Thursday, July 31, 2014

Neat Book Review #18 The Gifts of the Jews by Thomas Cahill

Thomas Cahill's Gifts of the Jews-cover

Plot summary
Cahill describes the spiritual foundation of Western society by contrasting Sumerian society with the Judaic society that arose from within it. Thus the first chapter dwells on Sumerian society and its values and ideals while quoting extensively from the well-known Epic of Gilgamesh. After this and until the end of the book, the author follows the biblical story from Abraham to Moses to the Israelite Kings and prophets. In these chapters the author refers to specific episodes such as Isaac's Binding and the Exodus from Egypt in order to point out, one by one, the gifts of the Jews, how they came into being and what they mean for us today.
My opinion:
The book is a short read but in my opinion very uneven. The first chapter regarding Sumerian society is way too long and I found the extensive quotes from the Epic of Gilgamesh uninteresting and not entirely necessary to make the author's point. Other parts in which the author relates the biblical story seemed slow to me and people familiar with these stories may find them unhelpful and boring. However, that said, the author really shines where it matters: in  offering a meaningful, foundational interpretation of the various stories and in explaining the shift from the pre-Judaic way of thinking to the new, Judaic way of thinking upon which all modern society is based. Indeed, the book explains why modernity is seen as synonymous with the Jewish people, for better or for worse (mostly for worse, though...).

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Gifts of the Jews: Why Jews Are Loathed or Loved

The ten commandments in color

Being born Jewish means that people who have never met you have a decisive opinion about you. In many cases people who have never met a Jew in their life have opinions about them: In the latest anti-Semitism survey, some 70 percent of those considered anti-Semitic said they have never met a Jew. These opinions may be extremely negative or extremely positive, but usually they are extreme. It seems that it is difficult to be indifferent or just lukewarm about Jews. This is true even for Jews themselves: some Jews really hate Jews, just because they are Jews - a phenomenon probably more prominent in Israel than anywhere else (a legacy of secular-Zionism) - while other Jews love Jews just because they are Jews. Considering the renewed hostilities between Jews and Arabs in Israel, I thought it would be a good idea to try to understand why Jews arouse such fierce reactions. For this purpose I re-read the book The Gifts of the Jews by Thomas Cahill, a book that provides one likely - though not exclusive - explanation.

Monotheism and Individualism, Linear Time and History

The Gifts of the Jews explains, in very appreciative terms, how the rise of Judaism in the 2nd millennium B.C. created the foundations of Western society itself. Cahill argues that the most basic ideas we take for granted in modern society and in our daily lives are actually based on ideas invented by the Jewish people and formulated in the Old Testament.
Cahill begins his argument by describing what preceded Judaism: the wealthy, polytheistic culture of Sumer, where the Patriarch, Abraham grew up. Abraham left a culture in which time was cyclical and eternal, in which nothing changed or ever could change: life simply repeated itself endlessly. A culture in which gods were palpable and understandable, human in their idiosyncrasies, though far more powerful than mere mortals.
By contrast, In Genesis 12:1-2 we read:
Now the LORD said unto Abram: 'Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto the land that I will show thee. And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing.
Here is a god that cannot be seen and that promises that the future will be different, that there is a specific and unique destination to life's journey. As Cahill understands it, this is the beginning of linear time: time that has a beginning, middle, and end.
For all the ancients (except the Israelites, the people who would become the Jews), time as we think of it was unreal; the Real was what was heavenly and archetypal. For us, the heirs of Jewish perception, the exact opposite is true: earthly time is real time; Eternity, if we think of it at all, is the end of time (or simply an illusion)
This is the beginning of history
Since time is no longer cyclical but one-way and irreversible, personal history is now possible and an individual life can have value. This new value is at first hardly understood; but already in the earliest accounts of Avraham and his family we come upon the carefully composed genealogies of ordinary people, something it would never have occurred to Sumerians to write  down,  because  they  accorded  no  importance  to  individual  memories.  For  them  only  impersonal  survival,  like  the
kingship, like the harvest, mattered; the individual, the unusual, the singular, the bizarre—persons or events that did not conform to an archetype—could have no meaning. And without the individual, neither time nor history is possible.
This is the beginning of truth and the importance of facts: After reviewing the books of Genesis and Exodus, Cahill concludes that "The text of the Bible is full of clues that the authors are attempting to write history of some sort" and that
"They did their best to be faithful to their tradition, even if one strand of that tradition occasionally contradicted another. But there is in these tales a kind of specificity—a concreteness of detail, a concern to get things right—that convinces us that the writer has no  doubt  that  each  of  the  main  events  he  chronicles happened."
But most importantly, the fact that they did happen is critical, since the biblical story has no meaning if it is not true:
If the stories of Cupid and Psyche or Beauty and the Beast never happened in real time, no one is the poorer for that. But if Avraham and Moshe never existed, or if they did not receive their commissions from God, their stories have no point at all—nor does the genetic collection known as “the Jewish people,” nor do Christians or Muslims, who also count themselves heirs of Avraham.
It is also the beginning of storytelling as we know it (or knew it until recently): for centuries, coherent stories in our culture required a beginning, middle and end. The very idea of a vocation - a unique destiny to each individual - is also set in motion in these two verses.

Abraham as we knows, packs up and leaves his home for an unknown land on a mission that is spiritual, not material. For Cahill, this is remarkable, "a complete departure from everything that has gone before in the long evolution of culture and sensibility". He asks: "If we had lived in the second millennium B.C., the millennium of Avram, and could have canvassed all the nations of the earth, what would they have said of Avram’s journey?" The answer: