Jeremy Shere: Welcome to Adventures in Jewish Studies, the podcast of the Association for Jewish Studies. In every episode, we take you on an entertaining and intellectual journey about Jewish life, history, and culture, with the help of some of the world's leading Jewish Studies scholars. I'm your host, Jeremy Shere.
April 8th, 2001. In the main sanctuary of Sinai Temple, the oldest and largest conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, a packed congregation stood as the Torah, the sacred scroll containing the five books of Moses, was returned to the ark. It was the first day of Passover, the week-long holiday when Jews around the world commemorate and celebrate the biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt.
As the congregation took their seats, they murmured expectedly as Rabbi David Wolpe, Sinai Temple’s longtime senior rabbi, and one of the most well-known and respected rabbis in America, prepared to deliver his sermon. But his congregants were hardly prepared for what he said.
David Wolpe: I said that according to virtually all modern researchers, archaeologists, and biblical historians, if the Exodus occurred, it did not occur the way that the Bible said it did.
Jeremy Shere: This, of course, is Rabbi David Wolpe—and as he recalls, his congregants didn't quite know what to think.
David Wolpe: Many people were reassured by it. Some people were thrilled by the introduction of biblical criticism and modern scholarship, and many people were either outraged or angered by it.
Jeremy Shere: They weren't the only ones. As the news spread and made headlines around the world, some rabbis condemned Wolpe's sermon, accusing him of choosing Aristotle over Maimonides, to quote one irate Orthodox rabbi.
Rabbi Wolpe's larger point, as he later explained, was that even though the Exodus may not be factually true, the spiritual and moral lessons it teaches are true. But even for many Jews who don't necessarily believe that every part of the Bible is historically accurate, when it came to the story of the Exodus—well, for many, that was different. Somehow it mattered and continues to matter to many Jews, because the story of the Exodus is a story of Jewish origins.
Steve Weitzman: So for a lot of us, our sense of who we are, our sense of identity, our sense of how we fit into the world is tied to our sense of where we come from.
Jeremy Shere: This is Steve Weitzman, a professor of Hebrew and Semitic languages and literatures at the University of Pennsylvania. You'll be hearing a lot from him throughout this episode.
Steve Weitzman: There is a very close connection between people's sense of who they are and who they think their ancestors are or what part of the world they're from. That's especially so for Jews. The Jewish people is a people that is defined in part by a sense of common origin, coming from a common set of ancestors. It's so important to us that we don't think about it a lot, but if somebody comes along and challenges the story that you've told yourself about where your ancestors come from, it can be very confusing and very upsetting.
Jeremy Shere: Nevertheless, Rabbi Wolpe is right. Outside of the biblical account, there's no evidence to support not only the Exodus, but really most parts of the story the Bible tells about where and how the story of the Jewish people begins. And if we can't necessarily take the Bible at face value, well then, where does the story of the Jews begin, according to the evidence we do have? That's what this episode is about. And our first order of business is to recognize that a big part of what makes the story of the origin of the Jews so intriguing is the slippery, difficult nature of the very concept of origin.
Cynthia Baker: I find the concept of origin in the singular a rather uncompelling and somewhat misleading way of describing how the real world works.
Jeremy Shere: This is Cynthia Baker, a professor of religious studies at Bates College. You'll be hearing a lot from her, too.
Cynthia Baker: I much prefer the plural, "origins." If I were only to wonder about the source or the origin of any natural or cultural phenomenon, then, it seems to me, I've already misunderstood how things work, and I've sort of put up limits or blinders on my ability to even see that pretty much everything arises from confluences of many sources, or many, what we would call, many origins.
Jeremy Shere: To complicate things even further, it's not really clear what the term "origin" or "origins" even means.
Steve Weitzman: For some people, an origin is just a point in time, or a place in the world. It's a starting place in the world. And for them to understand the origin of the Jews is just to figure out when it all begins or what part of the world did Jews have their origin in. But for other people, an origin is a process like evolution or development, and it's not a point in time, it's something that unfolds over a long period of time.
