Steven Weitzman joins us to talk about his book The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age, and what the question of Jewish origins has to tell us about a range of issues including nationalism, the relationship between Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, and the ways the study of the past has often been put to use for political or ideological purposes.
Other books, articles, and figures discussed:
- Criticism of the mythic origins of nations and modern nationalism
- Documentary Hypothesis
- Benedict Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise (new translation edited by Jonathan Israel)
- Read Spinoza, TPT, ch. 7 “On the interpretation of Scripture”
- Julius Wellhausen and the Documentary Hypothesis
- Abraham Geiger
Steven Weitzman’s The Origin of the Jews chronicles a series of attempts to understand Jewish origins, including genealogy, language, the documentary hypothesis of the Bible’s origin, biblical archaeology, Freudian psychoanalysis, and also the notion that Jews and Judaism emerged out of close contact with Greek culture, Rome, or Christianity. Ultimately, Steve considers the constructivist model—the idea that Jewishness is a recent concept of product of modernity, which was most recently put forth in Shlomo Sand’s book The Invention of the Jewish People—as well as developments in genetics which offer another way to make a primordialist claim that there is something essential about the Jews, even baked into the gene pool.
Consequently, the book works on two levels: First, it presents a series of theories that have been proposed over the years, a number of which have been debunked, and second, it’s a history of the search for these origins and what it tells us about the searchers. All this is to say, The Origin of the Jews details the interminable efforts to determine where the Jews come from and the unending public interest in this topic, which Steve argues makes it something worth investigating. He also makes the case that they are important political implications, especially when it comes to Zionism.
At stake in this discussion are two things. First, it’s a story of the attempts people have made to look for a sense of self in history, whether in terms of group origins or individual and family origins. This story shows that many people have hoped that through this process they might affirm their sense of self identity, but it often presents a challenge instead. Secondly, we find a profound intellectual question of whether the search for origins is particularly useful in the first place. Steve argues that scholars in recent years, and especially those connected with postmodernism, have been generally disinterested in the question of group origins. And there’s also a whole school of antinationalist writers who have noted that most myths of origins are just that—myths. However, as Steve points out in his book, both Jews and non-Jews have been constantly fascinated by the origins of the Jewish people, and the question of origins is gaining further traction in popular culture.
What’s more, the question of origins opens up a wider issue inherent to the study of the past. Steve focuses on the origins of the Jewish people, but looking beyond that, it all shows why history matters. The origin stories people tell themselves provide a foundation for the way that they see the world as a whole. It’s not just about the Jewish people either. What about our own societies at large? Is the origin of the United States the story of a nation fighting for freedom against tyranny, and particularly the burden of taxation? Or did the country develop as an economic powerhouse due to slavery and the genocide of native peoples? Turning to the state of Israel, is the origin of that country the reinstatement of the Jewish commonwealth, a dream held by Jews for generations, or does it have its own kind of original sin in the form of the expulsion of the Palestinian people? In all this, we find the way in which the study of the past has something important at stake, because the disconnect between popular perception and what’s common currency among scholars can make the difference between radically different views of the world. The Origin of the Jews is particularly important because it shows that even if we express our distaste for histories that are written with a particular political agenda in mind, we shouldn’t forget that all histories and especially origin stories have wider implications.
Steven Weitzman serves as the Ella Darivoff Director of the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and as the Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Semitics Languages and Literatures in the department of Religious Studies at Penn. His recent publications include Solomon: the Lure of Wisdom, part of Yale’s Jewish Lives series; The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age, winner of a National Jewish Book Award in 2017; and a widely used textbook, The Jews: a History, coauthored with John Efron and Matthias Lehmann.
What follows is an edited version of the conversation.
Jason Lustig: What would you say is at stake in the various attempts to understand the origins of the Jews?
Steven Weitzman: Modern scholarly attempts to understand the origin of the Jews really didn’t begin among Jews, but began among non-Jewish Europeans, who in many cases were prejudiced against Jews or anxious about the role the Jews were playing in European society. Their effort to understand the origin of the Jews was in part an effort to understand what place you should have in contemporary European society. Were they truly different from Europeans? Could they be integrated in European culture? Questions of the Jewish origins were very much tied to the political question, what we call the Jewish question, which is really the question of how Jews fit into modern European society. So scholarship in the nineteenth century was often driven by that political and social concern.
In a more recent era, the scholarship of Jewish origin is now tied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jews and their conflict with Palestinians in Israel is partly tied to competing origin stories. Jews’ claim to the land of Israel is tied, in part, to their belief that they originated in the land of Israel, that their ancestors go back to the land of Israel. Palestinians have contested that with alternative origin stories in more recent generations. Scholarship of origin is tied to the Jewish claim to the land of Israel, and the legitimacy of the Jewish presence in the land of Israel.
