The Gifts of the Jews: The Revolutionary Jewish Ideas that Formed the Foundation of Western Civilization


Fascinating insights from best-selling author, Thomas Cahill, who passed away this week.

Thomas Cahill, the popular history writer, has died aged 82. Cahill rose to fame with his bestselling book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, the first in “Hinges of History”, a prospective seven-volume series (he wrote six) recounting formative moments in Western civilization. In Jewish circles he is best known for his acclaimed and best-selling second book in the series, Jewish donations: How a tribe of desert nomads changed the way everyone thinks and feels.

His book was indeed a gift to Jews, as it brought to a wide audience a moving and intellectually stimulating appreciation of the revolutionary Jewish values ​​and ideas that became the foundation of Western civilization. The book delivers a dose of Jewish pride on steroids.

cahill wrote:

The Jews started it all – and by “it” I mean so many things we hold dear, the underlying values ​​that we all resonate with, Jews and Gentiles, believers and atheists. Without the Jews, we would see the world with different eyes, hear with different ears, even feel with different feelings. And we would set a different course for our lives… Their worldview is so much a part of us that at this point it might as well have been written into our cells as genetic code.

Here are some insightful and inspiring quotes from Cahill’s book that describe some of the gifts of Jews.

1. The Jewish view of time

Everything indicates that there was, in the oldest religious thought, a profoundly cyclical vision of the cosmos. The assumptions that early man made about the world were, in all their essentials, little different from the assumptions that later and more sophisticated societies, such as Greece and India, would make in a more elaborate way. As Henri-Charles Puech says of Greek thought in his founding book Man and time: “No event is unique, nothing is recorded only once…; each event has been recorded, is recorded and will be recorded perpetually; the same individuals have appeared, appear and will appear at each turn of the circle. “

Cahill writes how life was seen as part of an endless cycle of birth and death. Humanity was seen as stuck in a cycle of endless repetition, unable to break free and change the future. It’s like being stuck in a constant recycling of Marvel movies, one sequel after another. In the end, nothing we do matters.

The Jews viewed time differently. It is not an endless circle; it is a linear movement towards a triumphant destiny. And every generation – every person – contributes to writing and shaping history.

With the revelation of the Torah, Jews began to view time differently. Time is not a circle; it’s linear, with a narrative that has a beginning, a middle, and a triumphant end to which humanity is destined. And every generation – every person – helps write and shape history, with the goal of making the world an ever better place. We can grow and move forward, and everything we do matters.

Cahill writes:

Since time is no longer cyclical but one-way and irreversible, personal history is now possible and an individual life can have value… The Jews were the first to break out of this circle, to find a new way of thinking and living, a new way of understanding and experiencing the world, so much so that one can say with some accuracy that theirs is the only new idea that human beings have ever had.

This Jewish concept of time as an unfolding drama leading to a destined endgame is summed up in the Hebrew word for time: zman. The Hebrew root of zman is zamen, which means manifest or “provoke”. Time is an “invitation” (hazmana in Hebrew, coming from the same word) to “prepare and prepare” (mizuman) for the future. We are active participants in time shaping our destiny.

2. The offshoots of God being one

Cahill describes the ramifications of Abraham’s revolutionary idea of ​​monotheism. There is a lot to unpack. Here is the first half of the quote:

“The Jews were the first to develop an integrated vision of life and its obligations. Rather than imagining the requirements of law and the requirements of wisdom as separate domains (as the Sumerians, Egyptians and Greeks did), they imagined that all life, coming from the Author of life, had to be governed by a single perspective. The material and the spiritual, the intellectual and the moral were one: “Hear, O Israel: YHWH our God, YHWH (is) One! The great formula is not that there is only one God but that God is one.

The Jews brought to the world the concept of an Infinite Being who is the source of all creation. God is not only the Creator, He is the active Sustainer who continually wants everything to exist. Like the uniqueness of a person’s DNA that permeates every iota of their body, everything is an expression of the one “Author of Life”.

#God is not only in the synagogue and spiritual texts, He is in the kitchen and the bedroom.

This “single perspective” mentioned by Cahill translates into a unified view of the material and spiritual realms. Unlike other religions that see the two at loggerheads, with the physical tainted by evil and departing from the spiritual dimension, Judaism sees the world holistically; everything emanates from one eternal source. The physical world offers us the opportunity to use it wisely and uplift it, resulting in a life steeped in holiness.

God is not only in the synagogue and the spiritual texts, He is in the kitchen and the bedroom. Spirituality is not achieved by running away to the top of a mountain, separated from the world, celibate and avoiding the material. It is only by being immersed in the physical and accepting the challenge of using it for higher purposes that one becomes spiritual. Judaism rejects the notion of duality.

Cahill continues his quote, leading to a fascinating insight into Judaism and science:

From this idea will flow not only the integrative and universalist propensities of Western philosophy, but even the possibility of modern science. For life is not a series of discrete experiences, influenced by various forces. We do not live in a fragmented universe, controlled by fickle and warlike gods. As Bob Dylan sings, “Ring the bells, sweet Martha, for the poor man’s son.” Ring the bells to let the world know that God is one. God and the son of the poor go hand in hand. Because God is One, life is a moral continuum and reality has meaning.

With all of life coming from an integrated source, nothing is random or disparate. There is order in the universe, and the deeper one digs, the more synchronicity one can find in its underpinnings. Unity means there is a meaning to reality; it can be studied and understood. Science is not in conflict with religion; it is another prism through which to perceive the complex order and design of life.

In the words of Nobel Laureate Dr. Roald Hoffmann: “I believe that science and Jewish religious tradition share this: the belief that this world is real and tangible, that the world and the actions of human beings matter. and that there is order to be found. This commonality is a lot to build on.

Cahill describes many other gifts of Jews – equality before the law, the sanctity of human life, belief in a benevolent and loving God, Shabbat, the imperative to perform acts of kindness – core values that the world takes for granted today, and for which many hated to give credit to the Jews.

As Cahill wrote: “Our history is replete with examples of those who have refused to see what the Jews really are, who – through intellectual blindness, racial chauvinism, xenophobia or just plain evil – have been unable to give this bizarre tribe, this motley band, this race of vagabonds who are the ancestors of the Western world, their due.


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