The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels

The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels

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by Thomas Cahill
     
 

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The author of the runaway bestseller How the Irish Saved Civilization has done it again. In The Gifts of the Jews Thomas Cahill takes us on another enchanting journey into history, once again recreating a time when the actions of a small band of people had repercussions that are still felt today.



The Gifts of the Jews reveals the

Overview

The author of the runaway bestseller How the Irish Saved Civilization has done it again. In The Gifts of the Jews Thomas Cahill takes us on another enchanting journey into history, once again recreating a time when the actions of a small band of people had repercussions that are still felt today.



The Gifts of the Jews reveals the critical change that made western civilization possible. Within the matrix of ancient religions and philosophies, life was seen as part of an endless cycle of birth and death; time was like a wheel, spinning ceaselessly. Yet somehow, the ancient Jews began to see time differently. For them, time had a beginning and an end; it was a narrative, whose triumphant conclusion would come in the future. From this insight came a new conception of men and women as individuals with unique destinies--a conception that would inform the Declaration of Independence--and our hopeful belief in progress and the sense that tomorrow can be better than today. As Thomas Cahill narrates this momentous shift, he also explains the real significance of such Biblical figures as Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the Pharaoh, Joshua, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.



Full of compelling stories, insights and humor, The Gifts of the Jews is an irresistible exploration of history as fascinating and fun as How the Irish Saved Civilization.

BONUS MATERIAL: This ebook edition includes an excerpt from Thomas Cahill's Heretics and Heroes.

Editorial Reviews

Prager
. . .[W]ritten with humor, whimsy, and an engaging sensitivity to literary nuance. But. . .aims for more than entertainment. . . .what is desperately needed is an articulation of Jewish distinctiveness. . . .Cahill. . .misleads those who may be truly seeking to understand where the Jews come from and how, as Jews, they can best carry their traditions forward into the future.
Commentary
Chicago Tribune
He exalts his ancient subject; their hearts, minds and experienes resonate in hsi compelling contemporary narrative.
Sarah Horowitz
Thomas Cahill looks at history with the rigor of a scholar but explains it simplywith the skill of a gifted teacher. . .He conveys with a fresh lens a legacy 'so much a part of us' that we scarcely recognize it. —The Jewish Bulletin
Diane Zaga
Thomas Cahill places the spiritual journey of biblical-era Jewry firmly in a historical context while simultaneously making it come alive in a way that is almost sensory in its immediacy. —Jewish Journal
Library Journal
Cahill argues that the greatest gifts of the Jews are the linear theory of history (vs. the cyclical theory of other ancients), with its implication that life can get better and avoid decline and the idea of the equality and dignity of each individual that culminated in the declaration that "All men are created equal." Other gifts include the concepts of universal brotherhood, peace, and justice. (LJ 3/15/97) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
New York Times Book Review
Charming and poetic... an entirely engaging, delectable voyage into the distant past. . .a small treasure.
The New York Times
Charming and poetic... an entirely engaging, delectable voyage into the distant past. . .a small treasure.
Los Angeles Times
A lovely tale. . .graceful and instructive.
Kirkus Reviews
Shows how the ancient Israelites transformed the idea of religion by gradually introducing monotheism, and equally transformed our sense of time and history. Beginning with Abraham's departure from his Sumerian homeland, the ancient Hebrews broke with the repetitive cyclical image of history assumed by most ancient religions to forge what Cahill terms the 'processive' world view.

In this perspective, the present and future become more important than the past, for they are open to change, progress, and hope. Cahill also credits the Hebrew bible with bequeathing to Western civilization such seminal ideas as the interior self (e.g. in David's Psalms), the universal commonalities of all peoples, and, more dubiously, a focus on interpersonal relationships (e.g. in the 'Song of Songs').

He manages to turn many a beautiful phrase while being forthrightly colloquial. Occasionally, however, he overdoes the plain talk, missing more profound dynamics, as in noting that he's willing to give God 'the benefit of the doubt' for commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac because 'He had to jump-start this new religion and he didn't always have the best material to work with.' But he occasionally overstates his case—surely the ancient Greeks were as significant an influence on our values and worldview as the ancient Israelites. Nonetheless, in an age crowded with bloated, pedantic tomes, Cahill offers a refreshingly succinct, illuminating, and readable summary of the Hebrew bible's enduring wisdom and influence.

From the Publisher
"Persuasive as well as entertaining...Mr. Cahill's book [is] a gift."—Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times

"An outstanding and very readable book...highly recommended."—Library Journal

"A very good read, a dramatically effective, often compelling retelling of the Hebrew Bible."—Charles Gold, Chicago Sun Times

"This is a valuable book, of interest to everyone, religious or not."
Washington Times

"A highly readable, entrancing journey."
San Francisco Chronicle

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780307755117
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
04/28/2010
Sold by:
Random House
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
304
Sales rank:
160,167
File size:
3 MB

Read an Excerpt

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. Without the Jews, we would see the world through different eyes, hear with different ears, even feel with different feelings. And not only would our sensorium, the screen through which we receive the world, be different: we would think with a different mind, interpret all our experience differently, draw different conclusions from the things that befall us. And we would set a different course for our lives.

