Sunday, January 16, 2011

Book #4: The Gifts of the Jews

I decided that since I had just read Daniel Deronda and was thinking about Jewish things, it was a good time to read The Gifts of the Jews by Thomas Cahill.  Cahill is the author of several books on cultural contributions from various peoples.  He wrote How the Irish Saved Civilization and one other about Greek civilization called The Wine Dark Sea or something like that.   I had found Gifts of the Jews on Paperback Swap and requested it because I wanted to read up about the time periods that I was having my 9th grader study this year.

I also hoped that if the book was appropriate I could maybe have the 9th grader read it.  But that isn't going to happen.  The very first chapter contains a sort of vivid reconstruction of an ancient pagan ritual involving a priestess and a slave.   And in general, the maturity level wasn't geared to a youngish barely 15 year old.  It reminded me more of a Discovery Channel show that wants to pull casual viewers in with a few dramatic re-enactments and cute double entendres. So I wouldn't think it was corrupting to an adult, but I would hesitate to hand it over to a highschooler. 

So did I like the book?  Well...

#1, it was very readable.  I finished it in a couple of days.   He's a good, lively writer and the book moves quickly.

#2, quality-wise, it was a mixed bag.  On the one hand there were some excellent passages, very perceptive, about the differences between Jewish monotheism and the polytheism of their time.   Cahill made Abraham and to a lesser extent Moses and David, really come alive as characters.  And this sounds strange, but God Himself came alive as a character.   As contrasted with the pagan gods and the way the ancients worshipped them, God is utterly, radically different, and correspondingly, the relationship of His People to Him was very different.    Cahill did a good job of showing how God's "jealous" and personal relationship with the patriarchs shaped their lives, thoughts and hearts, paving the way for a new conception of individuality which has come down to us as our heritage.

#3, on the other hand--- there were some sections that seemed careless, almost written by proxy.   For example, Cahill made a point that the ancient world viewed Time in cyclical, "wheel" terms.   The Jews, he said, were the first ones to conceive of time as linear, so that one's choices actually MATTERED.   Thus the Jews, he said, basically invented the idea of history.  This seems to have some truth in it but is too broadly drawn.

Also, he sketched out lengthy summaries of the lives of Abraham, Moses, and David and then some of the post-Davidian fortunes of the Jews.   Abraham's life was well-presented and offered genuine insight, but the rest of it seemed like just an outline of Bible history.  It didn't seem to really have much directly to do with the "Gifts of the Jews" theme, and most readers I would assume know the gist of the lives of the patriarchs, anyway.   David was presented as something like a Super-Bowl level quarterback or charismatic politician, but this doesn't seem to sum up what he was about. 

And in the last chapter, Cahill summarily dismisses anyone who holds that the Bible is divinely inspired.  He seems to think this is the territory of only a few benighted Fundamentalists.  This seems truly odd to me, as if he was completely ignorant of the whole history of the Christian Church, and in fact it is not even related to the "Jewish" theme of the book.   This was the most "proxy-written" section of the book, as if he were only half paying attention to what he was saying.

All said, I didn't think this book was as well-written as How the Irish Saved Civilization.  I don't feel like I know much more about the Jews and their contributions to our culture than I did before.  I will say that I did get a better sense of what kind of cultural difference Jewish monotheism made as opposed to polytheism -- how the idea of a face-to-face God, who works decisively and progressively in time, and orders and unifies all things, makes our present conceptions of literature, psychology, history and science possible.


  1. I'll have to add this author to my list. Sounds interesting.

  2. I read this book a long time ago. I don't think I finished it. Cahill annoyed me. I remember thinking that he seemed little fixated on sex and he was very glib in sections. I stopped trusting him as an author. Which was disappointed because I had enjoyed the book on the Irish. A few years later, forgetting that I had become annoyed I tried to read the book on Christians (Everlasting Hills maybe?) Again the thing with the sex and glibbness. So I decided I really didn't care for him. Too much of 'pop' writer.


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