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The Gifts of the Jews:
How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels

by thomas cahill
doubleday, 256 pages, $23.50

Thomas Cahill’s moving and intelligent book is largely not about its title, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. Cahill’s numerous profound points—most of which are in fact all about the ways in which the Jews “changed the way everyone thinks”—form only about 20 percent of the book, the rest being a loving recounting of major stories of the Hebrew Bible telling the history of the Jewish people and the development of their relationship with God—from Abraham to the prophets and the Hebrew Bible’s later writings. For anyone unfamiliar with the biblical stories narrated here—e.g., most graduates of an American university—The Gifts of the Jews is a terrific place to begin to learn about them.

Sadly, most readers, I suspect, will pass over or forget most of the more profound points, which are often mentioned in as few as two sentences. I have therefore decided to note all the ways I could find in which Cahill demonstrates the Jews’ effects on humanity. Unless a reader read with a pen and paper as I did, these points can easily be missed, and certainly easily forgotten.

First and foremost, the Jewish Bible changed history by literally creating history. Every religion in the world saw the world in cyclical terms, as a Great Wheel (see, for example, the flag of India). In describing the cyclical worldview, Cahill cites Henri-Charles Puech, author of Man and Time: “No event is unique, nothing is enacted but once . . . ; every event has been enacted, is enacted, and will be enacted perpetually; the same individuals have appeared, appear, and will appear at every turn of the circle.”

Judaism alone differed. According to the Jews’ way of viewing life, events actually move forward; they do not merely repeat themselves. In their rejection of this universal mode of thought, Cahill writes, “The Jews were the first people to break out of this circle . . . . It may be said with some justice that theirs is the only new idea that human beings had ever had.” The results of this utterly transformative way of understanding life? In Cahill’s words, “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 is right to emphasize this transformative Jewish contribution. If all is a circle, nothing we do matters, none of us matter, life does not matter. It will all happen again. What we do doesn’t matter—for our actions to matter, they must be able to influence the future. But the future cannot be influenced if everything happens over and over.

If, on the other hand, the Jewish view is adopted, everything matters—every act I engage in matters, and therefore I matter—so much so that each one of us changes history by everything we do. Cahill offers two excellent—and, to my knowledge, original—explanations of why the Bible’s genealogies, sections of the Bible that bore most of us, are of vast importance. One is that the listing of these individuals’ names—even the names of women—was the Hebrew Bible’s way of saying that every one of these persons was uniquely significant. No such listing of commoners’ names exists in pre-biblical literature. Cahill’s other explanation of the importance of the genealogical listings is that they are the Bible’s way of telling us that the Bible is history, not mythology—and in a very carefully worded paragraph, Cahill thereby differs with Joseph Campbell, for whom the Jews and their claims to historicity and utter rejection of mythology were an immense nuisance.

The second transformative Jewish contribution was its understanding of God. The Hebrew God, unlike every god before, “cannot be manipulated,” and this God “is a real personality who has intervened in real history, changing its course and robbing it of predictability.”

Third, when God defeated the demi-god Pharaoh, “In one fell swoop, this subversive narrative delegitimizes all political structures claiming god as their author—delegitimizes, in fact, all the political structures of the ancient world.” That is why the Ten Plagues were directed against Egyptian gods—blood, the first plague, for example, changed the Nile—god into blood, and the ninth, darkness, blotted out Ra, the sun-god, chief god of the Egyptians.

Fourth, the Jews gave the world the notion of human freedom—on two levels. The first and more obvious is the Torah’s rejection of slavery as a norm in the human condition—which is why black Americans took so much solace in the Hebrew Bible’s exodus narrative. The less obvious but no less important way was another result of the Bible’s complete rejection of the cyclical view of life: “We are not doomed, not bound to some predetermined fate; we are free. If anything can happen, we are truly liberated—as liberated as were the Israelite slaves when they crossed the Sea of Reeds.”

Fifth, through the Ten Commandments, “for the first time . . . human beings are offered a code without justification. Because this is God’s code no justification is required . . . . Who but God can speak ten words—‘Thou-shalt’ and Thou-shalt-not’—with such authority that no further words are needed?” Though Cahill does not elaborate—again, my one overriding problem with this beautiful book—the key point here, as I have always understood it, is that which is good is good because God says it is good; God does not say something is good because it is so already. God is the source of morality; morality does not exist without God. Moral sentiments—“I do not like killing”; “I feel that stealing is wrong”—may exist without God, but they are only sentiments.

