.

What is this fascination with going back to the sources that everyone seems to have?

It’s really interesting. There have been similar genetic studies of the Jews that have also gotten a lot of media attention, the most famous of which is actually about 20 years old now. It was this genetic study that showed that in Jews today who are Kohanim, priests, [the study] genetically shows that many of them go back to a single male ancestor who lived thousands of years ago.

There are different theories about why people are so interested in this research. It’s a big business in America, there are companies like and 23andMe, which are genetic ancestry companies that are worth hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars now.

Screenshot of (courtesy)

I know that for a lot of people in America, they are the descendants of immigrants, or in the case of African-Americans, they are the descendants of people who were brought here forcibly from Africa. So they feel a sense of disconnection from their ancestors. They come from homelands that are far away, and from which they’ve been dislocated, and so genetics is a way to recover some of what they feel they’ve lost by being disconnected from their past.

Do you think that’s the case in terms of Israelis, as well, that they’re turning to this kind of study to recover what they feel they’ve lost?

I think that in Israel it’s a little different, but a lot of Israelis of course are the descendants of immigrants who came to Israel from other places, so genetics offers a way to kind of reconnect to ancestors who might be from other places. But often genetics is a way not unlike archaeology to connect to ancient populations within the land of Israel itself.

One of the things that genetics has shown is that as Jews have long believed: Jews around the world have ancestors that go back to the Middle East thousands of years ago.

A Ukrainian Jewish graveyard marker with Hebrew engraving. The engraving reads: ‘Nehemia son of Yaakov Kappel, an honest and God-fearing man, passed on 20 Shevat, 5,666 [1906]’ (Phyllis Grossman)
Among Jewish populations around the world, there’s a big fascination with yichus, the chain of genealogy.

Early in the book I talk about genealogy and genealogical research, which I find fascinating for a couple of reasons. It’s the kind of research where scholars aren’t the only ones doing the research – ordinary people are doing genealogical research, and going to archives, searching for documents that will illuminate their family history.

There are certain people who are interested, for example, in tracing their ancestry back to King David. You know there’s a lot at stake in that – the Messiah is supposed to come from King David. Being able to claim Davidic ancestry is to have a prestigious family background.

There are websites, there are groups, devoted to tracing people’s ancestry back to King David. Historically speaking, it’s not really possible to do that because there’s so many gaps in the genealogical record, but I’m interested in why people are interested in doing that, and it has spawned a kind of fascination among certain Jews in not only trying to establish that they themselves come from David, but in trying to identify other people who come from King David. It’s kind of an interesting cultural phenomenon.

But besides trying to tie yourself to “the” king, King David, for generations yichus has been so important in every Jewish community – building marriages. Why?

This is interesting. Judaism is unlike other religions. For religions like Christianity or Islam, the religion is about belief. It’s about choosing to believe in something as opposed to believing something else. Judaism has some of the qualities of religion, but it also has some of the qualities of a tribe. That is, it’s kind of understood to be an extended family, and to be a member of that family you have to have a certain ancestry, you have to come from certain ancestors. So the very core of Jewish identity is genealogically based, and then within that kind of social system you can gain status by being able to trace your family background to a very prestigious ancestor.

Of course for Jews today that prestigious ancestor is likely to be a rabbi, a sage, a scholar. Two thousand years ago, it would have been a [Temple] priest. So the nature of the ancestors that people value as being prestigious has changed over time, but this idea that one’s status, one’s influence in society, one’s place on the social hierarchy is determined in part by who one’s ancestors are, that continues to this day in some forms of Jewish culture.

An illustrative photo of an ultra-Orthodox wedding. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

From your book, it seems that in many cases Jews have historically been concerned with finding — or even inventing — their yichus

From a historical point of view, we cannot connect people living today to people living in biblical times. So if you have a genealogy that claims that somebody living today goes back to the biblical era, some part of that genealogy has to be fictional. But people have been doing that since at least the Middle Ages, they’ve been inventing genealogies for themselves, precisely because their identity is at stake, their status is at stake, so that’s a continuing phenomenon.

You talked about the concept of evolution of the Israelites to Jews, and when Judaism became the Judaism that we know today – Jews as the “living fossil.” What would you want the general reader to know about these kinds of terms?

What I try to do in each chapter of the book is look at a different approach to the question of origin of the Jews, and in one chapter I look at approaches that try to use the basic idea of evolution, and apply it to understanding the origin of the Jews — trying to understand the origin of the Jews not as an event like the revelation at Mt. Sinai, but understand it as a sort of gradually slowly unfolding process.

That kind of approach to the origin of the Jews, that sort of evolutionary approach, was something that developed in the same era as Darwin’s origin of the species, and was really popular in the early 20th century.

I wanted to tell the story of how scholars began to use evolutionary thinking to explain the origin of the Jews, but I also wanted to explain why that approach is not as popular today as it used to be.

And why is it not?

Prof. Steven Weitzman in his office at the University of Pennsylvania. (courtesy)

People began to realize – of course, the theory of evolution itself is doing just fine – but people began to realize that it’s not so easy to apply that way of thinking to the development of human culture. Part of the problem is evidence – we don’t have evidence to trace every step in the process, but also people realize that culture doesn’t evolve in the same way that species evolve. Culture develops in a more complicated way. So people started to back away from evolutionary narratives as a model for how to understand the development of human culture.

So what is the popular model today?

A more recent model is — they sometimes call it a “constructivist” approach — that is, people are creating their own identity in response to certain circumstances in their own day and age, and then they reimagine the past to fit their identity. A constructivist approach says that Jewish identity is constantly being reinvented by Jews, and as they reimagine who they are, they’re reimagining their history as well.

So the past is constantly being re-conceived and reimagined in light of the present. That is the approach, for example, of a controversial book called “The Invention of the Jewish People,” by a Tel Aviv historian named Shlomo Sand. He argues that the idea of the Jewish people as a single unified people who go back to the ancient world is an invention of modern scholars – they just invented it. And they invented it for political and ideological reasons.

How do you feel about that?

The model that is used is this idea that historians can just invent the past from scratch like that. That’s been challenged by a number of historians and anthropologists, and it’s really not that plausible. Historians just don’t have that degree of power to convince an entire people to accept that kind of fictionalized version of the past. So it really overestimates the power of scholars, and in addition to that, it’s just pretty poorly done history.

So what are your conclusions? Did you find the origins of the Jews?

What I’m trying to do – I know this is a little bit frustrating – but I’m not trying to answer the question for the reader. I’m trying to help the reader understand the question more deeply, and why scholars haven’t been able to answer the question — and why they will probably never be able to answer the question.

The interview was edited for length and clarity. With contributions by Yaakov Schwartz.

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