JL: I think this is a really important issue, because so much of modern Jewish nationalism is premised on this origin story of the Jews in Israel. If you look at the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which very famously opens with the statement that the Jewish people arose in the land of Israel—if you read the Bible, that’s not exactly true. And at the same time, the discourse surrounding Palestinian nationalism is also tied up in this question of origin: If you look at a number of figures who have been very anti-Palestinian, they often make a claim that the Palestinians have a very recent origin, like when Golda Meir claims that the Palestinians were not even a people.
SW: Exactly. So in 2009 an Israeli scholar named Shlomo Sand published a book The Invention of the Jewish People, where he argued that the Jews were not the ancient, unified people that they took themselves to be, that their identity as a unified, ancient people was actually an invention of modern Zionist historians. And so he was essentially negating or nullifying Jewish self-identity. As you noted, other scholars have done the same things to Palestinians, and there are political consequences to these views.
One of the reasons I was fascinated by this topic is that it is so political, and the politics has infiltrated the scholarship, and what one might say colors that scholarship or biases the scholarship. And that fascinated me too: How history becomes very political, and how it can be distorted by different political agenda.
JL: So in a way, is this question of origins the ultimate political-historical question?
SW: I personally wouldn’t say the ultimate question in that regard. I think that it’s certainly not as central in peoples’ minds as it was in the heyday of nationalism in the nineteenth century, when all these new nation-states were trying to forge identities for themselves as a collective. It doesn’t play quite that role, although interestingly in our present political era, some of that thinking has come back with the resurgence of nationalism. So some of this reversion to origins, this interest in ancestors, it’s coming back in our culture in ways that echo an earlier era in the nineteenth century—and it’s a little bit disturbing for that reason.
JL: You call it this a rootless age. Do you think this is really true, especially since we see a wide popular interest in this, with TV shows like Who Do You Think You Are that are really talking up this question of individual origins, and also group origins?
SW: What struck me as I was writing the book is that a lot of us feel very disconnected from our origins, from our ancestry. You mentioned some television shows that reflected an interest in lineage and ancestry. There’s genetic ancestry companies like twenty three and me, and ancestry.com that specialize in giving people information about their ancestry. There’s a lot of interest in tracing people’s ancestry and origins. The reason there’s such an appetite for that kind of service is precisely because people feel disconnected from their ancestry. They feel like they don’t know a lot about who their ancestors are, and I give myself as an example. I don’t know anything about my great grandparents, certainly nothing about the generations that preceded them. My grandparents didn’t tell me very much. My parents didn’t know very much, and I feel my lack of knowledge about where I come from is characteristic of a lot of Americans, and a lot of American Jews. So that’s what I had in mind by using the word “rootless.” A lot of us feel an interest in our ancestry or origins, but we also feel disconnected from it.
JL: I think you’re right to talk about this kind of an appetite. When you look at archives, you will often see people who are coming primarily to do genealogical research. There really is, I think, a very broad interest in personal origins, but of course in your book you are talking a lot more about the group origins of the Jews.
SW: Individual Jews have their own origin stories, and there’s thousands of stories, but I was interested in the book in trying to recover the origin story that connects Jews as a people to one another—going back as far as we could in time to find out what we can about the origin of the Jewish people in general.
JL: One of the things that’s very interesting about all this, whether you’re talking about group origins or individual origins, is that in a certain way you might say that interests in origins is based on an idea that one is defined by external factors like lineage or origin—something that is essentially essential that comes from outside of themselves, rather than from something in and of themselves. I’m curious what you think is the significance of this outlook.
SW: One of the issues I had to wrestle with in the book is that there are a lot of different ideas about what an origin is. One of those ideas is that something happened in the remote past that really shaped the character of our ancestors in a way that determined not only their destiny, but determined the destiny of their descendants. And, you know, the most infamous example of this kind of thinking is racism. If you think about white nationalists today, they believe that something happened to Europeans thousands of years ago that determine their character, gave them an essence that was different from other races and that not only shaped to the destiny of those ancestors, but it shaped what happened to all their descendants. That kind of thinking feeds into racialist thinking, but it surfaces and other ways as well, and that’s one approach to origin that I wanted to explore in the book.
JL: One of the ways to think about this broadly speaking, and the question of peoples’ interest in origins, is that it raises this question of the role of history, and why it matters both to scholars and also to everyday people. Is the role of history to help us to understand who we are? Is that even possible? Is this may be one of the roots of this divide between the popular discourse about origins, and what you talk about as scholarly disinterest: That scholars are not really interested in questions of personal or group identity as an objective, whereas many people who are personally interested in history see that as the goal of history, not just to understand where we come from as a society, but to understand where they come from individually.
