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Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The Gifts of the Jews, by Thomas Cahill

Following How the Irish Saved Civilization, I read volume 2 of Thomas Cahill's Hinges of History series: The Gifts of the Jews.

In this bestselling book, Cahill sets out to show that the world we live in and everything we do and think, is purportedly a result of the Jewish "revolution" in history. The concepts expounded in the Bible were a dramatic break from the ancient religions and philosophies, that viewed the world as an endless cycle of birth and death in which human beings had no control over their lives. The Jews broke this way of thinking by defining time as continuous, as moving towards a better future through the decisions of men and women living here and now, in the present. Were it not for the Jews, argues Cahill, the world as we know it would not have come to be; we would have been unable to grasp concepts such as history, future, freedom, faith, hope, individual, justice and pretty much everything else.

What a wonderful theory and, as a Jew, I'm obviously all for it. But unfortunately Cahill devotes most of the book not to providing evidence to support this theory, but rather to a recounting of the major stories of the Bible from his perspective. The few profound points he makes about the contribution of the Jews to the world are lost in the endless quotes from the Bible and in Cahill's somewhat simplistic theories about what really happened. For example, do we really need to know that he believes the Red Sea was a marsh and not a sea, or that the Manna the Israelites ate in the desert was most likely some white plant secretion? Such details are numerous and do not contribute to the main idea offered by the author.

Cahill does not come through as a particularly believing person and he certainly does not view the Bible as the word of God. Therefore, it is interesting that he uses the following definition for the existence of God:

...the Jews developed a whole new way of experiencing reality, the only alternative to all ancient worldviews and all ancient religions. If one is ever to find the finger of God in human affairs, one must find it here. (p. 246)

I wonder if Cahill was aware that this very definition was given by Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister of Britain. When asked by Queen Victoria if he can provide proof that God exists, Disraeli (born Jewish himself) thought for a moment and replied: "The Jews, your Majesty".

As a believing Jew I particularly liked the way Cahill defines how each and every one of us hears the Voice of God:

Each reader must decide if the Voice that spoke to the patriarchs and prophets speaks to him, too. If it does, there is no question of needing proof, any more than we require proof of anyone we believe in... one does not believe that God exists, as one believes that Timbuktu or the constellation Andromeda exists. One believes in God, as one believes in a friend - or one believes nothing." (p.250)

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