Too bad about the title of Thomas Cahill’s The Gifts of the Jews. That enthusiastic phrase may repel some readers from this enlightening book about a small, tenacious people who have threaded their way through Western history. For
Cahill, a former director of religious publishing at Doubleday in New York City, the Jews are more than an intriguing subplot— they are the prime movers of the world as we know it, “we” being the Christian West. The Gifts of the Jews is the second in his planned
seven-part series called The Hinges of His tory, which celebrates those who have con tributed what he calls the “singular trea sures” of Western culture. The first book How the Irish Saved Civilization, was £ best-seller. Amid the bulk of literature thaï seeks to explain what has gone wrong ir history—not least for the Jews—Cahill’s decision to highlight the positive is refreshing.
But don’t expect a thesis on Jewish culture that links the gifts of Moses to those of Mahler and Mailer.
THE GIFTS OF THE JEWS: HOW A TRIBE OF DESERT NOMADS CHANGED THE WAY EVERYONE THINKS AND FEELS
Instead, the tightly packed volume simply retells the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) in snappy 1990s language, examining just what it is about monotheism—originally a Jewish idea—that was so progressive. Cahill begins his story long before Abraham, with a colorful description of the ancient Sumerians, for whom life on earth was a cyclical—and frequently erotic—working out of a larger drama that had allegedly already taken place among the many gods inhabiting the heavens. The evolution of Abraham’s relationship with his God marked the beginning of linear history, says Cahill. From then on, humans had a consciousness of time unfolding forward, “one-way and irreversible,” in which mankind could influence its course. As he gives a contemporary spin to familiar Bible stories, Cahill traces how ritual turned to faith and spirituality, and individual lives suddenly held meaning. And he illustrates how contemporary notions of mercy and justice derived from a plot line in which God repeatedly places himself on the side of the little guy.
By Thomas Cahill (Doubleday, 291 pages, $32.95)
Cahill, who immersed himself in Jewish scriptures for two years, does not write with the authoritative tone of, say, Sir Martin Gilbert, the heavyweight author of more than 50 books whose latest is the weighty Israel: A History, which devotes 700 pages to the Zionist state’s first 50 years. An eager Cahill, by contrast, crams more than 4,000 years into 250 pages, pledging to “give the Jews their due.” But he serves up his cogent insights on history with a bit too much unabashed admiration for the Jewish religion. “Theirs is the only new idea that human beings have ever had,” he writes of the Jewish concept of God. But such excess is redeemed by a vibrant prose style, replete with juicy sex scenes and media-sawy metaphors. “This God is not a member of any known 12-step program,” he writes of Moses’ unyielding God in the Exodus chapter. Cahill has managed to make a long essay on a religion’s lasting influence into an accessible and fun book that could captivate even lawn-chair readers.
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