Jason's Reviews > The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels

The Gifts of the Jews by Thomas Cahill
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Jun 26, 2011

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bookshelves: history, judaism, religion, primal-religions, mythology, philosophy
Read from June 26 to July 10, 2011

In this, the second volume in his "Hinges of History" series, Thomas Cahill explicates the Torah and finds within it the first inklings of Western ideals (now taken for granted as simply "the way things are").

"Most of our best words, in fact--new, adventure, surprise; unique, individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice--are the gifts of the Jews," Cahill concludes on p. 241.

The "gifts of the Jews" that Cahill discusses are limited almost exclusively to that form of Judaism which scholar Jacob Neusner calls "Biblical Judaism," the form of Judaism recorded in the Hebrew Bible and transmitted to humanity by way of Christianity, via its "Old Testament," in contrast to the "Rabbinical Judaism" of the Mishna and Talmuds:
The link between the mainstream traditions of the Western world and the traditions of the Jews shows itself at its weakest when we consider the many prescriptions in the Torah that will come to serve as the basis for halakha, the body of Jewish prescriptive law that is meant to govern every aspect of life and that has grown to enormous proportions from the late classical period to the present. (153)

It might go without saying that monotheism is a gift of the Jews (whatever minimal impact Akhenaten might have had not withstanding). What this means, though, is lost on those of us for whom monotheism, (or a unified worldview, at the least) is the status quo. Regarding the horrific scene from Genesis of child sacrifice averted, Cahill asks the core questions that have confronted all subsequent monotheists:
Can we open ourselves to the God who cannot be understood, who is beyond all our amulets and schemings, the God who rains on picnics, the God who allows human beings to be inhuman, who has sentenced us all to death? All the other gods are figments, sorry projections of human desires. Only this God is worth my life... For "there is no other." (86)

Monotheism, for Cahill, means not just the notion of one God, but an understanding of God, and of the universe, that is profoundly different from the pagan view of the gods as larger-than-life-human beings:
The religious center is no longer what it had been for the Sumerians and all other ancient cultures--impersonal manipulation by means of ritual prescriptions--but a face-to-face friendship with God. The new religion has been given shape through three generations of nomadic men and women who have ceased to bow down before idols or kings or any earthly image. They have learned, with many fits and starts, to depend on God--and no one else--this inscrutable, terrifying wilderness God. (90)

Of course, I would hardly describe what (almost) happens to Yitzhak (Isaac) as an ideal expression of "friendship with God" but as Cahill reminds the reader time and again, that is because I am approaching these gifts (including monotheism) as their long-time beneficiary and heir, forgetting how raw and radical this situation must have been at its inception.

Monotheism isn't simply about having one God in distinction to having many, according to Cahill, but also opens up new possibilities, new understandings of humanity's place in the cosmos and in history, indeed the experience of "newness" itself:
This God is the initiator: he encounters them, they do not encounter him. He begins the dialogue, and he will see it through. This God is profoundly different from them, not their projection or their pet, not the usual mythological creature whose intentions can be read in auguries or who can be controlled by human rituals. This God gives and takes beyond human reasoning or justification. Because his motives are not interpretable and his thoughts and actions are not forseeable, anything--and everything--is possible....Because all is possible, faith is possible, even necessary. (93-4)

Along with monotheism, and the idea of a personal relationship between individual human beings and their transcendent Creator, the Jews bequeath the gift of history and of a historical consciousness:
There are real differences--literary differences, differences of tone and taste, but, far more important, differences of substance and approach to material--between Gilgamesh and Exodus, and even between Gilgamesh and Genesis. The anonymous authors of Gilgamesh tell their story in the manner of a myth. There is no attempt to convince us that anything in the story ever took place in historical time.... The text of the Bible is full of clues that the authors are attempting to write history of some sort....there is in these tales a kind of specificity--a concreteness of detail, a concern to get things right--that convinces us that the writer has no doubt that each of the main events he chronicles happened....

