Jews, God and History is a phenomenal work which undertakes the difficult and tedious task of presenting the 4,000 year history of the Jewish people. Instead of presenting this history from an insulated point of view, author Max I. Dimont shows the history of the Jews in the context of the entire world; in the vast tapestry of human history on this planet, the Jewish people are shown to be a strand that makes its way through every corner of the fabric.
Dimont immediately draws the attention of the reader in his introduction, musing about how such a small population of people have had such influence on the greater world. Some of the most influential people in history were Jews: Moses, Jesus, Paul, Baruch Spinoza, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein. Two of the largest world religions, Christianity and Islam, grew out of Judaism. The Jews introduced to the world the concepts of monotheism, prayer, church, redemption, universal education and charity. Perhaps the most interesting idea that Dimont brings up in his introduction is the age of the Jewish civilization; whereas all the other pagan civilizations that existed at the time have long since disappeared, the Jews are still around today. Dimont goes on to say,
“The Chinese, Hindu, and Egyptian peoples are the only ones living today who are as old as the Jewish people. But these three civilizations had only one main cultural period, and their impact on succeeding civilizations has not been great. They contained neither the seeds for their own rebirth nor the seeds for the birth of other civilizations. Unlike the Jews, they were not driven out of their countries, nor did they face the problem of survival in alien lands. The Greeks and the Romans are the only other nations which have influenced the history of Western man as profoundly as the Jews. But the people who now dwell in Greece and Italy are not the same as those who dwelt in ancient Hellas and Rome.”
Needless to say, these facts makes the reader wonder “what is so special about the Jews?” and Dimont makes his best effort to answer this question in the most scholarly way possible, even explaining eight different theories on interpreting history and how they apply to the Jewish people.
Although Dimont uses the Bible as a source for his telling of early Jewish history, he makes it clear that he is approaching the material from a secular standpoint. On the subject of Abraham having a vision from God, Dimont states that the most important part of the encounter is not if God actually appeared to Abraham or if Abraham dreamed up the whole thing; what matters is that Abraham decided that he had a covenant with God, and his descendants continued to have that covenant. Dimont stresses that this point so important that Jewish history is built on it: the covenant that the Jews believed they had with God gave them the will to survive as Jews, which is a main reason why the Jewish people didn’t simply disappear into the many civilizations they lived in throughout history.
In the chapters where he describes the Jewish religion, Dimont really shines. He explains the beliefs, rituals and scholarship in a way that is both accurate and accessible to people completely new to the material. It is in these chapters that he describes a crucial moment in Jewish history: the shifting of the religion from sacrificial rituals in the temple to prayer, scholarship and the expansion of morality and justice. These changes were instrumental in the preservation of the Jewish people; without being near their temple and their High Priests, the Jews might have simply given up on their religion while in foreign lands (a fate that occurred to most of the pagan civilizations of the time).
I’ve learned so many fascinating things from this book that I want to go on and on about: the exchange of ideas between the Jews and the Greeks, the Jewish Reformation Movement, the vital role of Jewish people in medieval society, the Jewish influence on both capitalism and communism, etc. This book is crammed with information, but Dimont’s lucid writing style and occasional injection of dry humor and wit definitely made this book much easier to read than your typical history tome. For both Jews and non-Jews alike, I think this book is a must-read if you have any interest in world history.