Books: 'The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels', by Thomas Cahillby Michael Daniel (reviewer)News Weekly
, January 27, 2001
THE GIFTS OF THE JEWS: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels
by Thomas Cahill
Available from News Weekly Books for $24.95 plus p&h
People of the BookThe Gifts of the Jews
explores the profound influence that the Hebrew Scriptures have had upon Western thought. In this highly informative and very readable work, that was a bestseller in the US when first released there in 1998, Thomas Cahill argues that the influence of Judaism goes beyond the impact it has had upon Christianity.
Treating his material in a chronological manner, Cahill begins The Gifts of the Jews
by describing the civilisation of Sumer, the civilisation that preceded the Hebrews.
Whilst there are some elements of Sumerian civilisation that are similar to those found in the Hebrew Scriptures, such as a flood narrative, the Sumerians conception of God was radically different. Firstly, they were polytheistic and secondly, religion for them was largely a matter of performing sacrifice and rituals to appease angry deities.
It was this civilisation that Abraham left, in the belief that God had called him to do so. This departure was to change profoundly the way people conceptualise reality.
With the call of Abraham, there is the beginning of the understanding that an interpersonal relationship exists between God and believers. The understanding of this relationship was to develop.
The Israelites were also gradually to learn that there was but one God. Indeed, much of the narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures describes a struggle for the soul of Israel. God is a "jealous God" who tolerates no rivals, yet the Israelites were constantly tempted to worship other gods, particularly those of neighbouring peoples.
It was only really during the Babylonian Captivity that the Jews can be said to have finally rejected the practice of worshipping both YHWH and other gods.
The writing of their story is also in marked contrast to that of other ancient Near Eastern cultures.
Cahill makes the point throughout The Gifts of the Jews that while much of the Hebrew Scriptures is derived from oral tradition, the Hebrews' understanding of their identity is inherently based upon events that were not mere myths, but did in fact take place in history, events such as the call of Abraham and the Exodus from Egypt.
By contrast, Sumerian tracts such as the Epic of Gilgamesh are myth, rather than a record of historical events. By keeping alive the memory of events that occurred in history, Cahill argues that the Jews rather than the Greeks were the first people to write history.
An understanding of one's past is a necessary adjunct to progress. Cahill also argues that the Israelites were the first people to conceive of the events of history as a linear progression rather than as a cycle that is repeated.
Perhaps one of the most significant contributions from Judaism is the Law of Moses, particularly the Ten Commandments.
Many of the laws contained therein, such as prohibitions on murder and theft are part of our legal system. Observance of the Law is based upon the covenant relationship between God and his people.
Furthermore, unlike ancient Sumer, one's destiny is not determined by the stars. An individual has the ability to choose to obey the Law or disobey the Law. Obedience to the Law is thus a path to true freedom. For those who obey, there will be blessings, but those who disobey must suffer the consequences.
Another important value the Law underscores is that all human beings have some worth. We are quick to cry foul when we believe the course of justice has been perverted. This cry is heard in the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly in the writings of Amos and Hosea.
The concept of being in relationship with God and of choosing to obey the Law gives rise to an understanding of one's self identity. Many of the Psalms contain profound meditations upon the self-understanding of their author(s). Cahill argues that "a sense of the self is notably absent in all ancient literatures" (p. 198) and is largely absent, with a few exceptions such as some of Sappho's poetry and St Augustine's Confessions until the humanist autobiographies of the early modern period.
"The Jews gave us the Outside and the Inside - our outlook and our inner life. We can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact - new, adventure, surprise; unique, individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice - are gifts of the Jews." (p. 241)
This monumental debt civilisation owes to the Jews further underscores the pernicious nature of anti-Semitism.