A well-known rhyming couplet, attributed to the British journalist William Norman Ewer, goes: “How odd of God, to choose the Jews.” The notion of the Jews as having been ‘chosen’ by God is a very grandiose statement, and those who are not Jewish, and see the claim as arrogant or patronising, can wonder what justifies such an assertion of superiority over other nations. Firstly, though, I will stress that I don’t believe the idea to imply any inherent superiority. Certainly being a member of the chosen people does not confer on a Jew any moral privileges; in Judaism, you do not need to be Jewish to be a good person, and to go to Heaven. As well as the 613 laws, or mitzvot, that apply to Jews, the ancient texts also list a set of seven laws, called the Noahide Laws, which were given to Noah after the flood and which apply to all of humanity. These are the prohibition of idolatry, murder, theft, adultery, blasphemy and eating meat from a live animal, and also the commandment to establish a system of courts to uphold the law (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 56a-b). When Jews observe Shabbat, the sabbath, or kashrut, the dietary laws, they do not expect those who are not Jewish to do the same. Jews have an obligation to follow these laws, the rest of the world does not. This does not make Jews better people; just different.
I do not intend to discuss whether the Jews really are God’s ‘chosen people’; the Torah is pretty clear on this point (for example, Exodus 19:5 and Deuteronomy 7:7 and 14:2), and on the fact that the bond is eternal. I believe that modern attempts to rationalise this conviction using evidence from history, science, or anywhere else, will always miss the point. Although one might come to believe that the Jews are somehow special or ‘chosen’ from examining our surprising longevity, resilience and success, this could always be explained in other terms. The idea is, after all, a theological one, and therefore must be defended within a theological paradigm; the most convincing evidence for a biblical notion is from the Bible. For some useful general background on the origins and development of the idea, you can read the Wikipedia article here.
However, I want to attempt to understand the concept of God having ‘chosen’ a people at all by considering three different approaches, summarised nicely by the three words of my title: should the Jewish status as the ‘chosen people’ be viewed as a right which we possess, a responsibility which we carry, or a reflection of God Himself? Were we chosen because we had the right to be, do we have a specific responsibility for which were chosen, or does God choosing the Jews say more about Him than it does about us? I believe that any justification for the chosen status of the Jewish people, eternal as it is intended to be, must lie outside of specific historical circumstances. As God promised that His covenant with the Jewish people would be eternal, there must be some understanding of the ‘chosen people’ which includes, or possibly even is independent of, any possible historical event. If in certain contexts the Jews as a whole appear not to be fulfilling the certain criteria of being chosen, the covenant would appear not to be eternal. Therefore we must ultimately look elsewhere to understand what it means to call the Jews the chosen people.
Can we claim that being the chosen people is our right nowadays? This view might be supported if we believed that as Jews we are indeed inherently superior to other nations in some sense, and thus entitled to consider ourselves more worthy than anyone else to have been chosen. Unfortunately there are Jews who harbour prejudices towards those who are not Jewish, considering Jewish people to be better than anyone else. However, in most cases where this has become formalised into doctrine or ideology, it can be traced back to persecution and the mistrust of the non-Jewish world which has resulted from generations of riots, expulsions and pogroms, and, of course, the Holocaust. There is little to support such an idea of assumed superiority, and every reason from our history and texts to believe the opposite, that there are no inherent intellectual or spiritual differences which set Jews apart from everyone else.
Although Jews may only accept spiritual wisdom, knowledge related to the Torah, from Jewish sources, other forms of wisdom, for example, regarding the physical world, should be acknowledged regardless of where they have come from. The ancient Sages of the Talmud coined a blessing to be said upon seeing a non-Jewish sage, or wise person (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 58a), and the great Medieval philosopher Maimonides, the Rambam, encouraged the acceptance of the truth whoever says it. Some more mystical strands of Jewish thought do assert a fundamental distinction between the soul of a Jew and the soul of someone who is not Jewish, but I believe these views can generally be linked to the history of persecution, as mentioned above. Indeed, the beginning of Genesis tells us that all humans were made in God’s image, and one Talmudic Sage, Ben Azzai, said that the most important principle of the Torah is “This is the book of the generations of Man” (Genesis, 5:1). Ben Azzai was emphasising how the Torah highlights that all humanity bears the divine image (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim, 30b). Jews do not have any innate intellectual or spiritual privileges over those who are not Jewish. On this topic I would recommend a very interesting talk, available to listen to online through Yeshiva University, by Rabbi Hanan Balk.
