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Religion

Right, responsibility, or reflection? What does it mean to call the Jews ‘the chosen people’?

The Children of Israel receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.

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.

Right?

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.

Responsibility?

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.

Reflection?

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.

Discussion

3 thoughts on “Right, responsibility, or reflection? What does it mean to call the Jews ‘the chosen people’?

  1. Hi Michael

    And thank you for a wonderful and inspiring post:o)

    I have some reflections to share, I hope it is okay with you. Unfortunately I’m not at home, so I can’t give precise sources every time I will be using them, but I will get back to it, bli neder.

    I really do love R. Sacks and his attempts to connect our modern way of thinking and Judaism. In that sense I believe that he follows the tradition of many other historical Jewish thinkers, though whether he is on the same level always can be discussed (I don’t believe that he is on the level of a thinker like haRaMBaM, Z”L, nor do I expect him or any other today to be).

    I believe though that the answer is found in each of the three categories, though mostly in the two latter ones. But we do find examples on the Jewish nation being something exemplar to the other nations in some Jewish traditions, one place is the Babylonian Talmud, tractate ‘Avodah Zarah, where God more or less makes a fool out of the nations, leveling Israel above them. That is one of the few examples on this though, the more dominant approach being the Biblical approach in Deuteronomy 7:7-8, quoted by you, expressing that Israel “were the fewest of all peoples.” If number or greatness of a people would be the deciding factor, then Ishma’el would be more likely, as we see that God will bless him “and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation” (Genesis 17:20). In this respect is it also interesting to consider the midrash on the giving of the Torah, how God had to hold the mountain over the Israelites, threatening them by destruction, since the sole reason for their existence is Torah (something also repeated in the Quran).

    The Jews are chosen, not to be superior, at least not in might, that one seemed to go more to Ishma’el and ‘Esaw, but to be a light to the nations, and as a student of the Torah. You mention that “there is the problem of the Jew who abandons their responsibility and assimilates into the surrounding culture,” and that is – I believe – also reflected in the Torah, in the story of Dathan and Aviram, refusing to “go up” to Moses, and instead were swallowed by the earth. I read in this the consequence of assimilating, refusing to “go up to Moses,” that is, staying “loyal to the Torah.”

    Our role as a “light unto the nations,” is not fulfilled by being perfect observant, but by spreading (Jewish) values to the world, not by hiding in a ghetto, but by taking part in the world, while still staying true to the Torah. By relating to our brit with God do we show God’s intentions for all of us, that is, not necessarily by not eating milk and meat together, nor by not mixing materials in our clothes, wearing tzitzit (that us more for our own sake) and so on, that is mostly in order that the world may realize that we are Jews, and by that seeing our – hopefully – examples as related to God. And then there are some of our commandments which carry in them a deep ethical understanding, where the sole fulfilling of the commandment is giving a light, such as the already mentioned not eating meat and milk together. Think on Rashbam’s commentary to the verses dealing with not cooking the kid in its mother’s milk, and how he points out that it is deeply unethical to kill something and then enjoying it with its life source. The giving of tzedaqah, as contrasted to charity, is showing that caring for those in worse situations than ours is a plight, a duty, not something we are doing to feel good about ourselves. And so on. And the more we interfere with the world and get out there, the stronger this will stand. It is obvious that by hiding in the ghetto we, first and foremost, won’t experience much challenge (just doing what everybody else is doing), and, secondly, we are actually being “lights for the world,” not merely “lights.”

    And it certainly speaks miles about God, that He would want to choose the Jews as His people. History have shown again and again that we have failed. Even today we find it hard to show our gratitude to finally having a country of our own (as well as others also, we shouldn’t forget that), but yet He stayed loyal through it all, even when we – in general – did not. Sure, He punishes, but more than that does He forgive, care, and love.

    I think that we should have a double understanding of the choseness, not only talking about a chosen people, but also of chosen individuals. Abraham, more than anyone, allowed him to act in pure trust, going against the ways of his people. Abraham, though bringing a household with him, acted as an individual, for that he was rewarded, but he also became the example for each and every one of us.

    Finally, I think that much of the bad reactions we get from Christians and Muslims, when they react to us being “chosen,” is projections. Both Christianity and Islam work with an understanding of choseness themselves, such as only having Christians being saved, as well as the Islamic Ummah being the perfect Ummah. They transfer understandings of these concept to how they believe Jews view the idea of being “chosen.” And maybe, probably, many Jews actually are viewing the notion of being Jewish and “chosen” the same way. But all in all that is something that is far from the Jewish thought (and not the thoughts of Jews).

    Again, thanks for an inspiring post:o)

    All the best

    Posted by qolyehudi | 29 April, 2012, 2:29 pm
    • Hi Shmuel, thanks so much for this, and for the mention on your own blog (which is always very good and I would highly recommend any who enjoys my Judaism-related articles to visit and read)!