SW: The origins of the present, or the origins of the self, matter to us because they reveal something to us about who we are. They reveal something to us about how we connect to other people. Origins tell us, I’m related to this person, I’m different from that person, I have a sense of connection and responsibility to this group, I don’t have a sense of connection to that group. Origins help us sort people into different categories, and they reaffirm our sense of how we fit into the world. Whereas academic historians aren’t usually seeking to reaffirm their sense of identity. They’re not trying to explain the meaning of the present. They’re really trying to understand the past and its own terms, trying to recover the lives of people who lived in the past as-fledged human beings without necessarily having to connect them to the present.
So there is a kind of clash of goals between what modern historians are interested in and what many other people are interested in. It creates a kind of divide. It makes history uninteresting for a lot of people, and leaves them feeling like history isn’t answering the questions that they’re asking.
JL: I think this is part of what you’re describing in the book. You talk a lot about historians who have searched for the origins of the Jews, but broadly speaking these are people who were working in the past, for instance in the nineteenth century or the early twentieth century, and they were talking in different terms than contemporary scholars do.
SW: That’s right. After World War II, there was a turn in scholarship against questions of origin. In an earlier era, in the nineteenth century or early twentieth century, a lot of European scholars were very much interested in questions of origin. Not just the origin of different peoples, but also the origin of language, the origin of religion, the origin of warfare, the origin of agriculture. So questions of origin were very much in the air. But afterwards, for various reasons, humanities scholars really turned against those questions and came to think of questions of origin as having gone astray intellectually somehow. So that’s a big difference between post-war scholarship and the attitude of earlier scholars.
JL: What do you think is the root of that shift? Do you think that it has something to do with the challenge of the Holocaust? In as much as you mentioned that the search for origins is so often tied to racialist thinking.
SW: Part of this is a reaction to the role of race science and racial thinking that the Nazis obviously acted on in terrible ways. It’s a reaction to nationalism, because people’s sense of national identity is often tied to an origin story. And nationalism went amuck in the first part of the twentieth century, so scholars in the wake of World War II were reacting to these kinds of dangerous ideologies that were tied to mythic senses of origin and were looking for another way to think about what it was to be a human being and how human beings connect to each other and how human beings should relate to their past. They were trying to come up with alternatives to the search for origin as a way to understand what it is to be human being.
JL: If you think about some of the contemporary scholarship, if you’re familiar with Pat Geary for instance and his work on the Myth of Nations and so on, I think that certainly the anti-nationalist tendency is very much tied into a disinterest in origins, inasmuch as scholars have been unearthing more and more the ways in which so many of the things that people tell themselves about where they come from are not necessarily made up, but they don’t reflect historical reality.
With all that said, I think it might be interesting to talk about the original Jewish origin story, so to speak— the Bible. Among the various theories that you talk about, there’s the question of the Bible and the Documentary Hypothesis, the idea that various texts of the Jewish Bible came from materials composed by different authors at different times which were ultimately edited and redacted together. It’s really interesting because it’s not an origin story of the Jews, in a way, but of the Bible itself. And one of the interesting things about all of this is that the Bible, in a certain way, tells us in very straightforward terms that there’s not just one origin story. Even if someone denies the documentary hypothesis—and I think that most scholars agree that it more or less is how the Bible came to be, though some more traditional folks might disagree—it kind of is right there in the text itself, that it’s an amalgamation of texts and narratives. If you even just look at the opening of Genesis, with two creation myths, or where there are different accounts at the various Israelite kings which were duplicated with slight differences, we can see multiple points of origin in the origin story itself. And at the same time, this challenge presented by the documentary hypothesis can be understood as a challenge to the origin of the Jews themselves for those who see the Bible as the original history book of the origins of the Jews.
SW: That’s quite interesting. I think one of the effects of modern scholarship, and one of the reasons that it’s really objectionable to a lot of people, is that it fragments and complicates people’s sense of origin. What seems like it should be a simple story that goes back to a certain moment in time get shattered by modern scholarship. The same thing happens with the origin of the universe, theory of evolution, the Big Bang theory. These theories really complicated the origin story that people were telling themselves about where everything came from. The Documentary Hypothesis is an example of how modern scholarship complicated and fragmented the Bible in a similar way: What was once thought to come from a certain figure, Moses, now comes from multiple authors, and that’s disturbing for a lot of people.
