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:

In most of Africa and Europe, where prehistoric animism was the norm and artists were still carving and painting on stone the heavenly symbols of the Great Wheel of Life and Death, they would  have  laughed  at Avram’s  madness  and  pointed  to  the  heavens,  where  the  life  of  earth  had  been  plotted  from  all eternity. His wife is barren as winter, they would say; a man cannot escape his fate....On every continent, in every society, Avram would have been given the same advice that wise men as diverse as Heraclitus, Lao-Tsu, and Siddhartha would one day give their followers: do not journey but sit; compose yourself by the river of life, meditate on its ceaseless and meaningless flow—on all that is past or passing or to come—until you have absorbed the pattern and have come to peace with the Great Wheel and with your own death and the death of all things in the corruptible sphere.
This is, really, the beginning of mankind's struggle to change his fate, the beginning of the drive for Tikkun Olam (which I have explained here: The Meaning, Origins, and Evolution of the Jewish Concept of Tikkun Olam - Repairing the World). Perforce, this is also the beginning of faith: "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). Dissatisfaction with things as they are, hoping and striving for a better future that exists only in our imagination - Cahill attributes these ideas to Judaism. We can also see in this passage the contrast, that exists to this day, between the restless Judeo-Christian culture and the easygoing, fatalistic Oriental culture, between East and West. In fact, this is also the beginning of the New as a positive value. Judaism, and Western culture with it, is always looking forward to the future, expecting something different and better:

The Israelites, by becoming  the  first  people  to  live—psychologically—in  real  time,  also  became  the  first  people  to  value  the  New  and  to welcome Surprise. In doing this, they radically subverted all other ancient worldviews.

Cahill continues to follow the biblical story and points out to the growing relationship between the unseeable god and his sole adherent, Abraham:
Out of an age of tall tales of warriors and kings, all so like one another that they are hard to tell apart, comes this story of a skeptical, worldly patriarch’s trust in a disembodied voice. This is becoming, however incredibly, the story of an interpersonal we witness its development, we must acknowledge something just below the surface of events: without Avram’s highly colored sense of himself—of his own individuality—there could hardly be any relationship, yet the relationship is also made possible by the exclusive intensity that  this  incipient monotheism  requires,  so  much  so  that  we  may  almost  say  that  individuality  (with  its  consequent possibility of an interpersonal relationship) is the flip side of monotheism.
So an exclusive relationship to one god leads from life as an archetype to life as an individual. As this relationship develops further, so does the individual and eventually the close relationship with God is transferred to close relationships between human beings. For Cahill this is exemplified in the increasingly active role of women in the Bible, such as Rivka, Naomi, and Ruth - which contrasts with the passivity of Sarah - and in the love relationship so explicitly described in the Song of Songs. The advent of the individual introduces linear time, history, the notion of progress, and the importance of getting the past right, because it has shaped our present and affects our future.

Faith and Ethics

The nature of this new god is slowly revealed to Abraham, culminating in the story of Isaac's binding. For Cahill, the lesson to be learned here is that the new god is not like the old Sumerian gods. This god is far more powerful and is actually completely beyond human ken. He cannot be understood or manipulated. The new god must be believed in and taken "as is". One must have faith in the unknowable:
Can we open ourselves to the God who cannot be understood, who is beyond all our amulets and scheming, the God who rains on picnics, the God who allows human beings to be inhuman, who has sentenced us all to death?...
This  God  gives  and  takes  beyond  human reasoning or justification. Because his motives are not interpretable and his thoughts and actions are not foreseeable, anything —and everything—is possible. Many new things have already come into being as a result of this relationship, but faith most of all, which prior to Avraham had no place in religious feeling and imagination. Because all is possible, faith is possible, even necessary.

Abraham, as we know, passes the ultimate test of faith, but for the rest of us the test remains as we go about our daily lives.

The next gift given to the Jews and passed on to the entire world is the Ten Commandments. Cahill remarks:
There is no document in all the literatures of the world that is like the Ten Commandments. Of course, there are ethical guidelines from other cultures. But these are always offered in a legal framework... or as worldly-wise advice... Here for the first—and, I think, the last—time, human beings are offered a code without justification. Because this is God’s code, no justification is required.
This is the beginning of an ethical system that is not anchored in earthly power or in utilitarianism but in God Himself. This is a legal code that cannot be subverted or argued with. It simply exists and the Jews, along with all of Western society, have been trying to deal with its implications. So far, as you may have noticed, not too successfully. Although Judeo-Christian societies have embraced these ethics, all too often they have not been adhered too. Nonetheless, they have proven to be robust enough and powerful enough to gradually move Western civilization to improve itself and live up to this divine, albeit difficult moral code. One day, I'm sure, we'll get it right...and on a side note, this is the first time that a day of rest is ordained: No ancient society before the Jews had a day of rest, so when you get to the weekend, take a minute to say thank you...