By "we" I mean the usual "we" of late-twentieth century writing: the people of the Western world, whose peculiar but vital mentality has come to infect every culture on earth, so that, in a startlingly precise sense, all humanity is now willy-nilly caught up in this "we." For better or worse, the role of the West in humanity's history is singular. Because of this, the role of the Jews, the inventors of Western culture, is also singular: there is simply no one else remotely like them; theirs is a unique vocation. Indeed, as we shall see, the very idea of vocation, of a personal destiny, is a Jewish idea.

Our history is replete with examples of those who have refused to see what the Jews are really about, who--through intellectual blindness, racial chauvinism, xenophobia, or just plain evil--have been unable to give this oddball tribe, this raggle-taggle band, this race of wanderers who are the progenitors of the Western world, their due. Indeed, at the end of this bloodiest of centuries, we can all too easily look back on scenes of unthinkable horror perpetrated by those who would do anything rather than give the Jews their due.

But I must ask my readers to erase from their minds not only the horrors of history--modern, medieval, and ancient--but (so far as one can) the very notion of history itself. More especially, we must erase from our minds all the suppositions on which our world is built--the whole intricate edifice of actions and ideas that are our intellectual and emotional patrimony. We must reimagine ourselves in the form of humanity that lived and moved on this planet before the first word of the Bible was written down, before it was spoken, before it was even dreamed.

What a bizarre phenomenon the first human mutants must have appeared upon the earth. Like their primate progenitors, they were long-limbed and rangy, but, with unimpressive muscles and without significant fur or claws, confined to the protection of trees, save when they would tentatively essay the floor of the savannah--hoping to obtain food without becoming food. With their small mouths and underdeveloped teeth, their unnaturally large heads (like the heads of primate infants), they were forced back on their wits. Their young remained helpless for years, well past the infancy of other mammals, requiring from their parents long years of vigilance and extensive tutelage in many things. Without planning and forethought, without in fact the development of complex strategies, these mutants could not hope to survive at all.

But if we make use of what hints remain in the prehistorical and protohistorical "record," we must come to the unexpected conclusion that their inventions and discoveries, made in aid of their survival and prosperity--tools and fire, then agriculture and beasts of burden, then irrigation and the wheel--did not seem to them innovations. These were gifts from beyond the world, somehow part of the Eternal. All evidence points to there having been, in the earliest religious thought, a vision of the cosmos that was profoundly cyclical. The assumptions that early man made about the world were, in all their essentials, little different from the assumptions that later and more sophisticated societies, like Greece and India, would make in a more elaborate manner. As Henri-Charles Puech says of Greek thought in his seminal Man and Time: "No event is unique, nothing is enacted but once . . .; every event has been enacted, is enacted, and will be enacted perpetually; the same individuals have appeared, appear, and will appear at every turn of the circle."

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. But their worldview has become so much a part of us that at this point it might as well have been written into our cells as a genetic code. We find it so impossible to shed--even for a brief experiment-- that it is now the cosmic vision of all other peoples that appears to us exotic and strange.

The Bible is the record par excellence of the Jewish religious experience, an experience that remains fresh and even shocking when it is read against the myths of other ancient literatures. The word bible comes from the Greek plural form biblia, meaning "books." And though the Bible is rightly considered the book of the Western world--its foundation document--it is actually a collection of books, a various library written almost entirely in Hebrew over the course of a thousand years.

We have scant evidence concerning the early development of Hebrew, one of a score of Semitic tongues that arose in the Middle East during a period that began sometime before the start of the second millennium B.C.*--how long before we do not know. Some of these tongues, such as Akkadian, found literary expression fairly early, but there is no reliable record of written Hebrew before the tenth century B.C.--that is, till well after the resettlement of the Israelites in Canaan following their escape from Egypt under the leadership of Moses, the greatest of all proto-Jewish figures. This means that the supposedly historical stories of at least the first books of the Bible were preserved originally not as written texts but as oral tradition. So, from the wanderings of Abraham in Canaan through the liberation from Egypt wrought by Moses to the Israelite resettlement of Canaan under Joshua, what we are reading are oral tales, collected and edited for the first (but not the last) time in the tenth century during and after the kingship of David. But the full collection of texts that make up the Bible (short of the Greek New Testament, which would not be appended till the first century of our era) did not exist in its current form till well after the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews--that is, till sometime after 538 B.C. The last books to be taken into the canon of the Hebrew Bible probably belong to the third and second centuries B.C., these being Esther and Ecclesiastes (third century) and Daniel (second century). Some apocryphal books, such as Judith and the Wisdom of Solomon, are as late as the first century.

To most readers today, the Bible is a confusing hodgepodge; and those who take up the daunting task of reading it from cover to cover seldom maintain their resolve beyond a book or two. Though the Bible is full of literature's two great themes, love and death (as well as its exciting caricatures, sex and violence), it is also full of tedious ritual prescriptions and interminable battles. More than anything, because the Bible is the product of so many hands over so many ages, it is full of confusion for the modern reader who attempts to decode what it might be about.

