Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Gifts of the Jews

The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everybody Thinks and Feels
© Thomas Cahill
293 pages

This week I continued in Thomas Cahill's Hinges of History series with The Gifts of the Jews. Rather than focusing on a Judaism changed by Hellenism, Cahill chooses to look at the ancient Hebrews, the people responsible for what Christians call the "Old Testament". I'm quite familiar with the Hebrew scriptures, since I was raised in a strictly literalist Christian sect and was instructed in all of the glories and horrors of the Old Testament as a teenager. For a number of years a teacher of mine took our "young adult" class through the Hebrew scriptures, paying special attention to the violence and arbitrariness of YHWH. My teacher's expressed purpose in doing this was to emphasize that God isn't a touchy-feely type: he's a God, and he'll put you in your place if you dare question him. For instance, one fellow named Korah questioned Moses' ability to lead the Hebrews. YHWH opens a pit in the Earth and all those pesky rabble-rousers fell to their deaths*.

Those of you who did not receive such an education may not be aware that the Hebrews are supposedly fathered by a man named Abram, or "Avram" as Cahill renders it -- and he, according to the Hebrew scriptures, was called out of the city of Ur. Ur being a Sumerian city, Cahill begins the book by examining Sumerian culture. He is particularly focused on attempting to portray Sumerian culture as being fixated on the idea of cycles -- that they were a people who saw life as a constant wheel of life, death, and rebirth where nothing mattered and all was futile in the end: where ideas like progress were alien. After spending time setting up this subject, he then introduces the story of Abram's departure from Ur as a revolutionary idea. The verses in the scriptures say that YHWH spoke to Abram and told him to leave Sumeria and go to Canaan, and "Abram went". Cahill grows very excited about those two words, seeing them as an utter departure from everything in Sumerian culture. Not, not being very familiar with Sumerian culture, I can't make an educated comment on this -- but raving about "and Abram went" for several paragraph strikes me as reading a little too much into the text.

Cahill's subject in this book is the whole of the "Old Testament", although it should be noted that he is only concerned with the OT as rendered in the Christian canon. Cahill has to weave his thesis through (or derive it out, depending on your credulity) thousands of years of literature and folk history. He paints a picture of an evolving "Jewish" worldview that gives birth -- in his mind -- to the ideas of adventure, history, progress, and the individual. Having finished the book I remain skeptical of this thesis. He renders to the Jews the same naked worship Edith Hamilton granted the Athenians in The Echo of Greece, which I found distracting. His entire series is about cultures that have enabled, guarded, or fermented changes in the western psyche, what he calls "transition points", and that is the lens through which he views the Hebrew scriptures. He's not a literalist by any means, but it seemed to me as if he was attempting to force the body of Hebrew scriptures to wear his narrative, rather than creating a narrative based on the scriptures. I cannot comment on the validity of his idea that the Jewish worldview was the first to spurn a cyclical worldview in favor of a progressive one. I can comment in an informed way when he says that ideas like the individual and history are Jewish ideas: my knowledge of classical Greece runs contrary to that. What of Herodotus? What of Athens? He seems to ignore them, just as he ignored Islamic society in How the Irish Saved Civilization. I understand the need to focus on particular contributions, but they must be viewed within a context of "overall" contributions so that the casual reader does not gain the impression that the Irish (or the Jews, in this book) are solely responsible for important parts of the western tradition. One interesting note, though: he takes the same romantic view of the late-age Hebrew prophets as did Isaac Asimov, both seeming them as the progressive populists of their day, using dogma to effect positive social changes. When a Catholic and a humanist have the same interpretation of the text, perhaps I should revisit said texts and consider the matter again.

As usual, Cahill presents a very readable narrative -- but I found this one lacking in credibility. The ending chapter is particularly disappointing, conveying to me the idea that the Hebrews and Judaism are magic. This is not an exaggeration, as he uses the word 'miraculous' to describe how wonderful they are. I will continue in the Hinges of History series, however, as despite this book he has earned my respect and I find his thoughts provoking.

*Verse 32 is the pit verse.

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