The Gifts of the Jews
by Thomas Cahill
Published by Doubleday
256 pages, 1998
Buy it online
The Gifts of
"We can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish," Thomas Cahill declares in his new book, The Gifts of the Jews. The second tome in his Hinges of History, The Gifts of the Jews follows his enormously popular How the Irish Saved Civilization -- the story of how medieval Irish monks and scholars preserved classical knowledge after the fall of Rome.
In this new volume, Cahill's unwavering thesis is that the religion of the Hebrews -- a tiny, marginal desert tribe -- changed the worldview of Western civilization. According to Cahill, the West's most deeply held beliefs about life, human nature, God, and justice are all owed to the ancient Israelites.
Cahill begins his account before the Hebrews entered history, when humankind was glued to the old primordial way of believing. For early humans, life moved in cycles: the moon and the tides, the seasons and farming, and life itself. The never-changing pattern of birth, life, and death continued generation upon generation. In some sense, the idea of time as we understand it, did not exist. Development and evolution, Cahill writes, "words of such importance to us -- would have meant little in the timeless culture of Sumer, where everything that was -- their city, their fields, their herds, their plows -- had always been."
In this world of the "ever-turning Wheel," the countless gods and goddesses of the old mythologies played out their dramas in the world above. These gods were lustful, jealous, and greedy, and humans were of little import. Man had no freedom to choose a destiny, and no divinely inspired laws and ethics to guide him. To borrow the phrase from Hobbes' characterization of life in a state of nature, early man's mythical life was also "nasty, brutish, and short."
According to Cahill, the Hebrews "developed a whole new way of experiencing reality." He writes: "it may be said with some justice that theirs is the only new idea that human beings have ever had."
The Hebrew God was radically different from the families of gods ruling the pagan religions. Yahweh was "the only God that counts," not one of many who could be played off against each other. He was also "the opposite of the Sumerian gods with their patently human motivations" of greed and lust -- He had unknowable goals for the world.
The universe Yahweh created was also very different from the world imagined by the old religions. Time did not meander in an eternal circle, but had a beginning and end. Man was not fated to play an inconsequential role in the universe, but was a character in an unfolding story. Cahill writes that for the first time the "real" time and place was not the heavenly and archetypal but the here and now.
Cahill's overall argument is uncontroversial and accepted. It is generally acknowledged that monotheism and the Jewish concept of time were radical and original, as was Judaism's ethical system.
However, Cahill sometimes goes beyond the reasonable and slips into carelessness. In a central argument, Cahill avers that the "word which falls so easily from our lips -- spiritual -- had no ready counterpart in the ancient world." He writes that the Hebrew God wanted something new: "He wanted what was invisible. He wanted their hearts -- not the outside, but the inside."
Was Judaism the first religion to value an inner spiritual life? Of course not, as Cahill himself writes earlier in the book. Describing the primary pagan religious experience, he quotes the eminent mythologist Mircea Eliade:
The point... of all these analogies is first of all to unite man with the rhythms and energies of the cosmos, and then to unify the rhythms... fuse... the centers and finally effect a leap into the transcendent... [the] primal unity.
This experience of "unity" with the seen and unseen world is a goal of Buddhism, Sufism, mystical Christianity - and Jewish Kabbalism. Although different from faith per se, it is nevertheless a spiritual experience (In fact, the Kabbalists believed it to be the deepest kind of religious experience).
In the other major hyberolic argument, Cahill asserts that the Bible was the first work of literature to feature full dimensional characters, and therefore, the first religion where people, especially women, could flower into full individuals. Cahill writes that the later books of the Bible feature nuanced women characters, and he quotes the beautiful translation by Ariel and Chana Bloch of the Song of Songs, where a woman awaits her lover:
I was asleep but my heart stayed awake.
The verses are startling, and maybe unprecedented in ancient literature. A woman is the speaker, and her longing speaks to her humanity. But then Cahill writes:
Could any woman in history before these verses were written have asserted with credibility: "My beloved is mine and I am his"?...the Song of Songs, appearing in the Bible after the long recounting of Israel's labyrinthine relationship with God, suggests... that this God-human relationship has at last made possible a genuine human-human relationship.
It is hard to know what Cahill is suggesting: That in literature -- and life -- no woman in history had a full, loving relationship before this poem? Before Judaism?
Despite rhetorically getting carried away on occasion, Cahill's overall argument is well developed and well supported. Moreover, The Gifts of the Jews is a delight to read: it is awash with splendid storytelling and enthusiasm. Whether you are familiar with Biblical stories or not, the tales feel new and alive: they read like clear, fresh tasting water.
Cahill's sharp dichotomy between Judaism and primordial religions obscures a larger -- and older -- truth: however people express their relationship with the spiritual world, they nonetheless have a relationship with the spiritual. The Gifts of the Jews is a window to this world. | October 1998
DAVID GRAYSON is a freelance writer and poet living in San Francisco.