The Jews have one of the longest and most intensively studied histories of any population on earth, but the beginning of their history, how it is that the Jews came to be, remains surprisingly unsettled.” It’s tempting to link the unsettledness of that question to the historical unsettledness of the Jews themselves. And in Steven Weitzman’s thoughtful, intricate and wide-ranging The Origin of the Jews, there are certainly indications that present insecurity can agitate a restless search for one’s own origins, as if knowing one’s “roots” could prove anchoring in turbulent times. Yet what unsettles Weitzman himself is something else: not the inconclusiveness of the quest, but the fact that the question itself has become “too contentious to pose”.
Perhaps it’s because the rapid transformations of modernity exacerbated the manic search for origins Jacques Derrida once nicknamed “archive fever” that “origin” has become a modern version of knowledge’s forbidden fruit: a metaphysical object or objective whose inaccessibility renders whoever chases after it definitively unreasonable. Weitzman’s book reveals why. By touring through disciplines as diverse as genealogy, palaeolinguistics, higher criticism, archaeology and ethnogenesis, psychoanalysis, historiography and genetics, he shows just how often (but not always) origin stories can tilt towards the racist, supremacist and deeply unpalatable. The search for origins thus doubles up here as a sort of history of tendentiousness – even if only one of Weitzman’s subjects, the historian Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People, is literally called out for its “sloppy and tendentious scholarship”.
Wary of appearing tendentious himself, Weitzman is a judicious interpreter and subtle debunker. In contesting Sand’s claim, for example, that Jewish peoplehood is a modern construct engineered by scholarly elites, he notes what this has “in common with the scholars [Sand] criticises, including the assumption that the origin of the Jewish people is hidden in the past in a way that only the scholarly elite can retrieve”. While it’s the modern State of Israel’s legitimacy or otherwise that lurks behind these contemporary controversies, the critical point is that such tendentiousness is nothing new: “Going back to antiquity, anti-Jewish animosity has sometimes expressed itself in the form of counter-origin stories that seek to mock and discredit the Jews by negating their own understanding of their origin.” And so it’s precisely because the issue of origins has always been tied to the political status of Jews that postmodern critiques are unlikely to end the origin-quest any time soon.
The surest conclusion Weitzman comes to is that how one views the origin of the Jews is likely to shed more light on one’s personal history than it does on the history represented by one’s scholarship. Our political views may be more in thrall to the idiosyncrasies of our own pre-rational and inaccessible origin stories than we scholars are wont to admit. Ironically, it’s this very insight that helps validate one of the disciplines Weitzman is unpersuaded by: psychoanalysis. And the psychoanalysis chapter was also the one that struck me as being so selective as to make even this extraordinarily careful book look momentarily tendentious. Then again, when it comes to defending psychoanalytic scholarship, I happen to have my own axe to grind.
Devorah Baum is lecturer in English and critical theory at the University of Southampton. Her new books, Feeling Jewish (a Book for Just About Anyone) and The Jewish Joke, will both be published later this year.
The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age
By Steven Weitzman
Princeton University Press 408pp, £27.95
Published 13 June 2017