What was interesting to me about the Documentary Hypothesis, however, it that it was not just that it identified multiple sources in the books of Moses and suggested that there was more than author involved in the five books of Moses. This was also a theory that was developed in the nineteenth century in the same decades as Darwin’s theory of evolution was developing, and the scholarship that identified these different sources of the books of Moses also kind of plotted them on a timeline at different points in history in order to show that there was an evolutionary process that helped reshape the religion of ancient Israel into what we call Judaism.
So the Documentary Hypothesis is very closely aligned with an evolutionary approach to origin, which sees origin as something that is a process that unfolds gradually over time through adaptation. And essentially the Documentary Hypothesis uses these different sources that it identifies in the five books of Moses to tell a story of evolution about how the religion of ancient Israel evolved into what we call Judaism.
JL: I think it’s also very interesting, if you look at the nineteenth century origins of the Documentary Hypothesis, that the figure who’s most prominently associated with Documentary Hypothesis, Julius Wellhausen, was himself not Jewish. There are some scholars who point to earlier Jewish figures who made a number of comments that pointed the way towards the Documentary Hypothesis, like Spinoza’s famous chapter (chapter 7) in the Theological-Political Treatise, where he talks about some of the challenges of the Biblical text, but there’s a complex origin to the Documentary Hypothesis too.
SW: Absolutely. And Spinoza, this great seventeenth-century philosopher, was really a pioneer in what we might call secular Biblical scholarship. He really did see signs that the five books of Moses reflected human authorship and reflected the circumstances and timing in which those texts were written. But it wasn’t until the nineteenth century when those kinds of insights came together with an evolutionary perspective to create what we call the Documentary Hypothesis. So this secular approach to the Bible really can evolve itself over the course of several centuries.
JL: It raises this question again of what’s at stake in these attempts to find the origins of the Jews or even the Biblical texts. You talked about the way in which it can you problematic for some people when origin stories contradict or challenge received understandings and how this can be a challenge to identity just as much as it could be an attempt at self-affirmation. If you look Spinoza, his critical perspective on the Biblical texts was not the only thing got people upset at him, and it’s interesting to me to see the way in which some origin stories have been accepted and others have taken a long time to be viewed in a positive way.
SW: That’s another thing about the search for origins: sometimes the search of origins reveals things about yourself you’re not expecting to find, or you don’t want to find. There are many examples of people paying to use a genetic ancestry service to find out who their ancestors are, and discovering that their ancestors are different from who they thought they were going to be, or what their family tradition was. For example, maybe if you’re Jewish, you might find that you have ancestors who are not Jewish, or if you’re not Jewish, made you had ancestors who were Jewish. If you’re going to embark on a search for origin, whether that search is genealogical or genetic or archaeological or historical, you have to be prepared to discover things about your ancestry that you may not be expecting to find or you may want to find.
JL:. I think it leads us towards the question of the role of searching for origins and searching for identity in terms of affirming or disaffirming communal identities in the case that the Jews.
SW: The scholarship has a double edged, and sometimes it’s reaffirmed and sometimes it’s challenged. For example, archaeology in Israel during the 1950s was the national pastime. People were fascinated by archeology. So many extraordinary archeological discoveries were made in the fifties and sixties, and oftentimes those discoveries did affirm their sense of themselves. They did show that a Judean presence or Jewish presence in the land went back thousands of years back to antiquity, so it did reaffirm a Zionist or Israeli sense of belonging to the land and having a long relationship with the land. But archeologists also challenged Israeli sense of their history in the land as well, and in the seventies and eighties and the nineties down to our own era there have been archeological discoveries that have really complicated what people thought was the history of Israel in the land of Canaan at that time. So it’s really double edged, and sometimes that reaffirms people sense of identity, but even sometimes really unsettles what people understand to be their origins.
JL: Shifting gears here, one of the interesting questions about the origins of the Jews is that in addition to the search for the origins of the Jews themselves, the Jews present an origin story for other religions, especially Christianity and Islam. What’s the significance of the origin of the Jews and Judaism in this context?
SW: The two major faiths of the world today, Christianity and Islam, both trace their own origins in one way or the other back to the Jews. In the case of Christianity, of course, Jesus himself was Jewish and the disciples were Jewish. Paul was Jewish. A lot of their core ideas, including the very concept of the Messiah, were ideas that developed out of earlier Jewish tradition. So to understand the origin of the Jews is in part to understand the origin of Christianity. And Christianity to this day struggles with exactly what its relationship to Judaism is. Something similar is true of Islam. Muhammad is understood to be in a line of prophets that goes back to Adam and Abraham and other Biblical prophets mentioned in the Bible. He’s considered the last of that line of prophets, and Islam itself is understood to be a kind of revival of the faith of Abraham, which is monotheism in its purest form according to Islamic belief. So Muslims also tie their origins back to what we would call Biblical history, and their history is interwoven with that Judaism. So what’s at stake in the question of Jewish origin is not just where we can learn about the Jews, but it’s what we can learn about the origin of these other peoples as well.
