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Gifts of the Jews
Thomas Cahill's book The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels demonstrates what happens when a great idea is ultimately brought down by a lack of critical and rhetorical rigor. This is not to suggest that The Gift of the Jews is not worth reading, or that its insights are not valuable, but rather that every surprising fact or remarkable contribution is lessened somewhat by a longing for what the book could have been, had Cahill simply been more precise in his language and extensive in his sourcing. As it is, The Gifts of the Jews is an entertaining, surprising examination of Jewish history and culture, albeit one whose evidence ultimately falls short its boldest claims. By examining the book's central thesis regarding the Jewish contribution to the conception of time and historicity alongside the more tangible "gifts" offered by Jewish culture, one is able to see how The Gifts of the Jews represents the seed of a valuable thesis that is only partially developed in the book itself.
Although Cahill discusses a number of tangible contributions to human culture provided by the early Jews, the overarching claim of the book is that the Jewish conception of time transformed the way ancient societies viewed history, mythology, and existence. Almost immediately Cahill's imprecision becomes something of an issue, because although the subtitle suggests that early Jewish thought "Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels," by "everyone" he actually means "the people of the Western world, whose peculiar but vital mentality has come to infect every culture on earth" (Cahill 3). The problem is not that Cahill chooses to focus on the Western world, but rather that he rather needlessly presents the Western world, and thus the Jewish contribution to Western thought, as the entire basis of contemporary society, thus ignoring the crucially important epistemological contribution of Eastern religions and philosophy. Again, focusing on Western society in particular is not an issue, but because the stated objective of the book is to demonstrate how Jewish thought changed the way "everyone thinks and feels," the book's thesis is undermined before one even gets to the actual argument, because the reader feels as if Cahill is moving the goalposts before the discussion begins. This is especially frustrating because while the information the book provides is both important and insightful, the imprecision of the language Cahill uses (and the subsequent effect that language has on the book's overall argument) feels something like an unforced error, and the imprecision exhibited by the subtitle recurs throughout the book.
The book's rhetorical issues stand out precisely because the Jew's contribution to (specifically) Western thought are so remarkable. Cahill quite convincingly argues that early Judaism fundamentally altered the course of Western history by presenting an entirely novel conception of time that did away with the cyclical conception of history favored by nearly all preexisting philosophies. Prior to the advent of Jewish cosmology and philosophy, "primitive peoples saw an immortal, wheel-like pattern that was predictive of mortal life," wherein everything that has happened before was predetermined to happen again in an endless cycle of birth, copulation, and death"(Cahill 53). Judaism, on the other hand, proposed a conception of time that had a definite beginning with the creation of the cosmos and a predicted end, and in doing so, completely reshaped the way human beings viewed the world around them.
This contribution cannot be understated, because one's conception of time is integral to every part of human consciousness, as human beings are eternally limited by the extent of their dimensional experience. That is to say, human beings cannot escape the experience of time as a linear process, and by proposing that this process is in fact linear rather than circular (as many early cultures believed, due to the seemingly circular nature of the seasons, among other things), early Jewish thought set the stage for nearly all of the scientific, epistemological, and philosophical developments of the Western world (Cahill 53-56). Though Cahill does not state it, even Einstein's most important contributions to the understanding of the cosmos ultimately depend upon the transformative conception of time offered by early Judaism, because modern physics depends on an understanding of time that would likely not have been possible without early Judaism's proposition of time as a finite set. Of course, recognizing this makes the book's rhetorical imprecision all the more galling, because by attempting to argue that early Jewish thought transformed thinking everywhere, the book manages to overlook some of the more specific developments that would actually serve as better evidence for its case than what is provided.
In addition to the cognitive, epistemological, and philosophical contribution offered by early Judaism's conception of time, the book focuses on more tangible "gifts" offered by the early Jews. In these instances the rhetorical issues that permeate the book's larger thesis are less pronounced, because it is difficult to deny the practical utility of these "gifts." For example, the Ten Commandment's prohibition against murder presents one of the first truly "just" laws, because it depends upon an obligation "in justice to have-nots" (Cahill 147). In fact, many of the legal precedents included in Jewish law focus on protecting the rights of the less powerful and advantaged, something which was practically unprecedented before their introduction; although earlier legal codes included restitution and punishment for perceived violations, Jewish law explicitly acknowledged a system of social differences and included measure meant to diminish the injustice inherent in these differences (Cahill 147). Of course, Jewish law included certain rules that would be considered appalling by contemporary standards, but Cahill is not attempting to argue that the legal system of early Judaism was a perfect system; rather, he attempts to demonstrate how early Jewish thought provided a number of heretofore unimaginable insights and concepts that would ultimately go on to inform some of the most important legal documents of contemporary society, and in this case, he does so convincingly.
Finally, it should be noted that Cahill is careful to discuss how early Jewish thought contrasts with the philosophies of its contemporary societies while retaining certain important elements of them. Cahill does not take the position of an apologist or "true believer" in the veracity of Jewish mythology, but rather considers it within the larger system of belief that permeated the region. He demonstrates how Jewish though represents a reaction to Sumerian, Babylonian, and Canaanite religions, and how Jewish mythology incorporates central tropes of these religions even as it repositions them in a monotheistic, linear conception of existence. However, much in the same way that the book's larger thesis makes Cahill's rhetorical imprecision more apparent, Cahill's insightful critical analysis of Jewish mythology in the context of preexisting religions only makes his focus on the Western world more problematic, because it forces one to wonder whether there were contemporaneous philosophical developments occurring in other parts of the world.
Cahill argues that "the role of the Jews, the inventors of Western culture, is […] singular," but because he does not discuss the philosophical investigations of contemporaneous but geographically distinct cultures, it is difficult to accept the veracity of this statement. Any time Cahill brings up the Epic of Gilgamesh or similar myths, the reader is simultaneously impressed by the creativity with which early Jewish thinkers adapted these myths and saddened by the fact that the book does not investigate what Eastern societies might have had to say about these same mythological tropes and concepts. While it is relatively believable that the Jewish contribution to myth and philosophy is "singular," because the book only focuses on the development of Western thought, the critical reader simply cannot accept this claim without evidence, which the book does not provide. Again, the book's focus on Western…[continue]
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