Jeremy Shere: And to add yet another layer of complexity, there's a difference between the origin of the Jews and the origin of the ancient Hebrews, or Israelites. As we'll see, they're not the same. So the point is, it can be kind of hard and frustrating and confusing to even know where to begin searching for the beginning. But that hasn't stopped scholars of the past few centuries from trying.
For centuries, theologians had read the Hebrew Bible as the literal word of God, handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai. The story it told of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and the 12 tribes of Israel and the Exodus from Egypt was a defined history of God's chosen people. But by the seventeenth century, some scholars, most famously the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, were beginning to look at the Bible in a new, more skeptical light, and to question how, and by whom, the Bible had been written .
By the eighteenth century, this radical approach to biblical criticism had taken root among scholars inspired by the Enlightenment and its emphasis on reason and critical thinking. Increasingly, scholars no longer assumed that Moses received the Bible from the hand of God. Instead, they began to think about the Bible as an historical document chronicling the rise in development of the ancient Hebrews.
Ofri Ilany: The eighteenth century was also a period of search for origins, an attempt to situate the Israelite history within historical schemes.
Jeremy Shere: This is Ofri Ilany, an Israeli scholar and a research fellow at the Polonsky Academy at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute in Israel. He says that this approach was especially attractive to Johann Gottfried Herder, a German philosopher, theologian, and literary critic who was an early pioneer of German nationalism and national ideology. And to that end, he approached the Bible as a sort of political prototype for the German people.
Ofri Ilany: He sought actually to rehabilitate Hebrew historical myths as a source of inspiration. And also as an alternative to classical antiquity, which was identified with the French Enlightenment and Republican ideas. So the Hebrews were used as some kind of an alternative to the Greeks, as an alternative political and cultural myth.
Jeremy Shere: As much as Herder admired the ancient Hebrews as a model for the national development of the German folk, he had little love for the Jews of his day. Herder wasn't exactly an anti-Semite, Ilany says ...
Ofri Ilany: But he definitely makes a distinction between the noble, archaic Hebrews and the contemporary Jews, who are actually Talmudists, and much, much less noble and authentic.
Jeremy Shere: This distinction matters, because it carries forward into the second half of the nineteenth century, to 1883, when Julius Wellhausen, a German scholar renowned as an authority on Islam and Herder's successor as a leading scholar of biblical criticism, put the finishing touches on his book, Prolegomena to the History of Israel, an astonishing exploration of the composition of the Bible that set forth what's come to be known as the documentary hypothesis.
Cynthia Baker: So the documentary hypothesis, in its simplest form, derives from the recognition that there are these contending versions of stories and layers of composition and editing that are quite discernible in the Torah and in other biblical books as they've come down to us.
Jeremy Shere: In other words, Wellhausen argued that not only was the Bible not the literal word of God given to Moses, but instead the work of man—the Bible was also not a coherent linear history of the Hebrews. Instead, it was a sort of patchwork, with myths and writings by different authors, who added layers to and evolved the text over the centuries.
Now, it's not a coincidence that Wellhausen's seminal work was published only a few decades after Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species in 1859. Like Darwin's description of the evolution of living things, Wellhausen understood the composition of the Bible in evolutionary terms. And also like Darwin, who wasn't particularly interested in the actual origin of life, Wellhausen was not really concerned with the original origin of the Israelites. Discovering the truth behind the stories of Abraham and the dawning of Israelite religion was beyond his or any scholar's reach, but Wellhausen did develop a theory about the evolution, or more accurately, the devolution, from the ancient Israelite religion to Judaism.
Steve Weitzman: The Babylonian exile, which is this conquest of the land of Canaan by the Babylonian empire that was based in what is now Iraq. One of the effects of that conquest, according to Wellhausen, was that it ripped the Jews out of the land in which they lived and it sent them into exile, and thereby separated them from the natural environment in which they lived.