JL: So what do we learn about the origins of these other people from looking at the origins of the Jews?
SW: One of the arguments of the book is that we don’t know as much about the origin of the Jews as we thought we did. The book is really about various scholarly attempts to recover the origin of the Jews that, in many cases, were not successful and didn’t reach the kind of fortitude that the scholars are involved in these searches had hoped it would generate. If that’s true or the Jews, if we don’t know as much about the origin of the Jews as we thought we did, the same goes for Christianity and Islam—their origins are not as clear as we often assume either.
JL: I noted how the Documentary Hypothesis was originally the product of non-Jewish scholars and also Jewish scholars who were, at least in Spinoza’s case, kicked out of the Jewish community. So we have this odd and a little bit curious tension of how people are often interested in their origins because it’s about themselves, but also in a lot of cases the scholarly search for origins is being done by people outside of that community itself. One thing that strikes me in the search for the Jewish origins of Islam is the work of the rabbi Abraham Geiger, who famously made the argument that Judaism was the source of many of Muhammad’s teachings and ideas.
SW: Right. And Jews like him and others in the nineteenth century actually played a pioneering role in developing the study of Islam, which as Jews they identified with to some degree. These were Jewish scholars in Europe who weren’t fully socially accepted into European society. There was some feeling of identification with Islam that I think animated scholars like Geiger and others to play the role that they did in studying that religious tradition. But you’re absolutely right, that many of the people involved with studying the origin of the Jews are not Jews but Christians. And they are motivated in part by desire to understand the origin of Christianity or to understand the origin of European culture. The search for origins is often a form of self-study. It’s often a way of trying to understand yourself better, and sometimes you’ll use another people in order to understand yourself better. But the goal is always to reflect back on who you are and where you come from.
JL: So I want to talk for a moment about Shlomo Sand, who has made something a career recently out of writing that the Jews, and also in another book the land of Israel itself, have a very recent origin. I found your critique of him very interesting, that when he Sand wrote that the Jewish people are invented, he’s producing another origin story of the Jews.
SW: Right. It’s an origin story whose plotline he borrows from the recent scholarship on the origins of nations in general. There are many nations in Europe that claimed to be rooted in antiquity: The French go back to the Gauls, the Germans go back to Germanic tribes in Roman times, and other nations claim for themselves histories that go back to remote pasts that are considered ideal or better than the present in many ways. And there has arisen in recent decades a scholarly theory which says that those origin stories that are the foundation for modern national identity, those origin stories are myths. And that in fact, modern nations are modern. They arose in modern times, they are essentially inventions of modern sensibility, the stories they tell about history are modern inventions. And so that’s an idea that Sand has basically borrowed and applied to the Jews, arguing that the Jewish people is another example of a modern, invented nation that really only rose in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and is not ancient in a way that Jews themselves now believe.
Sand’s narrative has been heavily criticized by historians of modern Jewish culture. It has mistakes. It’s a very simplified narrative. It exaggerates the criticisms that it has of history, and it revives some theories that had been discredited. So there’s a lot that’s problematic about it, just as a book of history. But the core idea that national identity is a modern invention is one that a lot of scholars accept. And so although I think that book itself can pretty much be dismissed, the underlying idea that Jewish identity is something that has taking shape in modern times is an idea that we have to take seriously.
JL: I think the most interesting thing about Sand’s book is the popular response that there was to it. You don’t usually see books of history being translated into so many languages, for instance, or getting as much press as his book did. In a certain way, it’s quite unfortunate that a book which has so many issues is the one that rose to prominence. Even if, as you say, the core idea that nations are relatively new as a concept and in practice might be something that we really need to grapple with and that the public at large also needs to think about as well.
SW: This is an example of how scholarship has become entangled in politics. Sand’s historical argument is really a political argument. It’s a political argument against the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state. Sand’s vision is that Israel should be a kind of post-national state, that it shouldn’t be identified with the Jewish people, that it should be secular or neutral and it all citizens should have an equal stake in it. As an American myself, part of my brain is very sympathetic to that. But he’s using history in a very political way to discredit the claims of Zionism and to discredit the claims that Israel is legitimately rooted in the land that Israel is now located in. I think the popularity of the book is tied to rising anti-Israel sentiment. I’m not here to talk about politics, but I find it disturbing that scholarship gets distorted by political agendas. I cling to the belief that scholarship is, if not able to transcend politics, at least able to avoid being merely polemical. I can’t believe that scholarship is simply a function of politics. I want to believe that it’s capable of achieving insights that are true independent of one’s politics, and for that reason I really have to reject the equation of scholarship and polemics that Sand’s book represents.