      I believe R’Sacks shares a certain rationalist conception of Judaism with the Rambam, whereby he describes physically and in a this-worldly fashion that which others explain by recourse to metaphysics, spiritual ontologies, and generally other-worldly explanations. For example, in explaining the conception of the decline of the generations, as well as in the topic of this article, Rambam’s position is that the differences we see between the generations, as the differences we see between Jews and non-Jews, are not inherent or necessary, but contingent. As a generation we are less knowledgeable or wise not because of some innate spiritual deficiency or inevitable decline, as some other more esoteric schools of thought might argue, but rather because we have lost access to certain knowledge. Even in the realm of esoteric knowledge itself, Rambam argued (I understand) that the human intellect was capable of reasoning out such knowledge as had otherwise bee lost, simply by virtue of the power of our faculties of reason. This was one of the reasons he so adamantly championed Aristotle. But, as R’Sacks points out in The Great Partnership, Rambam was even willing to alter his understanding of the Creation as related in Genesis if the philosophical and scientific understanding of the day proved (and convinced him) that it was other than he had previously believed it to be (as R’Sacks also points out though, Rambam never considered the Aristotelian view of an infinite universe to have ever been proved conclusively, and so he remained committed to the concept of the universe having a beginning).

      I would appreciate seeing that verse you mention from BT AZ, could you possibly let me know where it was? I have often been troubled by the way in which the Midrash regarding God holding mount Sinai over the Israelites appears to undermine the ability of the nation to have freely chosen to serve God. And without the choice being freely made, it seems pretty worthless. Of course, we don’t need to read Midrashic sources literally, but often understand them figuratively, so I wonder if the intention of this Midrash is rather to demonstrate how important it was that the Israelites accepted the Torah in order for God to fulfil His promise to Abraham? God had promised Abraham that his descendants would be numerous, and that through him the other nations of the world would be blessed, etc. We can assume that for this to be fulfilled, God knows they will need to accept the Torah. Now, something else which comes to mind: we also know from another Midrashic source that God offered the Torah to other nations first. Again, whilst we don’t need to understand this literally, it occurs to me that this indicates the belief that the Torah might have gone to another nation had they accepted it. But God specifically tells each nation the part of it which they will be likely to reject it for, and they do. Understood with our first Midrash, God then offers the Torah to the Israelites by holding a mountain over them. This does the trick. So do you think this can be understood as God’s attempt to ensure that His promise to Abraham is fulfilled? In this way human freedoms are only being (temporarily) restricted as a result of other human actions and choices, no different to the way the world normally works, and not by direct divine will. That even this temporary suspension of freedoms troubled the early commentators is evident from the fact that they said later that Purim was the time when the Children of Israel then accepted the Torah again, this time out of love rather than from fear.

      I agree that our ‘chosen-ness’ should lead us to a feeling of responsibility, but I don’t think it should be dependent upon this. After all, as much as I agree with you that we should not be locking ourselves away in ghettos and ignoring the outside world, ultimately this is not a halakhic decision, but a cultural or political preference. Thus we should not argue that the ghetto Jew shuns his responsibility and is therefore less chosen than the more integrated – but still observant – Jew. And in addition, there could be those who argue, again, possibly politically, that a more segregated – but still mutually respectful – society is indeed the ideal. They might say that more groups should live in such communities. In this way, the ghetto Jew is more of the example of the ideal than the integrated Jew. When looking for some more universal understanding of Jewish ‘chosen-ness’, I think these sorts of differences need to be transcended, as I have attempted to do in my argument.

      I believe that Christian and Muslim problems with the idea of Jewish chosen-ness normally result from the surprise that Jews do not expect everyone else to be like them. As you say, for each of these religions the ideal person (whether in this world or at the end of time), will adhere to that religion. Jewish thought, I believe, does not hold Judaism to be the highest or only ideal. Here again R’Sacks has written very passionately and convincingly on this, for example in the Dignity of Difference, and it is a theme which recurs throughout his writings. The combination of the universal God but the particular mode of worship is quite unique. Nevertheless, Judaism is not exclusive if those who are not Jewish decide it is the best path for them, and they want to accept more commandments upon themselves (despite current contingent difficulties and unfortunate controversies surrounding Jewish conversions). I agree with you, though, that, however some Jews may view chosen-ness, it should not give rise to elitism or patronising attitudes. What I have tried to do in this article is to outline an alternative view; my basic premise was simply this: given that the notion of chosen-ness is in the Torah, we cannot ignore it, rather we must accept and understand it. This is my attempt.

      Thanks again for taking the time to read, and to comment so extensively on this, I’m glad you enjoyed it! You’ve actually given me the chance to write a response which is probably nearly as long as the original article! It is also an interesting example of the principle of my blog working in practice: I really have been thinking through my fingers here, and most of the thoughts above I hadn’t considered until I started writing this… I would be interested to hear your response!

      All the best!

      Michael.

      Posted by Michael Kay | 13 May, 2012, 3:49 pm

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