Cahill's GiftDENNIS PRAGER
Thomas Cahill outlines ten of the more profound contributions Judaism has given humanity.
Sadly, most readers,
I suspect, will pass over or forget most of the more profound points, which are
often mentioned in as few as two sentences. I have therefore decided to note all
the ways I could find in which Cahill demonstrates the Jews' effects on humanity.
Unless a reader read with a pen and paper as I did, these points can easily be
missed, and certainly easily forgotten.
Judaism alone differed. According to the Jews' way of viewing life, events actually move forward; they do not merely repeat themselves. In their rejection of this universal mode of thought, Cahill writes, "The Jews were the first people to break out of this circle.. . . It may be said with some justice that theirs is the only new idea that human beings had ever had. The results of this utterly transformative way of understanding life? In Cahill's words, Most of our best words, in fact new, adventure, surprise; unique individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice are the gifts of the Jews.
Cahill is right to emphasize this transformative Jewish contribution. If all is a circle, nothing we do matters, none of us matter, life does not matter. It will all happen again. What we do doesn't matter for our actions to matter, they must be able to influence the future. But the future cannot be influenced if everything happens over and over.
If, on the other hand, the Jewish view
is adopted, everything matters every act I engage in matters, and therefore
I matter so much so that each one of us changes history by everything we
do. Cahill offers two excellent and, to my knowledge, original explanations
of why the Bible's genealogies, sections of the Bible that bore most of us, are
of vast importance. One is that the listing of these individuals' names
even the names of women was the Hebrew Bible's way of saying that every
one of these persons was uniquely significant. No such listing of commoners' names
exists in pre-biblical literature. Cahill's other explanation of the importance
of the genealogical listings is that they are the Bible's way of telling us that
the Bible is history, not mythology and in a very carefully worded paragraph,
Cahill thereby differs with Joseph Campbell, for whom the Jews and their claims
to historicity and utter rejection of mythology were an immense nuisance.
Now, if Cahill is right about the Jews changing everything We can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes" what are we to make of this? This thesis raises many more questions. Here are three:
Were the Jews, or at least some Jews, moral/spiritual/intellectual supermen or simply a vehicle for God's intervention into human affairs?
What are the Jews supposed to do today?
Where do Christianity and Islam fit in the divine scheme?
As a believing Jew, the first is simple to answer. The Torah itself emphasizes the lack of any intrinsic specialness to Jews. For some unknown reason, God chose the Jews to be His "special treasure," and therefore His emissary to humanity to communicate these brand new, world-transforming ideas to humanity.
According to Judaism, the Jews are God's third attempt to have people treat each another decently. The first was conscience, the voice in all human beings telling them that some things are right and some wrong. This didn't work. People acted rotten from the beginning. So God destroyed the world except for righteous Noah and his family and started all over relying on the revelation of seven basic moral laws ("The Seven Laws of the Sons of Noah"), and not solely on conscience. When that failed God revealed Himself and more laws to one people the Jews. Perhaps an eternal people can teach people morality even better than the eternal God.
This may help answer the question about Christianity and Islam at least in a way that one sympathetic Jew can answer it. Though Judaism regards God's revelations to the Jewish prophets as God's last revelations, even Jews -maybe especially Jews could see that a thousand and more years later the world was not getting much more moral, that for whatever reasons the Jews were not having a universal moral impact. It is therefore quite understand able, even for a religious Jew, to understand why some Jews concluded that a fourth moral revelation was necessary. Believers in this fourth attempt to bring more love into the world became known as Christians. Some six hundred years later in Arabia, another part of the world influenced by the Jews, some non-Jews believed that a fifth divine revelation was necessary. They are known as Muslims. As a believing Jew, I regard these world religions as further confirmation of the power and authenticity of God's gifts to the Jews.
As for what Jews should be doing now, the answer is simpler than its execution. Jews should be spreading ethical monotheism to the world's peoples. Sadly, most do not. Most religious Jews live lives that are too insular to affect other Jews, let alone non-Jews, while most nonreligious Jews, if they identify with a mission to influence humanity, choose to do so through secular ideologies. To put it in a sentence, the Jews who most live Judaism don't talk to the world, and the Jews who talk to the world don't live Judaism. Both groups should read The Gifts of the Jews as should non-Jews, especially those who believe that their religion has superseded Judaism.
I especially invite anti-Jewish Muslims and Christians to read Cahill's one-sentence summary of anti-Semitism: "The hatred of Christians [and, one may add, Muslims or secular Nazis and Communists] for Jews may have its ultimate source in hatred of God, a hatred that the hater must carefully keep himself from knowing about." I spent five years writing with Rabbi Joseph Telushkin an entire book (Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism, Simon & Schuster paperback) arguing this very point.
Now someone preferably though not necessarily a non-Christian needs to write "The Gifts of the Christians." For these are very great and include something called the United States of America. America is largely a Christian gift, and unless most of us Americans understand this, and unless Christian influence endures, this gift will surely be taken away. European rejection of those gifts gave us Nazism and communism. Even a Jew knows that.
Prager, Dennis. Cahill's Gift. First Things 87 (November 1998): 42-50.
Reprinted with permission of First Things, published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, 156 Fifth Avenue, Suite 400, New York, NY 10010. To subscribe to First Things, call 1-800-783-4903.
The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels by Thomas Cahill is published by Doubleday.
Dennis Prager is a writer, theologian, and one of America's most respected radio talk show hosts. He has been broadcasting on radio in Los Angeles since 1982 and became nationally syndicated in 1999.
Among his many accomplishments Dennis Prager has engaged in interfaith dialogue with Catholics at the Vatican, Muslims in the Persian Gulf, Hindus in India, and Protestants at Christian seminaries throughout America. For ten years, he conducted a weekly interfaith dialogue on radio with representatives of virtually every religion in the world. New York's Jewish Week described Dennis Prager as "one of the three most interesting minds in American Jewish Life."
More information about Dennis Prager may be found at his web site here.
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