Furthermore, Jewish prayers are full of references to how unworthy we are, and how we do not deserve to receive God’s mercy based on our own intrinsic merit. For example, every day at the beginning of the morning prayer service we say of the prayers we are about to recite: “not because of our righteousness do we lay our pleas before You”, and later: “be gracious to us and answer us, though we have no worthy deeds” (Tachanun). We are under no illusions that we deserve God’s mercies. Rather, we acknowledge that as a nation we may not be worthy, by our own merits alone, of God’s kindness. This reaches its peak in the desperate, pleading prayers of the annual Day of Atonement, in which we beseech God to forgive us our sins, and place a special emphasis on those which we are unaware we have committed. Our own righteousness, our wisdom and good deeds as a nation, is insufficient to make us worthy of calling ourselves the chosen people.
We resort instead to the history of the covenant made between God and Abraham (Genesis 17), when God promised that the special connection between Himself and Abraham’s descendants would be everlasting. Of this covenant it is written elsewhere in the Bible: “He made it with Abraham, vowed it to Isaac, and confirmed it to Jacob as a statute and to Israel [the nation] as an everlasting covenant” (I Chronicles 16:16-17). It is only by the merit of our forefathers that we can be worthy of being called ‘chosen’, and we invoke their memory in our prayers several times every day. However, another principle within Jewish law and philosophy, known as ‘the decline of the generations’, highlights the belief that each successive generation since the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai has been inferior in spiritual wisdom to the previous. After so many centuries, and with so much less righteousness to our national name, we have no right on the basis of our own merit to our special ‘chosen’ status.
Might we say that being the ‘chosen people’ means we have a responsibility placed upon us by God which obligates us to act in a certain way? Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan put this very eloquently in his essay ‘If You Were God’, which you can read in full online here. In summary, Kaplan presented a thought experiment whereby the reader was to imagine that they were effectively omniscient and omnipotent with regard to an inhabited island. The inhabitants were not particularly civilised tribes who were constantly fighting and exploiting one another. The task Kaplan set his reader was to improve this island, so that all its inhabitants would eventually live in peace and harmony, but with one important caveat: the natives must remain unaware of the reader’s presence. Such knowledge, Kaplan said, would completely destabilise the society and cause more harm than good; the inhabitants would be reduced to a state of complete dependence and their free will, the maintaining of which was the highest priority, would be destroyed.
The key, Kaplan suggested, was that in order to ensure a sustained peace, the inhabitants needed to be inculcated with positive values, but that these needed to come from within. Therefore, the solution was to use infiltrators, only a small number, who had been influenced through suggestion, to set up a model society on the island. Gradually, these infiltrators would teach the other inhabitants, raising their moral standard. Such infiltrators would most likely be persecuted at times for their differing values and beliefs, but that would be unavoidable on the path to eventual success. This thought experiment, Kaplan said, demonstrated to us the way in which God acts in the world: the Jews are God’s infiltrators, intended to set an example. We have a mission, although we will inevitably be persecuted for it, to be a light unto the nations.
It seems to me that this understanding of what it means to be the ‘chosen people’ raises certain problems. First and foremost, there is the problem of the Jew who abandons their responsibility and assimilates into the surrounding culture, or who does evil things. We might be able to say that they were no longer ‘chosen’, but this calls into question the accepted eternal nature of the covenant. But such a situation where many, or even all, of the Jewish people were unwilling to carry out their responsibility would be a specific historical circumstance. I have said already that any justification for the status of the Jewish people as ‘chosen’ must lie outside of specific contingent historical circumstances. If being chosen was a right, then these specific historical circumstances would include how many Jews are worthy of their right at any one time; if being chosen meant a responsibility, then this would include how many Jews were fulfilling their responsibility. If in certain contexts the Jews as a whole appear not to be the chosen people by not deserving their right or fulfilling their responsibility, then either of these two approaches would allow us to question the eternal nature of the covenant. Indeed, this is arguably exactly what happened when the early Christians claimed that the mantle of the ‘chosen people’ had now fallen to them when the Jews refused to accept Jesus as their messiah.
