In Praise of Humility
by Steven Weitzman
Princeton University Press, 408 pp., $35
In his biography for the Yale Jewish Lives series, Solomon: The Lure of Wisdom, Steven Weitzman observes that ultimate knowledge is ultimately perilous. Jewish tradition credits King Solomon as the author of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Over the ages, scores of other books were attributed to him, such as The Key of Solomon, a magical treatise from the Renaissance. In such works, Solomon unlocked arcane secrets of the universe. Some of those books were banned; even the three biblical books were considered suspect by various rabbis. For all his knowledge, he ended badly: too many wives; idolatry run amok; his kingdom in shambles, fatally divided after his death.
This morality play may offer a skeleton key to Weitzman’s subtle, eclectic, and unusual new book, The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age. He does not set out to discover the origin of the Jews, but to write an intellectual history of the inevitably imperfect attempts—linguistic, genetic, archeological—to decipher the enigma. This method enables him to be fair and balanced to a fault, taking a wide variety of thinkers and scholars seriously, and to task.
Intellectually, Weitzman is wary of origins. He acknowledges the influence of Foucault, Derrida, and other postmodernists critical of the very nature of roots as homogenous and hegemonic. He worries that certitude of one’s origins may be a recipe for exceptionalism. On the other hand, it’s only natural to be curious. Weitzman cannot resist the visceral Jewish temptation to hunt for yichus—the prestige of lineage, of antiquity. He declares his ambivalence at the outset: “I am not proposing to revive the search for origin; neither am I giving it up.”