The Gift of the Jews
by Thomas Cahill

Synopsis

This synopsis will contain spoilers!

In The Gift of the Jews Cahill will present an argument for why he believes that the we (modern western culture) are beholden to the Jews in many ways. Since there is no narrative, I will attempt to summarize his key conjectures as my synopsis (without evaluating their merit).


Cahill begins by providing information on the culture in which the Jewish tradition began. Throughout the first chapter, Cahill references the epic Sumerian work Gilgamesh. Through this work Cahill claims that the worldview at the time (it was not merely the dominate worldview but, according the Cahill, the only worldview at the time) consisted of two primary elements. First, existence was cyclical. This belief was held to the extent that the future and past were not even considered as they had happened before, and they would happen again. Second, life on earth was a reflection of the heavenly life of the gods.


Next Cahill begins a journey through the Old Testament as a means to show how the Jews introduced a new worldview that we still hold today. Avram (Abram) is called by God to go on a journey to a land that will be given to him. The fact that he does go is, alone, a break from the old since most cultures would advise Avram to stay where he is and contemplate the Wheel of life. The other major change that happens with Avram is that it introduces a personal relationship with God.


Next is the story of Moshe (Moses). There are, again, several key points to bring attention to. First, with the plagues God has subverted "all political structures claiming a god as their author" (117). Then, simply be recording the story of Moshe, the Jews have not only moved on from the idea that history repeats itself, but also made it of critical importance. The Jews are now defined by their history. Furthermore, their exodus from Egypt also showed that their future was free - not destined to repeat what has always come before. After the exodus, the Jews are given the Ten Commandments (or as Cahill refers to them as, the Ten Words) which is also a gift of living in the moment. Now what is important is not history, which has occurred, or the future, which is unknown, but the present. Now is when you can decide to live justly, or not, and thus life is given meaning in the present. Cahill also mentions that the idea of a day of rest (the Sabbath) was a new concept in the ancient world.


After the exodus, Cahill moves to the time of Israel as a nation, with a large focus on David. One of the major contributions of David is his introduction of the personal self. Not only is this an introduction of "I" to the Bible, but to ancient literature itself.


While in exile in Babylon, the Jews learned that God did not simply want their sacrifices, but wanted the hearts of the people. The idea that there was "spiritual" component to life was unheard of before their time in exile. Thus, the Jews gave us both an inside and outside life. As Cahill puts it, "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" (241).


Cahill concludes the book with a brief discussion on how he deals with issues surrounding interpreting the historical accuracy of Bible by viewing it as work that offers insight into the revelation of a personal faith in God over time and at different stages. Finally, he encourages the reader to follow the Jewish idea of pursuing justice in respect to the those in need. "For without justice, there is no God" (252).


Reviews

The Gift of the Jews - Paperback

The first thing I want to say about Gift of the Jews is that I am not a historian. I feel it is worth mentioning this because I am in ...

- April 20, 2009

Quotes

"The Jews were the first people to break out of this circle, to find a new way of thinking and experiencing, a new way of understanding and feeling the world, so much so that it may be said with some justice that theirs is the only new idea that human beings have ever had."

Thomas Cahill in The Gift of the Jews

"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."

Thomas Cahill in The Gift of the Jews

"The Jews started it all - and by 'it' I mean so many of the things we care about, the underlying values that make all of us, Jew and gentile, believer and atheist, tick."

Thomas Cahill the First Line of The Gift of the Jews

"For without justice, there is no God."

Thomas Cahill the Last Line of in The Gift of the Jews

Originally Published Jan. 1, 1998

Paperback edition:

304 pages - Aug. 17, 1999

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