Basing the Jewish claim to be the chosen people on our responsibility to demonstrate God’s will to the rest of the world appears to be quite patronising to other nations and cultures. It is hardly surprising that some might take offence at these Jewish claims. Seen in this light, whereas the previous approach looked unfair to the rest of the world, this approach actually appears to be a little unfair for the Jews. It appears as if God has chosen a nation in order to have it suffer at the hands of others. Another solution Kaplan raised in his essay is that the reader could act over a very long period of time to actively manipulate the islanders to be more civil towards one another, without the need for infiltrators. Kaplan claimed, though, that this would be too lengthy a process, and too many might suffer in the meantime. However, he did not consider weighing up this suffering against that of the infiltrators. The civilising of the islanders, and by analogy, early humanity, could have been done in another way; any responsibilities the Jewish people may have do not on their own provide sufficient reason for God’s choice to make an eternal covenant with the Jews.
I believe the answer lies in a third approach, which the British Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, hints at in his book Radical Then, Radical Now and also in a lecture the transcript of which you can read here. He said the Jews being the chosen people says more about God than about us; more about the chooser than the ones chosen. Our ‘chosen’ status does not represent something that we are, or are called upon to do, but rather reflects the nature and attributes of God. This is an approach which does not rely on what the Jewish people, as individuals or as an entire nation, are doing at any one time in order to hold true. It does not rely on Jews being or acting a certain way. It is not contingent or specific, but rather explains how the same chosen status could apply to Abraham, to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, and to the Jewish people throughout history.
I believe that God chose the Jews to make a point about Himself and his attributes, and when we look at Abraham, at the Israelites, and at the Jewish people today, we can take lessons about what God is, and more specifically, what we should do in order to emulate Him. God rewarded to a massive degree even one person, Abraham, who recognised, knew, and loved Him, blessing and supporting countless generations of his offspring and thus demonstrated the extent of His own love. In a society where it would be expected to give the power, wealth and honour to the first-born child, God chose the second-born, the children who would otherwise have had a lower standing, Isaac and Jacob. He took the small nation of the Israelites from the clutches of the larger nation of Egypt, freeing slaves from captivity and thus demonstrated His attributes of justice and faithfulness, as it says in the Torah: “The Lord did not set His love upon you, nor choose you, because you were more in number than any people, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the Lord loved you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers, has the Lord brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). God is on the side of the powerless, against the powerful.
God showed infinite patience when that small nation complained against Him and repeatedly went astray, thus demonstrating His infinite capacity for mercy by consistently forgiving. The Torah, given at Mount Sinai before the entire Israelite nation, is indeed meant to provide the laws and guidelines by which we should construct an ideal society, as Kaplan noted. But the key to a society is human interaction, relationships between people; I believe God’s choice to make a covenant with the Jewish people represents the ultimate blueprint for a successful relationship: trust, forgiveness, and loyalty. Despite our small, less impressive nature, God has stayed true to his original promise to Abraham. Despite our infidelity, God has remained loyal. Despite our betrayals of His trust, God has demonstrated that we can still trust Him.
When we read in Genesis that all of humanity is made in God’s image, and thus that we can, and should try to, emulate His attributes, I believe that these are some of the features we should have in mind. The Jews being God’s chosen people should not reflect badly on other nations, or particularly well on the Jews; it should not be understood to mean that God has rejected other peoples in favour of the Jews, but rather that He uses the Jewish people to show the whole world the meaning and strength of a covenantal relationship, one that has endured throughout history. Maybe now we can answer Ewer’s witty rhyme, and say: to choose the Jews was not so odd, for what it teaches us of God.