But to understand ourselves--and the identity we carry so effortlessly that most "moderns" no longer give any thought to the origins of attitudes we have come to take as natural and self-evident--we must return to this great document, the cornerstone of Western civilization. My purpose is not to write an introduction to the Bible, still less to Judaism, but to discover in this unique culture of the Word some essential thread that runs through it, to uncover in outline the sensibility that undergirds the whole structure, and to identify the still-living sources of our Western heritage for contemporary readers, whatever color of the belief-unbelief spectrum they may inhabit.

To appreciate the Bible properly, we cannot begin with it. All definitions must limit or set boundaries, must show what the thing-to-be-defined is not. So we begin before the Bible, before the Jews, before Abraham--in the time when reality seemed to be a great circle, closed and predictable in its revolutions. We return to the world of the Wheel.

*Recently, the designations B.C.E. (before the common era) and C.E. (common era), used originally in Jewish circles to avoid the Christim references contained in the designations B.C. (before Christ) and A.D. (anno dom~n~, in the year of the Lord), have g.uned somewhat wider currency. I use B.C. and A.D. not to cause offense to anyone but because the new designations, still largely unrecognized outside scholarly circles, can unnecessarily disorient the common reader.

  

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Thomas Cahill studied at New York's Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University, Fordham University, and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America with some of the nation's most distinguished literary and biblical scholars.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

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The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 33 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Artifacts and documents have surfaced recently that give testimony on how both Christianity and Islam both plagerized Judaism and still try to link themselves to the G-d of Israel while being anti-Semitic. This author has not taken into account all the miracles and titles used in the New Testament were originally from Mithra, Egyptian paganism, Buddhism and even Hinduism. Also, he neglects to mention how Hellenistic both Christianity and Islam became and changed their commitment to the Noah Covenent into a new religion that far from resembles what the Almighty instructed the Jews to be and do, even today. This author missed the mark on how Romanized the New Testament is which includes our own US gov't policies and court system, a far cry from the Supreme Court (Sanhedrin) of the nation of Israel under King David and King Solomon. Actually, Native American religions can relate closer to Judaism than any other, especially the original Cherokee beliefs & customs.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is chockfull of original thinking and presents in a clear, concise way the contributions of the early Jewish people to civilization. Cahill shows how the Jews moved us from a cyclical to a processive worldview. They gave us the concept that time has a start and an end, and replaced the world seen as a wheel by a world as a journey. Life came to have value and people developed a conscience. All of this and the Ten Commandments too. This book is a must read and buy.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Thomas Cahill is one of those rare authors who takes a subject and, with study, insight, and masterful style, increases our understanding of not only that subject but also the world in which it lives. All of Cahill's books are 'must reads.' His input is priceless.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Cahill is an excellent writer and historian. He provides a history of the Bible, but places historical evidence above the 'Word of God', unlike many who have written about this book. It's about the Jews have been given credit for their enormous contribution to the world.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Gifts of the Jews presents the transition of a disorganized group of humans becoming aware that there is an entity behind all that we see, and with which humankind is involved. Humankind is more than a gaggle of beings sacrificing animals, or even fellow humans to appease... something... a god... a spirit... "not sure what, but we know we better acknowledge whatever it is." The Jews gave humankind a beginning of an understanding of what truly may be behind all that we see around us.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Where the Halvidar and Naik rest.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Long brown hair. That falls to her waist. With dimples. She's Thin. And she's 5'4
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Age: 27 Moons. <br> Name: BountyFire. <br> Species: Wolf. <br> Gender: &female. <br> Looks: Grey fur, with silvery blue eyes, shorter than a regular wolf. Strong looking, and feirce. <br> Personalitu: She is strong and know what to do in bad times, and help the hurt. The rest of my personality, just get to know me.
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Beverly_Kurtin More than 1 year ago
One thing that bothers me is the world's use of the term "Old Testament" as though with the advent of Christianity, the entire Eternal Covenant God made with Abraham had been abrogated. Nonsense. The heavens and the earth have not yet passed away, therefor, the one and only Covenant is still very much in force. Cayhill skirts the issues by virtually ignoring it.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book very much and agree with Mr. Cahill's conclusions regarding how the philosophical foundations of Western society can be traced back to the influence of the Bible. It is blatantly obvious to the open minded individual that the Judeo-Christian ethic is the foundation for modern human rights and equality under the law among many other things. It is also very evident that the religion of the Jewish God is different than any other religion. However, Mr. Cahill would use the Bible as history and proof text on one hand then, with the other hand would undermine the authenticity of the Bible by deciding for himself which parts were historical and which parts were added later by other writers with their own agendas. I felt that with every stroke of the axe laid to the historical foundations of the Bible he chipped further away at the premise of his own conclusions.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book explains in a very entertaining way why one-half of the people in the world are now members of an Abrahamic faith. We all know that Christianity and Islam trace their inspirations back to Abraham, but Cahill tells us why faith in the all-powerful one God is such a revolutionary and compelling idea. If you are searching for a book to bring new meaning to the Old Testament, THE GIFTS OF THE JEWS is required reading.