The final gift and a very profound one is the insight that all of life, the entire world, is imbued with divinity. This is why the Old Testament imagines life as a unity and so God's law must be applied to all of it. The Old Testament (and indeed, most Jewish thought) is preoccupied with the Law. As Cahill notes:
But, even at their most hairsplittingly bizarre, these laws remain testimony to the fact that the Jews were the first people to  develop  an  integrated  view  of  life  and  its  obligations.  Rather  than  imagining  the  demands  of  law  and  the  demands  of wisdom as discrete realms (as did the Sumerians, the Egyptians, and the Greeks), they imagined that all of life, having come from the Author of life, was to be governed by a single outlook. The material and the spiritual, the intellectual and the moral were one.
According to Cahill, this means that the natural world, created by god, is a unified world that makes sense. It has a divine order, ruled by laws that can be and indeed were discovered , eventually. Modern science could not have existed without the conception of the world as divinely ordered and it is no surprise that heroes of the scientific revolution such as Galileo, Newton, Kepler, saw themselves as being completely faithful to God, as only revealing the glory and majesty of His creation.

Cahill concludes:
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...
Democracy... grows directly out of the Israelite vision of individuals, subjects of value because they are images of God, each with a unique and personal destiny. There is no way that it could ever have been “self-evident that all men are created equal” without the intervention of the Jews.
For your convenience I summed up the differences between Judaic and per-Judaic society in the following table:

Comparision table for gifts of the Jews

Why Jews Are Loathed or Loved

The answer to this question should be clear by now. People who value the gifts of the Jews - one god, linear time, history, the truth, facts, rational thought, a universal ethical system, individualism, personal responsibility, a personal relationship with god and one's fellow man, redemption - such people will usually also admire the Jewish people. Of course, the reverse is true as well.
On a larger scale, I think it is more likely that societies that value the gifts of the Jews will thrive, and it is more likely that societies that shun them will not. The difference between the Jewish state and its Muslim neighbors is evident. As Paul Johnson noted in The History of Christianity (see my review here), the more tolerant, humanistic Protestant and Anglican countries in Europe were more successful, from the reformation to modern times, than the relatively intolerant Christian countries. It can be argued that the United States itself, which was founded on the exact same principles (the original colonists even imagined themselves as the "New Israel") succeeded and thrived for this reason, among other factors. America's economic and political decline can also be traced to the rise of the exact opposite of Judeo-Christian values as expressed in the spread and increasing dominance of post-modernism since the 1960s.
Consider too Hitler's stance towards the gifts of the Jews: (all quotes and their sources are from this page): “The Ten  Commandments have lost their validity.  Conscience is a Jewish invention, it is a blemish like circumcision”, and also "They refer to me as an uneducated barbarian. Yes, we are barbarians. We want to be barbarians, it is an honored title to us. We shall rejuvenate the world. This world is near its end,” and “The earth continues to go round, whether it’s the man who kills the tiger or the tiger who eats the man. The stronger asserts his will, it’s the law of nature. The world doesn’t change; its laws are eternal.” This last is spoken like a true Sumerian. And finally, a song sung by Hitler youth:
We are the joyous Hitler youth,
We do not need any Christian virtue
Our leader is our savior
The Pope and Rabbi shall be gone
We want to be pagans once again.”
Is it any wonder that Hitler hated the Jews so much and desired to wipe them off the face of the earth? His contemporary successors, I believe, have the same motivations, whether they know it or not, and it is no accident that their tactics are violent and immoral, by Judeo-Christian standards.

The Gifts of the Jews and Post-modernism

A close look at the gifts of the Jews and post-modernism will show that in most respects they stand in complete opposition. Post-modernism rejects objective truth in favor of subjective, plural truths; history is rejected in favor of "narratives". Time is once again circular and thus causation does not exist or is reversed. This reminds me that once, when I was still studying in the university, a doctoral student, acting as assistant lecturer, explained to me without batting an eyelid that: "things that happen now are caused by things that will happen in the future" (In case you're wondering, I fled academia, while that imbecile is now a tenure-track lecturer...god save our students). In post-modernism, group affiliation is more important than the individual. This approach undermines universal justice and paves the way for different legal standards for different groups. This is manifest in the rise of Sharia courts across Europe, which of course cannot be reconciled with basic human rights and especially the rights of women, not to mention children and homosexuals.
Jews will not be appreciated in a post-modern world and they will have great trouble defending themselves with their two main weapons: truth and faith, both of which have fallen into disrepute. It is no surprise then that antisemitism is prevalent in the strongholds of post-modernism - academia and the media - where the pursuit of truth has been replaced by political correctness and the fear of censorship and excommunication, and the principle of universal justice is skewed in favor of the violent, the bigoted, the unprincipled, and the immoral.
Nonetheless, I am not arguing that post-modernism is entirely evil. It is, in my opinion, a necessary corrective to the excesses of modernism and the Judeo-Christian culture. Post-modernism thrives on the failures of Judeo-Christian culture and is to be learned from, not rejected out of hand. I expect that some day we will figure out how to best combine the benefits of both while discarding their disadvantages.