JL: One of the things that I think is very interesting, and I think it ties into the theme of this podcast broadly speaking, is that it really shows some of the ways in which Jewish history matters, because what we see is that a deeply-flawed book has a very large influence.
SW: Yes, and that’s ironic and tragic. Maybe it doesn’t matter so much whether a particular work of history is right or wrong. Maybe that doesn’t influence its impact on a larger public, so much as whether or not the history and questions serve some political agenda. I think that it’s a disturbing challenge for historians. We’re living in an age where the boundary between the true and the false is under assault from various directions, and I see my role as a scholar and historian, to some extent, as to defend the boundary between the true and false and to stand up for the idea that there is a difference between truth and falsehood, true news and fake news. When a book so clearly bends history to serve a political aim, that really disturbs me.
JL: I think a lot of people would agree with that. One of the things to think about here, stepping away from Sand to a bigger picture, is that on a fundamental basis, his logic works on the assumption that antiquity a positive trait. It seems to me almost foreign, in a certain way, in the twenty-first century, when it might seem that the popular conception is that what’s new is what’s better, not necessarily a long history of an idea or a group.
SW: The first historian that we have from ancient Judaism was Josephus, who lived in the first century and was witness to war between the Jews and the Romans that led to the destruction of the Second Temple. At that time period, it’s very clear that what’s considered valuable, what’s considered authentic, what’s considered legitimate is what is old. And things that were novel or only arose recently were regarded with great suspicion. For Josephus, one of the qualities that elevated Jews above other peoples was that they were older than other peoples. And he’s very suspicious of people who had arisen recently, or ideas that were novel or new. And this is a contrast to our American culture where we often appreciate or value the new or the novel over the old.
But this resurgence of interest in ancestry is really kind of challenging that idea, and reviving this notion that legitimacy and authenticity comes from being ancient, from being old, from having roots that go back to the distant past. So it’s interesting to see that idea revive itself. As a scholar of ancient history, part of me likes that, but a part of me says, “Now, wait a minute.” It’s also a very dangerous belief. The Nazis claimed legitimacy by connecting the German people back to an ancient people called the Aryans. So this desire to connect modern people to ancient people can be very dangerous, and it could support very dangerous racialists ideas. So I think we have to be very cautious and embracing a revival of the old over the newer.
JL: I think especially at a time when the question “So where do you really come from?” is unfortunately being asked, it raises this issue where even the idea of origins is perhaps problematic.
SW: Yeah. To give you a very obvious example from the era we’re living through now, we have whole groups of people being denied entry into the United States based on their country of origin. It doesn’t matter who they are, what they’ve done, what they’re like. They are being classified and judged, and their destiny is being determined by where they happened to come from. I don’t like that. I don’t think that’s the way to treat another human being. So that’s an example of how judging people by their origins can be unwelcome.
JL: I think you’re right when you’re pointing out the way in which this question of origins might seem distasteful to some people politically or intellectually. You open the book by contrasting scholars’ disinterest with origin stories with their enduring popular appeal. Why do you think these things are still so popular, and are becoming so politically volatile, in a way that there is such a divide between scholarly discourse and the popular interest?
SW: People have always been interested in origins. Some of our earliest stories from the ancient Near East are origin stories about the origin of the world and the origin of people. I think curiosity about origins is inherent in being a human being. Certainly I have questions about my own origin, about who my grandparents or great grandparents were, where they came from. My kids have questions of origin that they bring to me. Where do I come from? How do people come to be? I think curiosity about origins is really deeply rooted in being a human being.
But on the other hand scholars, and especially scholars in the humanities in the last several decades, have really turned against questions of origins. They think there’s something deeply misleading about theories that try to explain the present by appeal to some distant origin. And there are some scholars who speak about origins or interest in origins as a kind of foolishness or folly or intellectual error, and really dissuade scholarship that tries to pursue questions of origin. That’s a trend especially associated with what we call postmodernism, which is of course an intellectual movement that became quite fashionable in the sixties and seventies and eighties, and shaped the intellectual culture in which I was trained as a graduate student. A lot of the most famous postmodern thinkers like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault argue that the search for origin is a kind of folly, it’s kind of going astray, and intellectuals shouldn’t really be pursuing questions of origins, they should be thinking in other ways. So I, as a scholar who was trained in the 1990s but also as a scholar who’s curious about origins, I feel a real conflict between those two real ways of related to oranges.
