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I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize man than any other nation. If I were an atheist, and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that chance had ordered the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations. If I were an atheist to the other sect, who believed or pretended to believe that all is ordered by chance, I should believe that chance has ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization.
-John Adams to F. A. Vanderkemp, 16 Febuary 1809



Thomas Cahill succeeds on a number of levels in this book.  First, he succeeds in the primary task of the popular historian, making history compelling, and readable and important to our modern lives.  Second, he makes the things we know, and take for granted, seem fresh and marvelous.  Finally, he shows us that even more wonderful ideas and themes lurk just beneath the surface of the history that we all think we know.  The result is a book that confirms our understanding of the importance of the Jews and makes us appreciate them in ways that many of us may not have before.

We well understand the central importance of Judaism to be its monotheism.  A world with many gods offers no guidance for human behavior; different gods may demand different behaviors.  But a single God can command one set of behaviors from us, and is therefore the source of morality, of the morality which can bind an entire society or civilization, eventually the species, to one coherent set of ethical principles.  The one God, a unity Himself, provides Man with the understanding that the Universe is a unity and is governed by a single, unified set of laws and principles.  This is a magnificent thing, and by itself would be a sufficient gift to make the Jews a great people.

But Cahill only even gets to this part of the story after explicating a prior gift, one that is just as important to Man's development : the idea of progress.  Prior to the rise of Judaism, men believed in life as a circularity.  We're born.  We die.  The next generation comes along and repeats the process.  Life has no direction, merely keeps reiterating itself.  Cahill explains that it is only with Abraham and the command of God that he "Go forth from your land, from your birthplace and from your father's home to the land that I will show you." that the idea of life as a journey of discovery is born.  Cahill understands Abraham to be, and makes us understand him to be, our first great explorer, the first human to intentionally set out for the unknown.  Further, he demonstrates how this notion of life as a process or a progression created the very idea of history, of a past that was different than the present,  and the understanding that the future will be different than the present, that the way things are now will eventually be history.  By the time he's done, Cahill may well convince you that "Abraham went" is the most thrilling passage in all of literature.

There is much more in the book, as Cahill attempts, largely successfully, to demonstrate that nearly every single facet of our lives has been shaped by Judaism.  He throws off ideas like a blacksmith throws off sparks, and if some sputter out, many more of them catch fire.  He definitely has some political biases, sometimes welcome, as his determination to show that anti-Semitism is wrongheaded, sometimes less so, as his argument in favor of a kind of gushy social justice.    But the fact that he is so opinionated generally serves him well, and if he sometimes slips into hyperbole, he is never less than thought provoking.   He has a great deal of fun with his topic and you will too.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A-)

  

Websites:

See also:

Religion
Thomas Cahill Links:
    -Thomas Cahill, the Official Web Site
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of Gifts of the Jews
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus. By Thomas Cahill Ý
    -GERGEN DIALOGUE : ANCESTRAL APPRECIATION : David Gergen talks with Thomas Cahill about his book "The Gifts of the Jews." (The NewsHour, July 24, 1998)
    -INTERVIEW : Religious & Spiritual Diversity in Our World :  Thomas Cahill, "Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before & After Jesus" Ý(Author-Author, Joe Skelly)
    -INTERVIEW : with Thomas Cahill (Alden Mudge, BookPage Interview, November 1999)
    -INTERVIEW : O'Connell Street Q&A: Thomas Cahill
    -INTERVIEW : Interview March 14, 1998: Author Thomas Cahill (Michael Feldman, Waddayaknow?, NPR)
    -PROFILE : Thomas Cahill: Saving History, Book by Book (Elizabeth Bernstein -- March 16, 1998, Publishers' Weekly)
    -PROFILE : Thomas Cahill: From Ireland to Israel (DAVE LUHRSSEN, May 28, 1998 , Shepherd Express)
    -ARCHIVES : "Thomas Cahill" (Mag Portal)
    -ARCHIVES : "thomas cahill" (Find Articles)
    -READING GROUP GUIDES : Thomas Cahill (Random House)
    -REVIEW : of The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. By Thomas Cahill Ý(CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. By Thomas Cahill (Dennis Prager, First Things)
    -REVIEW : of Gift of the Jews (Shmuley Boteach, booksonline)
    -REVIEW: of The Gifts of the Jews (April Witt for Miami Herald)
   
-REVIEW : of Gift of the Jews (Karen Reardanz, MetroActive)
    -REVIEW : of Gift of the Jews (Sam Mulder, CornerShops.com)
    -REVIEW : of Gift of the Jews (David Grayson, January Magazine)
    -REVIEW : of Gift of the Jews (Yossi Prager, Commentary)
    -REVIEW : of Gift of the Jews (Roy Maynard, World)
    -REVIEW : of Gift of the Jews (Joseph Keith Woodard, The Crisis)
    -REVIEW : of Gift of the Jews (JOANNE BRICHETTO, Book Page)
    -REVIEW : of Gift of the Jews (Michael Daniel, News Weekly : National Civic Council)
    -REVIEW : of Gift of the Jews (SARAH HOROWITZ, Jewish Bulletin of Northern California)
    -REVIEW : of Gift of the Jews (Reverend Glen Nelson)
    -REVIEW : of Gift of the Jews (April Witt, Miami Herald )
    -REVIEW : of Gift of the Jews (Joshua Pederson, Michigan Daily)
    -REVIEW : of Gift of the Jews (Antoinette M. Aubert)
    -REVIEW : of HOW THE IRISH SAVED CIVILIZATION : The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe By Thomas Cahill (Richard Bernstein, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of How the Irish Saved (Father C. John McCloskey III, STD,Catholicity)
    -REVIEW : of How the Irish Saved Civilization (Pat Friend, About.com)
    -REVIEW : of How the Irish (Nate Wilson, Credenda)
    -REVIEW : of How the Irish (Kevin Shanley, O.Carm., The Sword)
    -REVIEW : of Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus. By Thomas Cahill Ý(CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT , NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Desire of the Everlasting Hills (PAUL WILLIAM ROBERTS,NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus. By Thomas Cahill (Francis Martin, First Things)
    -REVIEW : of Desire of the Everlasting Hills (David Neff, Christianity Today)
    -REVIEW : of Desire of the Everlasting Hills : The World Before and After Jesus By Thomas Cahill (Marcus Borg, BeliefNet)
    -REVIEW : Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus (Cross Currents, Peter Heinegg)
    -REVIEW : of Desire of The Everlasting Hills (Phil Secor, Trinity Episcopal Church)
    -REVIEW : of Desire of The Everlasting Hills Ý(Mike Gunn, Mars Hill Fellowship)
    -REVIEW : of Desire of The Everlasting Hills (G. Richard Wheatcroft for Nevertheless)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ESSAY: The Rage of Reason: A scholar argues that Enlightenment thought was shaped by its obsession with Judaism (DANNY POSTEL, Chronicle Review)

Comments:

When reading Gifts of the Jews, I was struck by the elaboration of a theme I've used in panels at anthropomorphic/SF cons:

Transcending the Animal.

Whether the first humans originated in a Six Day Zap! (TM) or Sagans of years of evolution, the message of Torah & Bible as commented in Gifts of the Jews is to Transcend the Animal -- to become more than animals howling in rut on the steps of the ziggurat.

Animals don't progress. Animals are bound by the Great Wheel of their own natures and instincts. Animals eat, sleep, fight, and have sex. Over and over, never breaking out of the Wheel. ANIMALS howl in rut on the steps of the ziggurat and in the muck at Woodstock.

- Ken

- Jun-14-2004, 12:57

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