Jews: Should You Love Them or Loathe Them?

Personally, I would like people to judge me as an individual, regardless of my various ascriptive traits. However, if you decide to hate Jews because they are Jews, I can understand why; civilization is a difficult burden...That said, I think it is only fair that you refrain from benefiting from the gifts of the Jews, from the fruits of Judeo-Christian culture such as: electricity, running water, internal plumbing, well-stocked supermarkets and malls, public transportation, slurpees and milkduds and Recess peanut butter cups, TV and radio, universities with tenure tracks, social security, the internet, modern medicine, a universal, humane justice system, individualism, personal responsibility, the ability to change your future for the better and so on...These achievements were built upon a certain spiritual foundation, they were not conjured out of thin air, and since you reject this foundation, it seems to me only fair that you reject its products. Finally, I would like to kindly remind you that you are on the wrong side of history...

List of nations that have tried to destroy the Jewish people

And if you love Jews just because they are Jews, I find it difficult to fault. The gifts of the Jews are the foundation of the best society humanity has ever seen. Certainly, it is not a perfect society, but there is a reason people are flocking to the West (and to Israel) and not to other cultures. As it is written (Genesis 12:3):  
And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.
I also believe that the Judeo-Christian project is far from finished and the best is yet to come. So for all those who support the Jewish people and the Judeo-Christian civilization project - and Israel as a manifestation of both - God bless you and thank you for your support. I look forward to our continued cooperation on our joint project.

Related posts:

America - The Erasmian Dream

The Meaning, Origins, and Evolution of the Jewish Concept of Tikkun Olam - Repairing the World

Why Religious People Are Happier: A Jungian Explanation

The Jewminator: A preview

About the author
Joab Cohen is the author of the psychological thriller The Jewminator and
the vegan action hero novel Captain Tofu and the Green Team (coming soon!)

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  1. Hi Joab,

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Thank you.
    There is only one point I disagree with: Sarah was not passive at all. She was so active that she sealed the fate between two peoples for (in utter exaggeration) eternity; as her impatience resulted in a very long conflict between the sons of Isaac and Ishamel for centuries - even though Ishmael himself didn't seem to feel any animosity towards his brother at all (when they buried their father).

    Can God be taken "as is"? I think the Bible contradicts this statement every time Avraham, Moshe and others negotiated with Him. He IS but as He Himself said "Reason with Me/Let's reason together" (Isaiah 1), so I'm not sure He is to be taken "as is"; but it does reinforce the argument that God is different from other gods in a sense that He accepts change, evolution. He Is not static.

    "Because his motives are not interpretable and his thoughts and actions are not foreseeable, anything —and everything—is possible."

    Good point. And this point also contradicts the argument that He IS to be taken "as is", yes?

    I also put higher importance on the Ten Commandments, not only because they were the only ones to be written on the plates and placed in the ark but because obeying them is so complex, so much harder that it was almost needless to come up with hundreds of others (since it is all connected).

    "No ancient society before the Jews had a day of rest, so when you get to the weekend, take a minute to say thank you..."


    Joab, I will be back. You have a marvellous place here.
    Thanks for your comment in my blog. God Bless.


    1. Hi Max,
      Thanks for reading! As for your comments:
      1 - I think he means that Sarah is passive relative to later women in the Bible.
      2 - God probably should be taken "as is" but this is the Middle East - everything was and is negotiable...
      3 - As for the laws after the Ten Commandments...well, I'm guessing the leaders saw how difficult it was for the people to keep their mind on the Commandments so they tried to help with all kind of "by laws". I'm not sure how much the detailed laws actually helped, but studying them all day long sure helps keep people out of trouble :)


    2. Joab,

      It's my pleasure.

      " I'm not sure how much the detailed laws actually helped, but studying them all day long sure helps keep people out of trouble :)"

      lol lol good point :)

      I like that concept of everything being opened to negotiation (it's the same in Africa).

      Have a great week.



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