The Chosen People

Much ink, and even more blood, has been spilled because of the concept of the Chosen People. The Bible affirms that God chose the seed of Abraham to be a covenanted people, with a special purpose in the world. Jews have long understood the "choice" to mean that the People Israel has the obligation to fulfill God's Torah in this world, to be witnesses to God's unity in a world that is filled with idolatry, and to proclaim God's truth to the nations. What is often forgotten in the polemics is that the Torah also affirms, from its first words about chosenness, that Israel was not chosen either because it was a superior nation or in order to be a superior nation, but rather simply to be God's servant: Chosenness is a status of obligation, not privilege.

For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: of all the peoples on earth the Lord your God chose you to be God's treasured people. It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the Lord set God's heart on you and chose you -- indeed, you are the smallest of peoples; but it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath God made to your ancestors that the Lord freed you with a mighty hand and rescued you from the house of bondage, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore, that only the Lord your God is God, the steadfast God who keeps God's gracious covenant to the thousandth generation of those who love God and keep God's commandments, but who instantly requites with destruction those who reject God -- never slow with those who reject God, but requiting them instantly. Therefore, observe faithfully the Instruction, the laws, and the norms, with which I charge you today. [Deuteronomy 7:6-11]

Chosenness is a condition of Israel's character and obedience to God's commandments; it is not a bestowal of superiority:

Now therefore, if you will truly obey My voice, and keep My covenant, then you shall be a particular treasure to Me above all people; for the earth is mine and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. [Exodus 19:5, 6]

It appears that the problem of understand arises in the meaning and interpretation of the words "consecrated" and "loved." These words have different meanings in biblical Hebrew than they do in modern English and in many other languages. The words "consecrated" comes from the root kuf-daled-shin in Hebrew, which we commonly translate "holy" or "sacred" although this is an insufficient rendering. That which is designated "kadosh" is set aside for a special purpose of God; it is reserved for service to God. The designation of "kadosh" does not imply inherent superiority, but rather ultimate disposition. The People Israel was brought into existence to serve God.

Similarly, the term "love" had a different meaning in biblical Hebrew than found in common parlance. The term aleph-hay-bet does not connote romantic love in the Torah, but rather commitment and loyalty, through thick and thin. God's choice of Israel means God will remain loyal to the covenant with Israel, come what may. Hence, when disaster struck in the 8th century B.C.E.(the Northern Kingdom was overrun and ultimately decimated by the Assyrians), and again in the 6th century B.C.E. (the Southern Kingdom was destroyed by the Babylonians, who burned the Temple to the ground and took the people off into Exile in Babylonia), the people asked a very natural question: Is our covenant with God finished? Has God cast us off? The prophets of these times were able to say with certainty: No, our covenant with God is eternal because God's love (loyalty, commitment) to us is enduring; this is a punishment which will eventually end, and then we will be restored to our land. The Book of Leviticus foresees such a possibility:

Yet even then, when [the People Israel] are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, annulling my covenant with them; for I the Lord am their God. [Leviticus 26:44]

The Rabbis of the Talmud believed firmly in Israel's chosenness, and held it to be a matter of Israel's voluntary acceptance of God's covenant:

The nations of the world were asked to receive the Law, in order not to give them an excuse for saying, "Had we been asked, we might have accepted it." They were asked, but they did not accept it, as it is said, The Lord came from Sinai and rose up from Seir unto them [Deuteronomy 33:2], that is, God revealed himself to the children of Esau, the wicked, and said to them, "Will you receive the Law?" They said, "What is written therein?" God said, "You shall not murder." They said, "That is the inheritance which our father left to us, as it is said, By the sword shall you live [Genesis 27:40]." Then God revealed himself to the children of Ammon and of Moab, and said to them, "Will you receive the Law?" They said, "What is written on it?" God said, "You shall not commit adultery." They said, "We all spring from one adulterer, as it is said, And the daughters of Lot became with child by their father [Genesis 19:36]; how can we receive the Law?" Then God revealed himself to the children of Ishmael, and said, "Will you receive the Law?" They said, "What is written in it?" God said, "You shall not steal." They said, "Our father was given this blessing: He will be a wild ass among men, his hand will be against every man [Gen 26:12]; how can we receive the Law?" But when God came to Israel, they all said with one accord, All that the Lord has said, we will do and we will obey [Exodus 24:7]. [Mekhilta, Bachodesh, Yitro 5]

At the same time, the Rabbis also said that Israel accepted the Torah only when God lifted and suspended Mount Sinai over their heads, saying, "If you accept the Torah it will be well with you, but if not, here you will find your grave." [Babylonian Talmud, tractate Avodah Zarah 2b-3a]. No doubt, this midrash is reflective of the natural ambivalence any person or people would feel about entering an eternal and demanding contract. In the end, the Rabbis well understood the importance of humility amidst chosenness because obligation is the key component of the covenant:

