Reading guide for The Gifts of The Jews by Thomas Cahill

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The Gifts of The Jews

How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels

By Thomas Cahill

The Gifts of The Jews
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  • Hardcover: Mar 1998,
    291 pages.
    Paperback: Sep 1999,
    255 pages.

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About this Book

Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

We normally think of history as one catastrophe after another, war followed by war, outrage by outrage--almost as if history were nothing more than all the narratives of human pain, assembled in sequence. And surely this is, often enough, an adequate description. But history is also the narratives of grace, the recountings of those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, gave something beyond what was required by circumstance. In this series, The Hinges of History, I mean to retell the story of the Western world as the story of the great gift-givers, those who entrusted to our keeping one or another of the singular treasures that make up the patrimony of the West. This is also the story of the evolution of Western sensibility, a narration of how we became the people that we are and why we think and feel the way we do. And it is, finally, a recounting of those essential moments when everything was at stake, when the mighty stream that became Western history was in ultimate danger and might have divided into a hundred useless tributaries or frozen in death or evaporated altogether. But the great gift-givers, arriving in the moment of crisis, provided for transition, for transformation, and even for transfiguration, leaving us a world more varied and complex, more awesome and delightful, more beautiful and strong than the one they had found.
--Thomas Cahill

About This Reading Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of the second book in Thomas Cahill's The Hinges of History series, The Gifts of the Jews.

In The Gifts of the Jews, Thomas Cahill asserts that Western civilization would not be what it is today were it not for our Jewish ancestors. Christian, atheist, Jew, believer, each of us can look at Avram and see that had he not responded to what his God told him (lekh-lekha--"go forth"), we would not be the people we are today. The Jewish people shaped the very way we think and live. In The Gifts of the Jews, we learn that processive time, individual destiny, and social justice are so particular to the Jews that, for all practical purposes, they invented them. Jewish men and women also left their homes and journeyed when God told them to, changing who they were, changing who we are. We see this change occurring in the biblical narratives: from Avram, who gave us the possibility of faith in a single God, to Moses, who gave us the radical morality and strict monotheism of the Ten Commandments, Cahill shows the rich religious traditions that have also been such a major part of our Jewish legacy. In short, as Cahill says, "The Jews gave us the Outside and the Inside--our outlook and our inner life" [p. 240]. In The Gifts of the Jews, we are shown the value of revering the past while standing in the present moment and looking forward to the future. The Jews developed an integrated view of life and its obligations. They saw life as governed by a single outlook. They saw the connection between the realms of law and wisdom. They saw God as One, the universe's principle of unity. And, as we see in Cahill's book, we do well to recognize this and thank them for these priceless gifts they've given us all.


Readers' Guide
  1. The first books of the Bible were originally preserved as oral tradition. Discuss the ways in which oral tradition, despite its missing or inaccurate detail, can preserve essential truths.

  2. Does the author give the Jews too much credit? Is philo-Semitism just as dangerous as anti-Semitism?

  3. In the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, a woman is used to tame and civilize the man/beast Enkidu. Talk about the change that the Jews gave to our perception of women. Of their role, their nature, their abilities, their responsibilities.

  4. God told Avram to "go forth" and "Avram went." The author points to these bold words in literature. Discuss these and other bold words from stories and novels you've read. For instance, "Reader, I married him," in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. In what ways does simplicity of language enhance boldness of thought?

  5. Discuss the idea of individuality as the "flip side of monotheism" [p. 72].

  6. YHWH is a verb form. Discuss the significance and differences between the three interpretations of this word: I am who am; I am who I am; I will be there with you [p. 109].

  7. The Israelites told their stories in real time, fixing them here on Earth with some attempt at writing history, not myth, unlike the ancient Sumerians and other civilizations before them who saw reality as the drama of eternity. Discuss this change.

  8. Would you drop or add anything from the Ten Commandments, especially from those that have to do with human beings? Or, do you agree, as the author states, that in considering these commandments, "Both believer and unbeliever are brought to heel" [p. 143]?

  9. Discuss the idea that anti-Semitism has its source in hatred of God and hatred of the unyielding Ten Commandments--a hatred that the hater must hide from him or herself [p. 153].

  10. The Bible shows us that God's fire "will perfect us, will not destroy" us. How is understanding and accepting this different from having a fateful, cyclical vision of the world?

  11. Several times in the book, the author refers to the struggles of black slaves in the American South as similar in some ways to the struggles of the Israelites. Discuss the historical and current relationship between African/Americans and Jews.

  12. Discuss the change from the early Israelite's "theocratic democracy" to earthly monarchy, with the anointing of Saul as king.

  13. David, the poet, the leader, is a very flawed king and man. How is this part of his strength and appeal? In what ways does God's relationship with humans change and deepen as a result of David's story?

  14. Discuss the personal emotion in the Psalms and the great change this signals from previous writing.

  15. Creative energy became diluted from generation to generation in the House of David. Do you see this in modern-day examples also? What can we do to guard against it?

  16. Discuss the change from prophet/leader as in Moses, to priest/prophet as in Samuel, to priests/politicians who don't speak any disruptive truths, to the outsiders (Elijah and Hosea) as the ones who hear and speak God's words, and finally to Isaiah, yet another kind of prophet.

  17. Elijah hears the "still, small voice" on the mountainside. Discuss the physical manifestations of God in the Torah.


For Discussion: The Hinges of History Series

  1. Each book gives a piece that helps complete the picture of who we are, of our history, of our humanity and acts as a piece in a puzzle. How effective is this type of a reckoning of our past?

  2. The author did not write the books in his series in strict chronological order. Instead he traces large cultural movements over many centuries. How does this choice affect the understanding of each book as a piece in the puzzle? Or as an individual work?

  3. In his books, the author gets inside the heads and hearts of his subjects, using a very close third-person point of view. How does this choice strengthen his premise? Does it have limitations?

  4. The author is Roman Catholic. Is he able to present these histories without being biased by his Catholicism? Does one's religion (or lack of it) necessarily constrict or color one's view?

  5. Discuss the nature and history of the Irish and the Jews as read in these books. What are their ambitions, their differences? How do they differ from the Romans and the Greeks in all three books?

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Anchor Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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