To the legion of readers who have already enjoyed How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill's distinctive style needs no introduction. This time he lends his reverent erudition and irreverent wit to an exploration of an earlier history: the origins of Western culture. As Cahill says in his Introduction, "the Jews started it all." In other words, the Irish may have saved civilization, but the Jews invented it.
The Gifts of the Jews is not, as the title may imply, a tiresome catalogue of Jewish achievements ("Casimir Funk discovered vitamins!"). Cahill uses the Hebrew Bible to illustrate general and specific ways Jews altered the course of human thought broke the momentum and forced from its cyclical track the perpetually spinning wheel of primeval history.
Discussion of the Bible starts before the Bible, to establish the critical contrast between old and new. For example, he shows that every ancient society throughout the world shared a "cyclical worldview." There simply was no beginning, middle, or end to anything. Historical consciousness had not yet appeared. Human life existed to propitiate nature gods in a never-ending cycle of birth, copulation, and death. In developing this background, Cahill invokes the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh to show its influence on, and contrast to, the later storytelling content and styles of the Hebrew Bible.
Cahill's depictions of the Biblical heroes invest near-cinematic life into characters many of us half-remember from long-ago Sunday school lessons. Abraham, Moses, David: the exploits of these few charismatic leaders and visionaries transform the course of human history. Through them, the core ideas of our civilization ethical monotheism, human justice, individual destiny, and history itself come into the world.
Cahill insists that this volume is not intended to be an introduction to Judaism or the Bible, but it could certainly be used to supplement one. It takes the lay reader into religious and philosophical territory that may seem too formidable under other guises. In the author's hands this is accessible stuff, relayed to us with intelligence and clarity as an entertaining, compelling, and concise historical narrative.
By the way, a reader's personal religious outlook is not an issue in this book. As the author says, his purpose is "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."The Gifts of the Jews follows How the Irish Saved Civilization as the second volume in a proposed series of seven entitled The Hinges of History. Like the first two, subsequent volumes are to "recount a pivotal chapter in the evolution of human sensibility, moments in the Western world when the course of civilization was changed forever." Such works could only encourage greater understanding, tolerance, and hope concerning ourselves, our neighbors, and our own places in history (Jewish concepts, all). That these books are finding such a wide general readership is, in itself, a reason for hope.
Reviewed by Joanna Brichetto.