David Gergen talks with Thomas Cahill about his book "The Gifts of the Jews."
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight a Gergen dialogue. David Gergen, editor at large of US News & World Report, engages Thomas Cahill, author of "The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Change the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels."
DAVID GERGEN: Tom, you make clear in your new book that one cannot appreciate the gifts of the Jews without first understanding what preceded them. So take us back some 5,000 years to the Tigris and the Euphrates.
THOMAS CAHILL, Author, "The Gifts of the Jews:" Well, the Jews are the beginning of the western world. They are the fountainhead. Before the Jews there is no West. And we have come to live their ideas in such a way that we think that our reactions to things are the ordinary human reactions that everybody in the world has always had.
And that's why you really have to go back beyond the Jews and the place to go is Sumer, which is where Abraham came from, and it's the oldest civilization that kept records, the oldest civilization that had writing. So it enables us to see what people thought and felt in the very earliest times.
DAVID GERGEN: Now, Sumer was this area between the Tigris and the Euphrates, what some of the people refer to as Mesopotamia.
THOMAS CAHILL: Mesopotamia. And today really it's Iraq, modern-day Iraq.
DAVID GERGEN: And what was the culture like there?
THOMAS CAHILL: Well, it and all early cultures were very similar, even though there were many differences among these cultures, in that everyone thought of reality as a kind of wheel. They thought that the past occurred again in the future. They didn't really think of people as individuals, just as temporary manifestations of some sort of divine process, so that we were more like sheaves of wheat than we were like individuals. We came and we went.
There would be more wheat in the future. There would be more human beings. The reality, the great reality was what they saw in the stars, which was the great drama of the night sky and which was thought of as a kind of recurring message from the gods. But what's really important is that they thought of time as something that recurred and, therefore, there was no such thing as an individual.
DAVID GERGEN: And this went on for hundreds and hundreds of years and then Abraham-
THOMAS CAHILL: Thousands and thousands.
DAVID GERGEN: Thousands.
THOMAS CAHILL: Probably. I think from the beginning of humanity really to the advent of Abraham. Abraham is the first person--because of this vocation that he has, he hears this voice, and the voice says, "Go forth," or this great insistence--in Hebrew L'ech L'chah-Get out of here!
DAVID GERGEN: Move.
THOMAS CAHILL: And it's a wonderful-it's so insistent in the original. And Abraham in this experience becomes the first human being to set out for the unknown, without having an idea of where he's going or why. And he becomes the first person to welcome adventure and surprise, and the possibility of something new, so that for him the future is no longer simply a repetition of the past. It's going to be something new.
DAVID GERGEN: It's not a circle. It's a journey-
THOMAS CAHILL: Yes. It's a journey-maybe sort of up and down and in and out-but it's a journey. And so we called that old way of thinking a cyclical way of thinking, and we call the new way a processive way of thinking. The West, which we all belong to, is processive, welcomes the new, it expects something different tomorrow from what was yesterday, and it assumes that each person has a destiny that is individual to him or her. All these ideas-these great ideas that we take for granted come out of the story of Abraham, and they didn't exist anywhere in any recognizable sense before Abraham.
DAVID GERGEN: Take us on now to Moses, who seems to be the next major figure in your story.
THOMAS CAHILL: Well, Moses deepens this whole idea. I doubt very much that Abraham was ever a strict monotheist. I think he sort of-he certainly started off as a polytheist, like everybody else in the world, but Moses really-for Moses, the idea of God becomes much, much larger, and also it becomes much more concerned with individuals in a new kind of way. Moses is the one who receives the Commandments, so that monotheism becomes ethical monotheism.
It's not really that God is God and that there is only one God but that God expects something from human beings. And what he expects is that they treat other human beings as individuals also. So that the idea of individuality, which begins with Abraham and Moses, begins to be asserted of everyone. And that's really what underlies the Commandments.
DAVID GERGEN: Moses brings the people out of Egypt into the wilderness. They eventually make it to Canaan again, and then the kings become the next major figures in your story, especially King David.
THOMAS CAHILL: David's a great character, I think. He's both a great sinner and a great poet, which is a terrific literary combination. You know, you can't do better than that, so he's a very lovable figure, even when he does terrible things. It's difficult to dislike David. But what's really interesting about David is what goes on inside of David. It's not the external story, the political story. David is very much a politician. But I think throughout the world what's really interesting about David is the drama that goes on inside of David. There's a kind of interiorization in David's story that doesn't occur before that. David keeps talking about the inward parts, the hidden parts of himself.
And it's the-it's groping for the language of spirituality, which now we find very easy to talk about, but the idea of spirit and spirituality in the days of King David was very odd, very difficult to get at, the interior silence inside a human being, and the idea that the Commandments are not really external, as they had been presented in the story of Moses-they're internal, they're inside of us, and that they live in the silence inside each individual, and that that's also where God lives.
DAVID GERGEN: And that journey continues in the Old Testament that increasingly the temple of God is discovered on the interior.
THOMAS CAHILL: Yes. Yes, that all these externalized things such as the temple where God lives turn out to be the individual human being where God lives. And more and more you see this-how human beings become fully rounded in the later books of the Hebrew Bible.
Whereas, in the early books they're almost a little bit like the characters from Sumer, in the later books they're so obviously-they're so obviously human beings in the way we think of them. They're three-dimensional, and they have an interior life, so that someone like Ruth in the Book of Ruth is such a beautiful, completely rounded figure, and we are so sympathetic with her and with what she does and with her sympathy for others, particularly for her mother-in-law, Naomi.
DAVID GERGEN: So how would you summarize then "The Gifts of the Jews" to the way we think and live?
THOMAS CAHILL: Two clusters of ideas and feelings that we all have and which we couldn't live without-namely our approach to time and especially our idea about the future-and secondly our idea of individuality, but the third thing, which we don't talk about that much, is the Jewish idea of justice, the idea that we each have a responsibility to other human beings, particularly to human beings who have less than we do. That really is the original idea that the Jews had that say that even the Commandment against murder was really a Commandment against injustice, that you had no right to pass by someone who didn't have enough to eat if you had more than enough to eat.
You had a responsibility toward that person. This Jewish idea of justice never existed before the Jews. You can find nothing like this anywhere, and the truth is this is the idea I think that we have still haven't gotten down very well. We're very good at time and individuality. We're sensational at that-at those things. But I think justice is still the little bud that has yet to bloom.
DAVID GERGEN: Thomas Cahill, thank you very much.
THOMAS CAHILL: Thanks, David.