JL: I think it’s such a fascinating conflict that we see today, where there are certain political elements that are so interested in the origins of particular of individuals and groups, and yet the sort of postmodern blurring of fact and fiction is also taking place at the same time.
SW: So what adds yet another dimension is the scientific revolution in genetics, which has made it possible for geneticists to trace our ancestry from our DNA. That research really began to kick in and the eighties and nineties. In the last twenty years in particular, there has been just an amazing revolution of knowledge about what we can call genetic history, using DNA to reconstruct the history of people. I think that’s also fed into a kind of revived interest in origin. All these things were coming together and the book is in part an effort to sort it all out and to relate these trends to each other.
JL: It’s very interesting that you bring up genetics. One might say that there is a divide between the humanities and the natural sciences on this question of origins. The people you’re talking about in terms of postmodernism’s shying away from an interest in unearthing origins are all within the realm of the humanities and social sciences, whereas in the natural sciences, e.g. physics, still search after the origins of the universe, right? Or if you look at genetics and biology, I think they’re still very tied in with this question of going back to the origin of species, or origins of an individual through looking at their genetic makeup. In a world where I think the humanities are trying to justify themselves, is this kind of interest in origins a detriment? What do you make of this divide? Or do you think that there’s not really much of one?
SW: There is a sharp divide. I used to teach at Stanford, and I had an opportunity to befriend some geneticists who are working on using DNA to reconstruct the history of different groups, including the Jews. I was completely fascinated by their research. They’re brilliant and wonderful people, but at the same time I also of course had colleagues and friends who are in Jewish Studies who are trained in the humanities, and many of them were very disinterested in what genetics might tell us about the ancestry of the Jews. To me, that brought home a real divide, a kind of academic cultural divide between humanities-trained scholars who are in many cases influenced by postmodernism, and biologists and other scientist. The book was in part an effort to try to bridge those two different academic cultures. The humanities are very suspicious of some of the genetics research. That’s a real divide, and it continues.
JL: I think one of the reasons why humanities scholars are hesitant about some of this genetic research, for instance, is that we have this historical context: We know that Darwinism and so much of biology as a field ended up playing a role in the development of xenophobia, racism, ultimately Nazism and genocide. One thing to ask is, do we think that people in the natural sciences perhaps need more historical perspective on the work that they’re doing?
SW: That’s an excellent point. And absolutely, some of my colleagues’ suspicion of genetics absolutely relates to the fact that biology played a role in legitimizing what the Nazis did. The Nazis invoked race science to support their theories. They funded genetics research in the belief that it would support their ideology. Mengele was a geneticist, for example, doing genetics research at Auschwitz. Absolutely, the suspicion is tied to that.
But if you want to be fair, we also have to note that after World War II, geneticists played a very important role in the campaign to end racism, because genetics shows that race is not coherent. It doesn’t make any sense at a biological level, and so in the 1950s, when the United Nations undertook a campaign against racism and scientific racism, some of the most prominent leaders of that movement were geneticists who could use science to show how false racism and biological racism really are. So absolutely, the history of race science and the Nazi cooptation of science gives one reason be very suspicious. But it’s also possible to reimagine the sciences and the humanities working as allies to deepen and complexify people’s understanding of what it is to be human.
JL: Certainly. In a world where the humanities are struggling to justify themselves, is the disinterested in origins a detriment, considering the outstanding popular interest in individual and group origins?
SW: I think that this is why scholars like myself in the humanities world really have to engage these questions of origin. Even if we are suspicious of what people think are their origins, or we’re wary of what genetics might tell us about people’s ancestries. One reason to engage these questions is because they are genuine questions that people have about themselves. What I’ve learned as a teacher over several decades is that teaching isn’t just about my goals as a teacher, it’s also about students’ goals. What are they curious about, what do they want to learn? To be a good teacher is a negotiation between what I want to teach and what the students want to learn. I think questions of origin are a great way for historians to to bridge between their perspective as scholars at the kinds of questions that people have about the past.
JL: You open the book by commenting about how you had difficulty figuring out how to explain the origins of the Jews while writing a textbook. This clearly is a challenge, I think, but in the end is the most important thing what the origins themselves actually were, or what they are imagined to be?
SW: Origins are actually a relationship. It’s a relationship between the present and the past. There’s two components to the origins. There’s always the kind of moment when things start, but there’s always the moment that things lead to. There’s always that thing that is originating out of the moment of origin, so there’s always a departure gate and there’s always a arrival gate. You always have both when you’re having an origin and so to think about the question of origin is not just to think about the past, so it’s really about thinking about the relationship between the past and the present. For me, questions of origin are really a way to shuffle back and forth between the past and the present. It’s part of what makes them so fraught and so difficult, but also so interesting.
