Friday, March 30, 2018

The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age Hardcover – May 30, 2017 by Steven Weitzman (Princeton University Press)

A book about the history of history: an account of how people have thought about Jewish origins.

Retired for 3 years, I read a lot of nonfiction. Many books are not worth the time to read: either they dumb down the material, or they are too skewed by opinion, poorly reasoned and using highly selective facts. Many other books are poorly written and get lost in the weeds of academics. Rarely do I find myself reading a book which is intelligent, engaging, informative and well reasoned. Steven Weitzman's Origin of the Jews is such a book.

Weitzman approaches his material with honest academic caution, weighing different ideas considering their pros and cons and leaving most issues unresolved, rather than accept a theory that remains speculative.

He covers six disciplines to show how different fields have approached the subject. Genealogy, linguistics, archaeology, psychology, sociology and genetics. Each get a chapter, presented in a roughly chronological order. He includes insightful cross references, showing how scholarly fields don't develop in isolation.

Included in these chapters are summaries of several major theories: Wellhausen and his Documentary Hypothesis; the crucial importance of the Babylonian Exile, Persia and the work of Ezra and Nehemiah; Shaye Cohen and his idea of the role of the Hellenistic age, and Shlomo Sand's work on a modern origin are all covered.

There are however some weaknesses. The section on Sigmund Freud seems to me pointless. It could have led to more discussion of origins as illusions, used to support our egos.

Also, there are some missing discussions. No mention is made of Mordecai Kaplan who proposed understanding Jewish history as an evolving civilization with notable epochs (biblical, Talmudic, medieval and modern). Jacob Neusner, and his work on the importance of Babylonian/Persian era on the emergence of Jewish rabbinic teachings. And a third scholar whose work would be interesting in the context of Jewish origins is Thomas McEvilley's The Shape of Ancient Thought which investigates connections between Greek and Indian thought and the uncertainty of cross cultural influences.

There is also little discussion of similar origin theories in late antiquity studies.

Throughout the book, Weitzman clearly presents contemporary ideas of postmodern thinkers like Deleuze and Foucault and nonlinear, non-developmental perspectives which can upset our conventional understanding. This contributes to his discussion of the uncertainty in all these discussions.

With all that said, what I appreciated most is Weitzman's honesty in describing the uncertainty in all these subjects. Let me be clear, this is not the typical academic caveats. It certainly reads like a sincere recognition that certainty may evade us, but the discussion can go on.

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