Sixth, the Jews gave the world a day of rest. “No ancient society before the Jews had a day of rest.” As one who observes the Shabbat, I can attest to its life-changing effects. Cahill correctly notes that “Those who live without such septimanal punctuation are emptier and less resourceful.” And though he does not note it, Cahill’s point about the centrality of human freedom in the Jewish conception of life is also made evident in the Shabbat commandment. Those people who work seven days a week, even if they are paid millions of dollars to do so, are, in the biblical conception, slaves.

Seventh, Israel was “the first human society to so value education and the first to envision it as a universal pursuit.”

Eighth, the Hebrew Bible’s “bias toward the underdog is unique not only in ancient law but in the whole history of law.” “However faint our sense of justice may be, insofar as it operates at all it is still a Jewish sense of justice.”

Ninth, the Torah’s and Judaism’s credo, which ends with the words “God is one,” led to “the possibility of modern science.” “For life is not a series of discrete experiences, influenced by diverse forces. We do not live in a fragmented universe, controlled by fickle and warring gods.” The scientific search for a unifying theory of the universe is one of the effects of the Bible’s monotheistic revolution.

Tenth, the Jews invented the concept of the spiritual. “There is no way of exaggerating how strange a thought this was . . . . The word that falls so easily from our lips— spiritual—had no ready counterpart in the ancient world.”

Now, if Cahill is right about the Jews changing everything—“We can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes”—what are we to make of this? This thesis raises many more questions. Here are three:

Were the Jews, or at least some Jews, moral/spiritual/intellectual supermen or simply a vehicle for God’s intervention into human affairs?

What are the Jews supposed to do today?

Where do Christianity and Islam fit in the divine scheme?

As a believing Jew, the first is simple to answer. The Torah itself emphasizes the lack of any intrinsic specialness to Jews. For some unknown reason, God chose the Jews to be His “special treasure,” and therefore His emissary to humanity to communicate these brand new, world-transforming ideas to humanity.

According to Judaism, the Jews are God’s third attempt to have people treat each another decently. The first was conscience, the voice in all human beings telling them that some things are right and some wrong. This didn’t work. People acted rotten from the beginning. So God destroyed the world except for righteous Noah and his family and started all over relying on the revelation of seven basic moral laws (“The Seven Laws of the Sons of Noah”), and not solely on conscience. When that failed God revealed Himself and more laws to one people—the Jews. Perhaps an eternal people can teach people morality even better than the eternal God.

This may help answer the question about Christianity and Islam—at least in a way that one sympathetic Jew can answer it. Though Judaism regards God’s revelations to the Jewish prophets as God’s last revelations, even Jews—maybe especially Jews—could see that a thousand and more years later the world was not getting much more moral, that for whatever reasons the Jews were not having a universal moral impact. It is therefore quite understandable, even for a religious Jew, to understand why some Jews concluded that a fourth moral revelation was necessary. Believers in this fourth attempt to bring more love into the world became known as Christians. Some six hundred years later in Arabia, another part of the world influenced by the Jews, some non-Jews believed that a fifth divine revelation was necessary. They are known as Muslims. As a believing Jew, I regard these world religions as further confirmation of the power and authenticity of God’s gifts to the Jews.

As for what Jews should be doing now, the answer is simpler than its execution. Jews should be spreading ethical monotheism to the world’s peoples. Sadly, most do not. Most religious Jews live lives that are too insular to affect other Jews, let alone non-Jews, while most nonreligious Jews, if they identify with a mission to influence humanity, choose to do so through secular ideologies. To put it in a sentence, the Jews who most live Judaism don’t talk to the world, and the Jews who talk to the world don’t live Judaism. Both groups should read The Gifts of the Jews—as should non-Jews, especially those who believe that their religion has superseded Judaism.

I especially invite anti-Jewish Muslims and Christians to read Cahill’s one-sentence summary of anti-Semitism: “The hatred of Christians [and, one may add, Muslims or secular Nazis and Communists] for Jews may have its ultimate source in hatred of God, a hatred that the hater must carefully keep himself from knowing about.” I spent five years writing with Rabbi Joseph Telushkin an entire book (Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism, Simon & Schuster paperback) arguing this very point.

Now someone—preferably though not necessarily a non-Christian—needs to write “The Gifts of the Christians.” For these are very great and include something called the United States of America. America is largely a Christian gift, and unless most of us Americans understand this, and unless Christian influence endures, this gift will surely be taken away. European rejection of those gifts gave us Nazism and communism. Even a Jew knows that.

Dennis Prager is a writer, theologian, and daily talk show host on KABC Radio in Los Angeles. His most recent book is Happiness Is a Serious Problem (HarperCollins). He also writes a newsletter, The Prager Perspective.

Image by The Met via Wikimedia Commons licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.