We are looking here at one of the great turning points in the history of human sensibility--at an enormous value shift. What was real for the Sumerians (and for all other peoples but the Jews) was the Eternal. What was to become gradually real for the Jews and remains real for us is the here and now and the there and then.(126-8)

A new sense of history means a new sense of possibility, the unknowable, and of moral responsibility for the future:
For the Jews, history will be no less replete with moral lessons [than myth was for the ancients]. But the moral is not that history repeats itself but that it is always something new: a process unfolding throigh time, whose direction and end we cannot know, except insofar as God gives us some hint of what is to come.... We do not control the future; in a profound sense, even God does not control the future because it is the collective responsibility of those who are bringing about the future by their actions in the present (130-1)

The Jews gave us the first hint of the weekend, of a time without work, with its implicit valuation of freedom, education, creativity, and self-betterment:
No ancient society before the Jews had a day of rest. The God who made the universe and rested bids us to do the same, calling us to a weekly restoration of prayer, study, and recreation (or re-creation).... The connection to both freedom and creativity lie just below the surface of this commandment: leisure is appropriate to a free people, and this people so recently free find themselves quickly establishing this quiet weekly celebration of their freedom; leisure is the necessary ground of creativity, and a free people are free to imitate the creativity of God. The Sabbath is surely one of the simplest and sanest recommendations any god has ever made... (144)

Cahill sees in the stodgy old Ten Commandments ("a simple, incontestable thing to say that [they sound] banal. But for all our resourcefulness we have never yet managed to do [what is commanded]") a surprising freedom, much in the same way that students of Zen Buddhism discuss the freedom provided by the seemingly austere forms:
[T]his gift of the Commandments allows us to live in the present, in the here and now.... in this moment--and only in this moment--I am in control. This is the moment of choice, the moment when I decide whether I will plunge in the knife or not, take the treasure or not, begin to spin the liar's web or not. This is the moment when the past can be transformed and the future lit with radiance. And such a realization need bring neither regret nor anxiety but, if I keep the Commandments, true peace. But not the peace of death, not the peace of coming to terms with the Wheel. For in choosing what is right I am never more alive. (146)

Finally, the Jews gave us prophecy and with it the earliest notions of social justice and compassion:
[T]o serve God means to act with justice. One cannot pray and offer sacrifice while ignoring the poor, the beggars at the gates. But more radical still: if you have more than you need, you are a thief, for what you "own" is stolen from those who do not have enough. You are a murderer, who lives on the abundance that has been taken from the mouths of the starving. You are an idolator, for what you worship is not the true God. You are a whore, for you have bedded down with other gods, the gods of your own comfort and self-delusion... (214)

[T]he true prophet is the one who sees the future implicit in the present; and his authenticity is confirmed when his prophecy comes true. (226)

God wanted something other than blood and smoke, buildings and citadels. He wanted justice, mercy, humility. He wanted what was invisible. He wanted their hearts--not the outside, but the inside.

There is no way of exaggerating how strange a thought this was.... There was in every human being an "inside," which the Jews had never steadily adverted to before. Could God possibly mean that each of them was to be a king, a prophet, a priest in his own right?... Those who first thought these thoughts must have felt that a great thunderclap had shaken them to their roots. They could now look back over the whole of their history... and see that God had been leading them all along, from one insight to another, and telling them a story, "something new on earth," the story of themselves. (226-8)

This book, like its predecessor How the Irish Saved Civilization is an engaging read that brings some scholarly insights to a popular audience, but this work lacks the sparkling wit that made the former volume at times laugh out loud funny. (That is possibly because the Irish commentators were more ribald and carefree than the Hebrew chroniclers of the Tanakh, and so Cahill less funny--if more profound--material with which to work this time around.)


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Reading Progress

06/30/2011 page 96
07/01/2011 page 131
43.0% "Thus far, some of the things that the early Hebrews contributed to the Western world were: a sense of God with whom humanity is called into relationship; an emphasis on the value of the individual and of history, instead of the mythical archetype and sacred time; a simple yet absolute codification of basic moral conduct; and the peace, relaxation, freedom, and creativity of the Sabbath (weekend)."

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