It is with great sadness that JBS acknowledges the passing of one of our founders and inspiration, Kenneth Schwartz. Kenny was always a happy, positive and supportive friend who worked alongside us to encourage discussion and raise awareness about issues within the Jewish community. An activist and supporter for many causes, Kenny was intelligent, articulate and passionate, but more than all else he was kind and considerate. He will be missed as a colleague and friend. May his family find comfort among the mourners of Jerusalem.
 
The Gift of the Jews
Review by Laurel Corona
Walking the line between history and theology, Cahill demonstrates that in ancient times the two were intertwined, perhaps to the point of being indistinguishable. The history of ancient man  roaming Mesopotamia more than five millennia ago  was consumed with a quest to make sense of the natural, unexplainable events man witnessed daily. The initial effort led to the belief in many Gods, each responsible for a specific phenomena and each prayed to in an effort to exercise some degree of control. As Cahill states, "Long before the cities of Sumer has risen above the Tigris and Euphrates, long before farming and herding had been thought of, the first earthly beings looked up at the sky with attention and intelligence had thought these thoughts  the perceptions of the contingent life of earth as a fleeting reflection of the eternal life of the heavens, the insight that the moon especially mirrors our earthly condition of birth, copulation, and personal death, and then regeneration of species. Such thoughts express mankind's original religious experience and form the foundation for all the world's most ancient religions."

Cahill traces the journey of Avram (Abraham), a man who came upon the concept of one God, and his travels across present-day Middle East. His general theological principles  and his devotion to God  are concepts that have endured to present day, even as the expressions of God's Will (through direct communication or communication through angels) and God's demands (the sacrifice of Isaac) have transformed to the ways of today's organized religion. Traveling northwest along the Euphrates from the city of Ur to Harran  both cities devoted to the moon, Avram hears a voice saying to him:


"Go-you-forth
from your land
from your Kindred
from your father's house
to the land that I will let you see
I will make a great nation of you
and will give-you-blessing
and will make your name great:
Be a Blessing!
I will bless those who bless you."

And so the history of the world was forever changed.

When Avram introduced his revelations  in the second millennium B.C.  his views were revolutionary and open to scorn. In most of Africa and Asia prehistoric animism was the norm. The "Great Wheel of Life and Death" were the core fundamentals of belief and life on earth was seen as emanating from the skies. Opportunities for new beliefs to flourish were stifled by tradition and the mandate to "copy the forefathers". The idea of a new view of the Gods, let alone the concept of only one God, would have been viewed as insane at best, outrageous at worst.
Guided by God and the word of his angels, Avram entered Canaan and "and passed through the land as far as the Place of Shekhem", where he constructed an alter. It is at this site that God reveals this land as the Land of His Promise  "I give this land to your seed".
Keen businessman he apparently was, Avram moves his clan to Egypt as famine strikes Canaan. Needing to deal with the god-king, Avram cleverly secures the cooperation of his wife Sarai, saying to her:


"Now here, I know well that you are a woman fair to look at
It will be, when the Egyptians see you and say, she is his wife'
That they will kill me, but you they will allow to live.
Pray say that you are my sister
So that it may go well with me on your account, that I myself may give thanks to you."

Sarai is placed in the harem of the Pharaoh, and her "brother" Avram is awarded with "sheep and oxen, donkeys, servants and maids, she-asses and camels." Yet we are not told if the Pharaoh draws Sarai to his bed, or how Sarai feels about the ruse. What we are told is that Avram's God "plagued Pharaoh with great plagues", leading the Pharaoh to call Avram to his palace and ask:


"Why did you not tell me that she is your wife?
Why did you say She is my sister'?
So I took her for myself as a wife.
But now, here is your wife, take her and go?"

And so another, outside Avram's own circle, has seen the power of the One God.

Cahill does not present Avraham's radical break with the existing belief systems of the time as an immediate or impulsive action. He traces for us the transition of his belief system and how he comes to his understanding of One God. The Avraham portrayed by Cahill aspires to what all people aspire to  security and pleasure  which allows us to understand him as a man and not as a mystical figure that went on to present ideas that changed the course of the world. Avraham was a man of flaws and ambitions, capable of deceit as well as acts of tremendous generosity. He was a man of his times, eager to navigate the path to success and safety, but he was also an extraordinary man, considering the consequences of future generations and willing to sacrifice so that the generations that spring forth from his body will be able to live from his legacy.

It is also important, as Cahill points out, that the God Abraham introduced to the world was radically different because He (God) initiated the encounters he had with humans, He began the dialogue and He acted upon His words. This was a marked difference to the gods of the pagans who had no exchanges with their subjects and with whom the relationship was exceedingly one-sided (worshipper to god). The God of Abraham was not merely responsive, He was proactive, engaging, ever-present.

And so the generations pass  Abraham to Isaac, Isaac to Yaakov (Israel). Yaakov has 12 sons, his favorite of which is Joseph. The other sons, jealous of their father's attention and affections for Joseph, sell him to a caravan of slave traders, who take him to Egypt. Joseph lands in prison after resisting (refusing, perhaps) the sexual advances of Potiphar's wife, in whose home he has landed. There he gains the reputation of a gifted dream reader. This brings him to the Pharaoh's attention, as he has been having some trouble sleeping. Joseph's interpretation of the Pharaoh's dream  that there will be seven years of prosperity, to be followed by seven years of poverty  impresses the ruler and lands Joseph the job of vizier, the second most powerful position in all of Egypt. While Joseph never hears the voice of God, the scripture makes it clear that all these extraordinary events are taking place in accordance with God's will. It is as if Joseph's slavery (and Yaakov's pain at the loss of his son) were all necessary in order to ensure the survival of the Children of Abraham during the oncoming famine.

With this story ends the discussion of Abraham and his immediate subsequent generations. The next time the biblical narrative mentions Abraham's descendents is in Exodus  taking place centuries later. By this time the Children of Israel had grown many in number  so many in fact that the Egyptian ruler at the time grew worried that their numbers may exceed those of the Egyptians.

And so the story continues. The Pharaoh calls for a decline in the Hebrew population by demanding of his midwives;


"when you help the Hebrew women give birth, look at the two stones:
if it is a boy, kill him;
but if a girl, let her live".

But his plan has flaws, flaws that have throughout history frustrated the attempts of those that have sort to be rid of the Hebrews  audacity. For the midwives replied to Pharaoh:


"Indeed, not like the Egyptian women are the Hebrew women,
indeed they are lively:
before the midwife comes to them, they have given birth!".

Frustrated and paranoid, the Pharaoh orders that all newborn Hebrew males will be thrown into (drowned) in the Nile. So Miriam, mother of Moses, places her son in a basket, to be saved from the certain death that awaits him.

Activities once again taking place in accordance with the will of God.

Cahill brings the reader through Sinai and into Canaan and through the kingdoms of David and Solomon. Along the way he reinforces the storyline with quotes from the text, always presenting both as a historian and as someone fascinated more with the moral and ethical implications of the history than with the actual accuracy thereof. At no time does Cahill bring a theological argument to the book, preferring to allow those with the theological predisposition to find in the book what they seek. More to the point, however, is his goal to make note of the Old Testament and the stories therein as a moment of transition in history, in the thinking of man, and most importantly in the morality of man. That the Jews brought this transition to the world, suffered for it, and came to embody it in their traditions and their actions, is, in Cahill's view a gift to humanity  the Gift of the Jews.

Review by Laurel Corona