And as a result of that separation, as a result of that being alienated from nature, he thinks Israelite culture started to go downhill, to become kind of fossilized, to get stuck, frozen in place. And for him, Judaism develops out of that as a kind of fossilized version of Israelite religion. So it loses the spontaneity and it loses the natural character of the religion of the Hebrew Bible. It becomes very petrified.
Jeremy Shere: Wellhausen's documentary hypothesis was hugely influential. Still today, it forms the backbone of how modern scholars understand how the Bible was put together. But Wellhausen's thinking about the devolution from Israelite to Jew hasn't aged as well. Not only is this portrayal of Judaism, at least in part, the product of the pervasive antisemitism of Wellhausen’s time; scholars today no longer buy Wellhausen's evolutionary model for thinking about the origins and evolution of people and culture.
Steve Weitzman: They don't buy especially evolutionary stories that move in a straight line from an inferior state to a superior state. They don't buy into the association of evolution with progress or the association of evolution with decline, because those are stories that moved from a beginning to a middle and an end in a straight line. And scholars tend to think of things as a little bit more complicated. So I think I'm in that camp. And I don't see Judaism as evolving in a straight line according to the kind of sequence that Wellhausen described.
Jeremy Shere: The story of Julius Wellhausen and the documentary hypothesis shows us that if we're going to get closer to the place where the story of the ancient Israelites begins, we're going to have to look beyond the Bible. And in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, archaeologists, philologists, and other scholars began doing just that, by excavating the ruins of ancient cities in and around the Middle East and deciphering ancient languages.
One of the most brilliant and creative of these scholars was the German archaeologist Hugo Winckler. Like most archaeologists of his era, Winckler was fascinated by a trove of clay tablets, discovered by Egyptian peasants at El Amarna, the site of the ancient Egyptian capital of Akhenaten, in the fourteenth century BCE. Written in the Mesopotamian language of Akkadian, the tablets recorded communications between the Pharaoh and the Kings of Jerusalem and other cities in Canaan, which was then under Egyptian rule. Poring over the tablets, Winckler was struck by a particular word, Habiru. And then he had a flash of insight: Habiru might be a clue, even the clue to the origin of the ancient Israelites.
Steve Weitzman: What for him clinched the connection to the Israelites was a similarity between the word Habiru and the word Hebrew, and basically he argued that Hebrew is the word Habiru. The vowels are a little different, but the consonants are very similar, and that therefore one can understand the origin of the Israelites or the Hebrews as basically coming out of this earlier social class of Habiru.
Jeremy Shere: So who were the Habiru? Well, the term appears in many sources from the period, and it refers to a class of people who lived on the margins of Canaanite society. Imagine for a moment that you were a Canaanite city-dweller, accustomed to the civilized ways of the urban class. From your perspective, the Habiru might've been people to fear.
Steve Weitzman: People who were outside of the control of the authorities, who were perhaps a little desperate. That's the social class, according to this theory, from which perhaps the Hebrews originated. And if you think about how the Bible describes Abraham, for example, in the Book of Genesis, he's not a person who lives in cities. He's kind of a nomad. He lives in the countryside. He lives in tents. He moves from one place to the other. So his lifestyle is very similar to these Habiru, who kind of lived outside of the urban centers of Canaan. And that, too, has fed this theory that maybe the earliest Hebrews, or the earliest Israelites, originated out of the underclass of ancient Canaanite society.
Jeremy Shere: So did the ancient Hebrews begin as Habiru? Well, in many ways the evidence is compelling. As scholars like Winckler began to realize, ancient Hebrew is a Canaanite dialect, and Israelite rituals and literary tropes in the Bible are similar to Canaanite rituals and writings. And so are Israelite pottery and the kinds of houses they lived in.
But as we've already noted in the case of Julius Wellhausen, it was all too common for late nineteenth and early twentieth century theories about the origins of the Jews to be influenced and tainted by antisemitic attitudes towards the Jews living then. The Habiru theory is no exception, because it seemed to confirm a stereotype about Jews...