R. Yochanan said in the name of R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon: Wherever you find the words of R. Yosi the Galilean in aggadah, make your ear like a funnel. Thus It was not because you were greater than any people that the Lord set God's love upon you and chose you, but because you were the humblest of all peoples [Deuteronomy 7:7] means that the Holy One said to Israel: I love you because even when I shower greatness upon you, you humbles yourselves before Me. I bestowed greatness upon Abraham, yet he said to Me, I am but dust and ashes [Genesis 18:27]; upon Moses and Aaron, yet they said, And we are nothing [Exodus 16:8]; upon David, yet he said, But I am a worm and no man [Psalm 22:7]. But the nations of the world do not act thus. When I bestowed greatness upon Nimrod, he said, Come, let us build us a city [Genesis 11:4]; upon Pharaoh, he said, Who is the Lord? [Exod 5:2]; upon Sennacherib, he said, Who are they among all the gods of the countries? [2 Kings 18:35]; upon Nebuchadnezzar, he said, I will ascend above the heights of the clouds [Isaiah 14:14]; upon Hiram, king of Tyre, he said, I sit in the seat of God, in the heart of the seas [Ezekiel 28:2]. [Chullin 89a]

In the Middle Ages, the concept of chosenness took on new meaning in the face of Christian polemics that the church was the "true Israel" and had replaced Jews as God's chosen people. In times of persecution which engendered despair, the doctrine of chosenness provided solace and brought hope. Judah Halevi articulated the most radical formulation of chosenness in his work, The Kuzari, written to counter the claims of Christians and Moslems that they were inherently superior to Jews. The premise of the Kuzari, is that the king of the Khazars is intent upon choosing a religion for his people and summons a Christian, a Muslim, and a Jew to explain and defend their traditions. Halevi claims that the entire nation of Israel is endowed with a special religious faculty resulting from the divine influence, given first to Abraham, and bequeathed to his descendants after him. For most other philosophers, the doctrine of divine election plays a small and largely insignificant role; it appears that while some thinkers in the Middle Ages may have signed on to Halevi's notion (most notably Abraham ibn Daud), it nonetheless played only a small role in Jewish thinking.

In the modern age, Enlightenment brought about a complete rethinking and revamping of long held ideas and traditions. Moses Mendelssohn, often considered the first "modern Jew," promoted Judaism as a "religion of reason" in the tradition of Kant. He wrote that the Jewish people was singled out to be the bearers of a unique revelation that encapsulates this "religion of reason" and thus should retain their identity to fulfill that task.

Even as anti-Semites were penning "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," an infamous forgery which purported to be a secret program of Jewish world domination, in other quarters of the Jewish world, most notably the Reform Movement, the doctrine of chosenness was nonetheless being promoted, as Jewish thinkers claimed that Jews had received a special teaching from God which it was their sacred duty to pass on to the other nations of the world. Rabbi Leo Baeck, whose writings and words earned him unlimited accolades and respect, was a rationalist who wrote about religious consciousness as the critical point of departure for the divine/human relationship. Baeck subscribed to the philosophy of ethical monotheism and held that God could not, by nature, be more available to one people than to another.However, the ancient Hebrews, alone, recognized ethical monotheism and incorporated it into their identity as a people. They came to see themselves as chosen and set apart. Jews are a particularistic people not so much due to the essence of Judaism, which is universally true, but due to historical events and circumstances which have set them apart. Baeck, who survived the concentration camps to teach and heal, was acutely aware of the particularity of the Jewish historical experience. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist Movement, an offshoot of the Conservative Movement, proffered the idea of religious naturalism: God is not above and beyond the realm of nature, but rather to be identified with the processies of nature. Hence the idea of a God who chooses Israel from among the nations makes no sense. Accordingly, the Reconstructionist Movement removed all references to chosenness from its prayerbook, published in 1945. Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, a seminal thinker of the Reform Movement, asserts that modern American Jews recoil from the concept of chosenness, because the choice seems arbitrary and flies in the face of democratic principles cherished by the American Jewish community. We can still assert our particularity without making reference to chosenness, however, by emphasizing our covenant with God.

That chosenness cannot be biological or racial should be evident at even a glance: Judaism welcomes proselytes who, by their choice, become Jews.Perhaps the answer to chosenness is encapsulated in Hilaire Belloc's quip: "How odd of God to choose the Jews" to which a response was penned, "It was not odd; the Jews chose God."

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