2007-04-01: The Gifts of the Jews

The Gifts of the Jews

How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (1998)

by Thomas Cahill (1940-)

This is the second volume in a series based on the success of Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization; the series is aptly called The Hinges of History. The notion appeals to me, as I’m much more interested in the history of ideas than in battles or personalities.

In this book, Cahill traces the evolution of the worldview that sets the Jews apart from all other people of their time and place. He opens with a description of the Sumerians, and accepts the hypothesis that they were typical of their time, with a cyclic view of time (“the wheel of time”), in which everything that happened had happened before and would happen again, and was an expression of the changeless natures of the gods and goddesses who ruled the various aspects of the world and people.

Out of this worldview (if not literally out of Sumer), came the semitic trader Avram (Cahill uses a translation by Fox, with names spelled as closely as possibly to the original), to become Avraham, following a voice that directed him to Canaan. The innovation here is the individual directed by the voice (of God) directed to him personally. The other innovation with this covenant is circumcision. The most peculiar aspect of Avraham’s story is his willingness to follow the voice to the extent of sacrificing his son, Yitzhak. Yitzhak’s son Yaakov/Israel is the last of the patriarchs to have the personal experience of God. Another innovation by this stage of the story is faith. Sumerian or Egyptian religion was founded on ritual, not faith. Avram, Yitzhak and Yaakov had faith in the voice they heard. Prior to this, there was no sense of history; after, there is the sense that God is a real personality, who intervenes in history, changing its course, making it unpredictable.

Yaakov’s son Joseph does not hear the voice, but has talents that stand him and his people in good stead. Then centuries pass until Moshe. By his time, the Israelites are numerous in Egypt but not free to go: their labor is needed. By some chance, this Egyptian-named Israelite has a position in and access to the Pharaoh’s court, but knows who his people are. He identifies with the underdog, and defending one, kills an Egyptian official, and becomes a fugitive. In the Sinai desert, he not only hears the voice, but sees the burning bush that is not consumed. Though obviously ill-suited for leadership, he is called to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, and successfully does so.

In the process, another innovation becomes apparent. Anyone who knows God, even a simple nomadic herdsman, can have wisdom greater than the earthly representative of a great god like Ra. God is on the side of little people with no worldly power.

Cahill addresses the reality of the Exodus story, and contrasts it with the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Epic makes no attempt to convince the reader that it is historical; it is all once-upon-a-time, indeed timeless, archetypal. The story of the Israelites on the other hand is embedded in earthly time. And for us today, this is the sort of time that is Real, not the archetypal cycles of myth. The tales that were passed orally (in multiple forms) through generations before being written (in multiple forms), edited, and redacted have the sort of specificity that convinces us that the writer has no doubt that the events actually happened. Furthermore, the fact that they happened is the whole point; otherwise the stories have no point at all, no Avram, no Moshe, no God. For the others of the time, anything unique was typically monstrous (e.g., Oedipus); for the Israelites, everything was unique, as was each person’s relation to God. The importance of the past is that it brought us to the present. Hence the Israelites’ concern with genealogies, including wives. History doesn’t repeat; it isn’t a cycle. History is a process unfolding in time, whose end we don’t know, but whose ruling precepts can be discerned.

When Moshe hears the voice, he brings commandments. Cahill points out that other cultures had ethical guidelines, but they were always in a legal framework or worldly-wise advice. The Commandments are the first and last time such a code is given to humans without justification or elaboration (other than the later scribal commentary). At this point Cahill refers to the story “The Blue Cross” by G. K. Chesterton, which is a nice setting for a similar moral lesson. The Commandments are in two sets: those about God and those about man. Among those about God is the innovation of the weekend (Sabbath). This is not derived from any earlier society. The proper Sabbath behavior developed by the scribal commentators included study, or “the universal duty of continuous self-education.” This innovation leads to “a democratic obligation that those in power must safeguard on behalf of those in their employ. The connections 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 finds 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.” The covenant is made more explicit: those who keep the Commandments are God’s people.

Cahill points out that the benefits of following the Commandments do not include rewards, such as eternal life. Instead, virtue is its own reward. The elaboration into the detailed laws retains something of the brutality of the ancient world, but also includes protection for widows, orphans and travelers. “The 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.”

Following the rebellion of the tribe while Moshe is on Sinai, there is a great slaughter at God’s inexplicable behest. In describing this, Cahill quotes Augustine of Hippo: “We are talking about God. Which wonder do you think you understand? If you understand, it is not God.” So Taoist. Cahill also contrasts the figures of Avraham and Moshe: the one “a wily character who seemed up to any challenge”, the other “the humblest man on earth”. The final lesson from Sinai concerns the fire as transforming from “a symbol of the storm god’s anger to the refining fire of God’s love”. “There is no way around life and its sufferings. Our only choice is whether we will be consumed by the fire of our own heedless fears and passions or allow God to refine us in his fire and to shape us into a fitting instrument for his revelation, as he did Moshe. We need not fear God as we fear all other suffering, which burns and maims and kills. For God’s fire, though it will perfect us, will not destroy, for ‘the bush was not consumed.’” Cahill also quotes Allen Ginsberg: “The only poetic tradition is the voice out of the burning bush.”

Cahill starts the description of Israel’s transformation from tribe to nation with the story of Moshe looking over the Promised Land, knowing he will never set foot there, and then quotes Reinhold Niebuhr: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.” He then says, “That accomplishment is intergenerational may be the deepest of all Hebrew insights.”

Cahill describes the establishment of the kingship, and finds David, as expressed in the Psalms, the first literary figure with a sense of self, a figure referred to as I. This is the beginning of the interior journey that occupies most of the rest of Cahill’s book. In the struggles of the kingdom, Israel and Judah split, and many defeats are inflicted. The prophet Elijah seeks refuge in Sinai, and experiences God’s hurricane, earthquake, and fire. But God is not in them . “And after the fire, a still, small voice.” This is the message that God is not in any of the elements of creation. He is in us, the personal conscience. As prophets like Amos said, to serve God is 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.” In these days, this was a radical innovation. For the surrounding peoples, and for many Jews, religion was about sacrifice. As the shattered nation sought to understand what was happening to them, they recalled the prophets’ words, and understood that God wanted not sacrifice, but justice. Cahill points out that there was no such word as spiritual in the ancient world. The Jews came to learn and teach that humans have an inside, where God dwells and teaches them how to behave, if they can only listen.

Cahill closes with:

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 the gifts of the Jews.

This book is well worth reading, and I look forward to the next volume in his series.


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