Steve Weitzman: ...which was the idea that the Jews, first of all, they don't settle down in one place. And second of all, that there's something greedy or rapacious about Jews. These were antisemitic representations of the Jews that were widely embraced by people, and the discovery that maybe the Jews originated from some nomadic underclass of plunderers, which is what German scholars were saying about the Habiru, that seemed to confirm the stereotype of the Jews.
Jeremy Shere: So partly due to this antisemitic baggage, scholars today aren't quite as ready to fully embrace the Habiru theory as a valid explanation for where the story of the Hebrews begins. And they're not quite as willing to construct an entire history of who the Habiru were in Canaan, based on this one connection between Habiru and Hebrew. But the connection is still fascinating and compelling. And the idea that the Hebrews emerged out of Canaanite society is further supported by evidence that we'll look at in the next part of our story.
In 1990, Israeli archaeologists Zvi Lederman and Shlomo Bunimovitz began excavations at Tel Beit Shemesh, an ancient site about 20 miles west of Jerusalem. They'd chosen the site because they were interested in ancient Israelite ethnogenesis, the process by which ethnic groups come into being.
Historically, one of the most common ways that ethnic groups form is when people feel compelled to define themselves in contrast to a neighboring group, by creating or emphasizing rituals and customs that distinguish them. Beit Shemesh was intriguing because of its location in what in biblical times had been the borderland between the Canaanites and the Philistines.
Excavating a site where the native Canaanites likely came into contact with Philistines, Lederman and Bunimovitz reasoned, might turn up evidence of ancient Israelite ethnogenesis. And so they began to dig, and after more than a decade of careful excavation, what they found, or more accurately what they didn't find, in Beit Shemesh was tantalizing. Just a few miles away, at sites where Philistines had once lived, archaeologists had uncovered animal remains left over from long-ago Philistine meals.
Steve Weitzman: And we could see from those animal remains that they loved to eat pork. That was one of their favorite dishes, and this is, you know, something they probably took with them from the Greek world, to eat pork. They brought pigs with them, and that was at the center of their diet.
Jeremy Shere: But at Beit Shemesh, which again is only two or three miles away, there were no pig bones. None. So whoever lived there apparently never ate pork. And so a theory began to take shape: When the Philistines arrived in Canaan by sea and settled on the coastal plain, the native Canaanites kept a curious but wary eye on their new neighbors. Over time, trade relations developed, and the two peoples began to mix— except that some Canaanites resisted this intermingling and sought to create sharp boundaries between their customs and those of the Philistines. And so they deliberately avoided the eating of pork and maybe even established prohibitions against it.
Beth Alpert Nakhai: So this certainly talks to us about a dietary distinction, different communities of people eating different ways.
Jeremy Shere: This is Beth Nakhai, an archaeologist at the University of Arizona.
Beth Alpert Nakhai: Everybody had the capacity to raise pigs. It wasn't a matter of livestock herding issues. It was a matter of choice, what people ate. And so the fact that the Bible, later biblical texts, priestly Levitical texts, prohibit the consumption of pigs for the people of Israel, and the fact that pig bones aren’t found there and so many are found in Philistine sites, has led many scholars to see that as one way that Israel became Israel, by creating a dietary difference between itself and its Philistine neighbors.
Jeremy Shere: But isn't it possible that it simply didn't occur to the Canaanites to eat pork or that they had some other reason for it? Maybe it's just a coincidence. But Nakhai says that's not likely.
Beth Alpert Nakhai: Most of these people were living hand to mouth. These villages were not wealthy. Those hills were hard to get under control agriculturally—the fields between them, the valleys between them as well. And so if people are giving up something that they could be eating, it certainly seems like a definitive choice and not a random coincidence.
Jeremy Shere: So is this yet more evidence than instead of invading and conquering the land of Canaan, as the Bible tells the story, the Israelites emerged from within a Canaanite culture. It's certainly intriguing, but not definitive. If not eating pork was a way for the Canaanites to distinguish themselves from the Philistines, does this also explain how the early Israelites became a distinct ethnic group? Not necessarily.