JL: One of the things that struck me when reading through your book was that the various scholars who tried to understand the origins of the Jews were very much projecting themselves onto the whole inquiry.
SW: That’s one of the reasons a lot of these theories are suspect. You can so clearly see that the scholar in question is projecting their own contemporary concerns, their own political interests, their own understanding of what it means to be Jewish or not Jewish. They project that onto the past, and you can see that very clearly. And yet at the same time, sometimes a search for origin does reveal things that are surprising, that we’re not expecting, that deepen or expand our understanding of oneself. So I would not give up on the search for origin. At the end of the book, I weigh the pros and cons of undertaking this kind of scholarly quest, and I’m not ready to give up on it. I do think that the search for origins the has potential to reveal things about ourselves that we would otherwise not know about it.
JL: But when you said that it would reveal things about ourselves, you mean about ourselves today, not necessarily about ourselves 3000 years ago.
SW: Well, “ourselves” did not exist 3000 years ago. It’s always about the present in some way or the other.
JL: That’s what I meant—what I mean to say is, the study of origins reveals things about ourselves, about the present moment, not necessarily about what actually happened, say, the point of time when the Jewish people supposedly originated.
SW: Whether intentionally or not, it always reveals something about the present. Absolutely.
JL: So as historians, do you think that it’s a fruitful avenue for continued research?
SW: As I was saying earlier, I think that the search for origins is self-reflective. It reflects who we are, and it also can reveal new things about ourselves. If you use the example of genealogy, people who are interested in genealogy—I’m talking about hobbyists and not professional historians, but ordinary people who might go to an archive or use the internet to track down their genealogy—They’re going to learn things through that quest that are going to reaffirm their sense of who they are, but they’re also going to learn things that are surprising. They may discover connections to other people that they didn’t know about. They may discover aspects of their ancestors and stories that shed new light on their ancestors. I believe that search origins is something that people should continue to pursue, because the search to understand who we are is an ongoing one. We’re still mysteries to ourselves, and the search for origins is one way to pursue that mystery.
JL: You mentioned genealogy, and it comes back to this question: Does it really matter who our ancestors are? I think one of the interesting questions about the search for origins is that it has this underlying assumption that our ancestors are a defining element of who we are.
SW: There is this idea that somehow we’ve inherited something from them that is part of us. There are a few examples of non-Jewish people who do genealogical research or genetic research, and discovered that they have some Jewish ancestor. That can transform the way they think about themselves. In some cases, those people will start to explore Jewish culture or even convert to Judaism as a result of discovering that they had a Jewish ancestor somewhere in their family tree. So, there is this idea that somehow those distant ancestors do shape who we are.
Now, the irony is if you go far, far enough back in time, we all share the same ancestors. We all come from a common set of ancestors who originated in Africa and migrated left Africa, you know, about a 150,000 years ago. So the farther back you go, the more entangled our stories are and the more connected we are to one another. But that’s one of the discoveries you can achieve through searching one’s origins, that we are connected to other people and that our stories are interwoven with those of other people.
JL: In that context, I want to ask, as we conclude: What does this history of the search for origins have to tell us about why history matters and about why Jewish history matters in particular?
SW: In some ways, it’s a book about the relationship between people and their history, about a relationship that is like any relationship, complicated. For me, the book helped me to appreciate my own complicated relationship with past. It helped me to understand that my relationship with past is not static, it’s constantly changing. I was interested in questions of Jewish origins when I was a teenager. I’m interested in questions of Jewish origin decades later, but my interest is different. My understanding of what an origin is different. My relationship in the past is different and it’s evolved and hopefully matured as I’ve hopefully matured. I think that people should not think of the past as a static thing that exists out there. They should think of the past as something that exists in relationship to the present, and try to embrace that relationship in all its richness and complexity.
And forgive me a moment of self promotion, but I should note that—and this is actually in some ways related—the book got a National Jewish Book Award, and it got it in the category of education and identity. I thought that was very interesting. It did not win in the category of history, but it was recognized as a contribution to identity and education. I thought that was a really interesting and telling reflection of the fact that origins are not really about history, they’re about who people are and they’re about identity. So I thought that was interesting.
JL: That is very interesting. The focus part of a history list in the publisher, right?
SW: Yes. And that’s how I thought about it. As you noted, I got the idea for doing it from trying to write a history of the Jews and trying to figure out where to begin the story. So I was surprised that it was in that category and I know the author of the book that won the previous year—completely different books, the kind of book you would expect to be in a category of Jewish identity. So for me that kind of reconfirm that we’re not so much talking about history, but about the present and how people see themselves.