Commentary Magazine


The Gifts of the Jews by Thomas Cahill

The Gifts of the Jews
by Thomas Cahill
Doubleday. 256 pp. $23.50

That religious belief is no longer a taboo subject even in enlightened circles has already been much noticed; indeed, to judge by the number of books and television programs devoted to the subject recently, religion—and particularly the Hebrew Bible—would seem to be enjoying something of a renascence. Two years ago, Bill Moyers devoted a whole series on public television to the book of Genesis. Another manifestation of this same phenomenon would seem to be Thomas Cahill’s The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, which has been on the best-seller lists for months.

Cahill, the former director of religious publishing at Doubleday, is a self-described “gentleman historian.” Throughout his new book, the second installment in a projected seven-volume series entitled Hinges of History (the first was How the Irish Saved Civilization), Cahill’s own gifts are apparent. A lively and idiosyncratic tour of the Hebrew Bible, The Gifts of the Jews is written with humor, whimsy, and an engaging sensitivity to literary nuance. But the book aims for more than entertainment.

Taking us from pre-biblical civilization through Abraham, Moses, the Ten Commandments, David and his Psalms, the Prophets, and Ruth and Naomi, Cahill drives home a central point: the Jews introduced to the world a radically new conception of reality. Supplanting the ancient: view that man’s life on earth is cyclical and predetermined (except for the occasional intervention of capricious gods), the Bible teaches that the future is determined by our present actions. This being the case, human behavior is morally significant, man is free, and progress is possible.

This revolutionary view, according to Cahill, enabled the writing of history. The Bible marks the first attempt to record the history of nations and individuals as it occurred: not as myth, and not as hagiography, but as a chronicle of events and persons that is as factually accurate as its authors were able to make it. So compelling does Cahill find the biblical authors’ intention in this regard that he is persuaded the events recounted there did indeed happen, at least in broad outline if not in every detail.

This is not to suggest that Cahill sees every word of the Bible as inspired by God, a view he attributes only to “fundamentalists.” To the contrary, the very “patchwork nature of the Scriptures, their conflicting norms and judgments, outright contradictions, and bald errors,” betray the errant hand of human beings. Besides, Cahill avers, any other view would constitute a slur on the Divinity: episodes like the “mass carnage and vindictive slaughter” that, the Bible says, God commanded the Jews to inflict upon the Canaanites are “unworthy of a God we would be willing to believe in.”

But this brings us to Cahill’s “take” on the Bible itself. For him, the story it tells is one of “evolving sensibility”—of progress both in human thinking and in relationships among men and between man and God. The very course of the Bible reflects this evolution: God’s initial involvement with Abraham and the people of Israel leads, at first, to a physical journey through the wilderness from Egypt to Israel. Some hundreds of years later, the Bible rises to another level: the inner journey of the human spirit as expressed in the high poetic imagery of the book of Psalms. Soon enough, the Prophets begin demanding of the people not ritual and sacrifices but a personal morality built on the values of justice and humility. The culminating stage of this evolution is marked, for Cahill, by the story told in the book of Ruth—a story that recognizes, and rewards, the essential moral goodness of its two female protagonists.

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In making his points, Cahill shows a remarkable sensitivity to the biblical text, and his enthusiasm for the Bible as a whole is quite contagious. As for his contention that the Bible introduces the “modern” sense of time, history, and the nature of human relationships, that, too, seems persuasive, at least to a lay reader. Still, for all its virtues, The Gifts of the Jews is a troubling book.

For one thing, Cahill in effect requires his readers to accept his word on the crucial question of which portions of the Bible are “almost certainly authentic” and which are later additions; which miracles are to be taken as miraculous and which as mere exaggerations of natural phenomena (the category to which, for example, he assigns the splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the manna that fed the Jews in the desert). Although The Gifts of the Jews has a general discussion of sources at the end, most of its assertions are undocumented, leaving the ironic impression that in tracing this story of the interactions of human beings with an omnipotent and omniscient God, it is not God but Thomas Cahill who holds all the answers.

And where do Cahill’s answers come from? Often, they come from the same belief in human progress, in an “evolving sensibility,” that governs his reconstruction of the Bible’s own development from Abraham to Ruth. From his (superior) late-20th-century perspective, certain passages are approved as reflecting a putatively higher stage of morality while others are discounted as primitive. Among the latter, Cahill particularly singles out the laws declaring witchcraft, homosexuality, and incest to be crimes worthy of capital punishment. Whatever one may say about these laws—and Jewish tradition has much to say that Cahill ignores—it would seem incumbent upon an author who espouses an idea of God as the source of objective morality (as Cahill appears to do) to think harder before dismissing them out of hand as examples of a “lower” moral understanding.

A problem of another kind attaches to Cahill’s highly imperfect grasp of Judaism. Both in his reading of the Bible and in his exposition of the values he finds embedded in its text, he pays scant if any attention to the specific framework in which those narratives operate and take their meaning. That framework is built on the premise that God revealed Himself to the Jews in the language of law.

Consider, for example, Cahill’s own apparent favorite, the book of Ruth. This is, as he says, a story of human lovingkindness. But, far more, it is also the story of Jews living up to the values embodied in Jewish law. Critical junctures in the narrative—Ruth’s following the reapers to pick up their gleanings, Boaz’s decision to redeem the land of Naomi’s deceased husband and to marry Ruth—cannot be fully appreciated except against the background of the laws of agricultural gifts to the poor and the rules for redeeming ancestral land that are explicitly detailed in the book of Leviticus. The book of Ruth itself, moreover, is the source of additional laws relating to marriage, property transactions, conversion, and even modes of personal greeting in Jewish life.

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Time and again, Cahill’s reading of the Bible eviscerates the essence of Judaism: the rules, traditions, and practices that for thousands of years have made concrete the otherwise quite generic values he extracts from the text. Thus, he applauds the Jewish notion that time can be made sacred, linking it to the concept of the Sabbath day described in the Ten Commandments. Basing himself on the relevant verses in Exodus, he writes that the Sabbath “call[s] us to a weekly restoration of prayer, study, and recreation (re-creation).” But he conspicuously neglects to cite another and no less important verse some chapters later in Exodus: “You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day.”

It is, in other words, the distinctive ritual behaviors associated with this day—including the behaviors that Jews are enjoined to refrain from—that give the Sabbath meaning in traditional Jewish life, and not the (essentially Christian) notion of a weekly interval of study and recreation. And so, too, with every other value one would care to consider: sanctity, love, judgment, justice, humility, gratitude. Each of them, in traditional Judaism, is embodied in detailed laws, known collectively as halakhah, whose observance enables—ensures—the fulfillment of the named value as well as the essential continuity (what Cahill calls the “unique miracle of cultural survival”) of the religious community that keeps those laws.

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The Gifts of the Jews has been positively reviewed by both Jewish and non-Jewish reviewers, with Jewish reviewers voicing perhaps the more glowing accolades. One can readily appreciate their enthusiasm: any approbation of the Jewish contribution to society is welcome, still more one expressed with such verve and grace by a non-Jewish writer. But at a moment when the American Jewish community is in a condition of self-evident crisis, and when intermarriage rates have crossed the 50-percent mark, what is desperately needed is an articulation of Jewish distinctiveness. By making “the gifts of the Jews” seem, in effect, only a particularly brilliant harbinger of today’s conventional secular wisdom, Cahill’s well-intentioned book does a disservice to the Bible and 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.

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