And also, if Israelites developed within the land of Canaan, then why did the story of the Exodus, of being fugitive slaves in Egypt, become so important to the Israelites' understanding of where they come from? We still don't have a great answer to that question, but that certainly doesn't negate the value of what Lederman and Bunimovitz and other biblical archaeologists have found, as pieces of the puzzle of the origin of the Jews. And as we'll see in the next part of our story, scientists are discovering new pieces that are just as intriguing.
Harry Ostrer's interest in genetics began early, when he was a Jewish kid growing up in the 1950s and early ’60s in suburban Boston. He was fascinated by patterns of genetic inheritance and by what the emerging science of DNA analysis could tell him, not only about the world around him, but about himself. What did it mean to be Jewish in genetic terms? How closely related were Jews from around the world, genetically speaking? Several years later, while studying genetic medicine at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, Ostrer realized that studying the DNA of Jews from various communities around the Jewish diaspora could shed new light on the question of where Jews come from.
Harry Ostrer: Genetics gives us a whole new way of looking at Jewish origins and ancestry in a way that it hasn't really been looked at in the past. Typically, people have tended to think of Jews as co-religionists in the same way that Americans, for instance, tend to think of Southern Baptists as co-religionists, but genetics provides a way of looking at Jews as a people and, in truth, as a set of interrelated diaspora groups.
Jeremy Shere: Now, in case you're not familiar with genetic science, here's a quick primer: The cells of every living thing contain genes, which come in pairs inherited from the mother and father and are made of strands of the molecule DNA. This genetic material functions as a sort of blueprint for the body, determining size, shape, hair and eye color, and so on. And thanks to some pretty amazing technological advances over the past few decades, scientists have created complete genetic maps for many organisms, including humans, and can use these maps to explore genetic similarities and discrepancies within populations and between different populations. And they can use the maps to trace ancestry back into the genetic past.
So mapping the human genome has given us a powerful new tool to explore human origins, and no group has been studied more than the Jews. One of the most famous studies put to the test the biblical tradition that kohens, or Jews of a priestly caste, descend from a common ancestor—according to the Bible, Moses' brother, Aaron, the first kohen.
Steve Weitzman: And so the study was undertaken in the 1990s, and it found that indeed, a good number of self-identified kohanim do share a common male ancestor in their past.
Jeremy Shere: And this included both Ashkenazi Jews, whose ancestry traces back to Europe, and Sephardic Jews, whose ancestry goes back to the middle East and North Africa. This doesn't mean that they descend from the biblical Aaron, but it does suggest a common ancestry going back thousands of years.
Ostrer has found something very similar in his work over the past few decades studying the genetic makeup of Jewish populations around the world. In 2007, he started the Jewish HapMap Project, to study the origins and migrations of the Jewish people.
Harry Ostrer: And we set up a targeted collection program for doing studies on seventeen different Jewish diaspora groups that ranged from Ashkenazi Jews to Sephardic Jews, North African Jews, Middle Eastern Jews, Indian Jews, Ethiopian Jews, and so forth.
Jeremy Shere: The HapMap project has revealed many fascinating insights. For one thing, each Jewish diaspora group has its own distinct genetic markers and degree of relatedness among its members. For example...
Harry Ostrer: For Libyan Jews, the degree of relatedness is what one would observe for first cousins once removed. That occurs because over their history, Libyan Jews were very consanguineous—they tended to marry their relatives.
Jeremy Shere: Eastern and Central European Jews, meanwhile, haven't married within their families quite as much, and so the degree of relatedness is closer to that of fourth or fifth cousins. The larger point is that Jewish populations around the world have enough common genetic material within their groups to distinguish them from European, Middle Eastern, and North African national populations.
Furthermore, Ostrer says, Jewish populations from these regions are clearly genetically related to each other. According to HapMap study data, the divergence of European Jews from Middle Eastern Jews occurred more than 2000 years ago, in biblical times.
Harry Ostrer: I think that the weight of the genetic research and evidence suggests that Jews are an historically continuous people who were formed during classical antiquity, and that one can develop enhanced insights into Jewish history from knowledge of Jewish population genetics.
Jeremy Shere: Now, note that Ostrer is talking about the formation of the Jews in ancient antiquity, so where DNA evidence is concerned, we're not talking about the ancient Israelites. That's because DNA analysis can't trace lines of Jewish descent back that far. For that, geneticists would need DNA material from the remains of ancient Hebrews. And at some point in the not too distant future, scientists may have that material and have the ability to trace Jewish ancestry way back to biblical, and maybe even pre -biblical, time. But we're not there yet.
And second, anytime you're dealing with things like genes and DNA and lines of descent, it's all too easy to start thinking in binary terms, about who is and who's not a Jew, as though our genes can somehow get to the very bottom of things.
But they can't. As Ostrer and other geneticists who've studied Jewish ancestry are at pains to make clear, there's no such thing as a Jewish gene that distinguishes Jews from non-Jews. In fact, as Cynthia Baker notes, the genetic evidence clearly shows that wherever Jews have lived, they've intermarried with local populations, establishing new genetic threads in the Jewish tapestry.
Cynthia Baker: For example, among Ashkenazi Jews, at least 50 percent or more of Y chromosomal haplogroups—that means paternal ancestral lines—and a whopping 81 percent of mitochondrial DNA—meaning maternal ancestral lines—demonstrate what geneticists have called "deep European ancestry.” There's some smaller percentage of Middle Eastern ancestry, but 81 percent of maternal ancestral lines of Ashkenazim have deep European ancestry.
Jeremy Shere: The same goes for Jews from North Africa and the Mediterranean. While each group has genetic roots in the Middle East, they also have deep and significant roots in the places where they came to settle. The genetic evidence especially, Baker says, makes possible new and richer ways of thinking about Jewish origins.
Cynthia Baker: And the fact that these Jewish matrilines appear to have such deep roots in so many places suggests that, if we're just looking for the evidence that lets us fill in these patrilineal "begats"—Abraham begat Isaac begot Jacob begot the twelve tribes—in which the mothers rarely figure at all, or certainly after those patriarchal stories, we virtually never hear about the mothers. One of the exciting things about genetic research is that it helps us to realize that for many of our Jewish ancestors, Europe and most of the Mediterranean and North Africa and elsewhere were not places of diaspora from some singular homeland, but were actually also deep ancestral homelands. So that we're invited to rethink and enrich our narratives of Jewish origins, plural.
Jeremy Shere: If by the end of this episode, you were hoping to get a definitive answer to the question of where the story of the Jews begins, I hope you're not disappointed. My guess is that along the way, as we've learned about how scholars have explored the Bible and the Habiru and archaeological discoveries and DNA, that together we've come to understand that the origin is beyond our reach—that in fact, there's most likely no one moment or period or place to which the many and varied people who today call themselves Jews can trace their beginning.
But that doesn't mean that the search for origins has been in vain. Because as long as we're willing to embrace Jewish origins in all their diversity and mystery, Cynthia Baker says, the search is well worth it.
Cynthia Baker: With all our particularity and differences, with all our specificities and sense of this is what makes Jews Jews, with all of that, if we can actually embrace and honor the variety and the diversity of origins from which Jews actually come, then yes, the search for origins is absolutely worthwhile.
Jeremy Shere: That's it for this episode. Warren Hoffman is executive producer of Adventures in Jewish Studies. The Association for Jewish Studies is the world's largest Jewish Studies membership organization, featuring an annual conference, publications, fellowships, and much more for our members, as well as public programming.
Visit associationforjewishstudies.org for more information about what we do, to learn about joining if you're a Jewish studies scholar, or to find out how to bring a Jewish Studies scholar to your community. Until next time, I'm Jeremy Shere. Thanks for listening.
Beth Alpert Nakhai
Jeremy Shere, PhD
Executive Producer: Warren Hoffman, PhD
Producers: Avishay Artsy and Erin Phillips