A Chosen People
by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
I dislike the expression “The Chosen People”. It is not that I have any problem with the idea that different peoples may have different missions and cultures that are unique to them. It is just that I do not believe that this endows them with any automatic superiority.
The idea of “The Chosen People” long predates Judaism. Every early power and civilization thought it was “chosen” until it was not. According to the Biblical tradition, a nation of slaves emerged into the Sinai desert, and there were given a new constitution, a unique and universal ethical alternative to paganism. With it came the promise of a special relationship if only they would adhere to it. This relationship with God was part of the reciprocal Covenant that started with Abraham and then was reinforced at Sinai and repeated on the Plains of Moab forty years later. It was an obligation, a privilege, not a guarantee.
The history of the succeeding years shows how the Israelites failed as a nation to keep their side of the deal and as a result slowly and surely headed towards disaster. The amazing thing is that there were enough individuals who were indeed loyal and did succeed in keeping the flame of the Torah alive despite the continual failures and consequent disasters.
The Biblical source is in Exodus 19:5-6: “Now, therefore, if you will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then you shall be My treasure among all peoples, for all the earth is mine. And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Particularly in Deuteronomy, this phrase of being chosen as a people is repeated. But so is the idea of a special place dedicated to God ( assumed to be the tabernacle or temple), over fifteen times. The phrase “choosing life” is also used several times as an imperative. To choose, or to pick says nothing intrinsic about the human being or a people any more than picking a soccer player because of a particular skill means that he or she is a good person. And if he’s no good at what he does he gets replaced.
Besides, the record shows it has never protected Jews from ignominy and destruction. God called us that too more than once, “a stiff-necked nation” (Exodus 33). And threatened to destroy us on several occasions and start anew. The Torah repeats several times that we were not privileged because we were better than anyone else (Deuteronomy 7:7).
It is true that the idea of having a mission in life, to try to show how a spiritual life should be led, has given us a sense of responsibility and pride in our heritage. Judaism is an intense religion, not for the masses. It can be a burden but then anything worthwhile only comes with effort. Which explains why even today when we are called to the Torah, we recite a blessing thanking God for giving us the Torah. But that is no more than a statement of delight in and commitment to our religion and our constitution. That is no more pernicious than saying that I am glad I am an American or a Brit or whatever.
Unlike some other religions, we do not believe that you must be Jewish to be saved or get to Heaven. All human beings are children, the sons, and daughters of God. That is the message both of the Creation story and specifically in Psalms (22.6). A non-Jew who adheres to the basic seven Commands of Noah must be given equal civil rights and be welcomed into the community and supported. Non- Jewish sacrifices were happily accepted in the Temple. The Talmud refers to the righteousness of other nations who have a place in Heaven. Ben Azai declared that the universality of humanity was the most important principle in the Torah (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 27).
Ironically it is the New Testament that has taken up the myth of election or chosenness in an exclusive way.
“You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, god’s special possession, once you were not a people, now you are the people of God,” (Peter 2:4-5 and Revelation 1.)
And the idea that Christians were the Chosen People became the call of the crusades ( Dei Gesta Dei Per Francos by Guibert de Nogent).
How often, even in America, do children still come home from school in tears because a pious Christian has informed them that they will burn in hell because they have not accepted Jesus? Why does nobody accuse Christians of being God’s Chosen? In how many Muslim Madrassas are Jews described as the doomed Dhimmis who will not enter Paradise for rejecting Mohammad? Aren’t Muslims guilty of thinking they are Chosen by Allah? Other religions claim only that their members are saved; Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventists, Rastafarianism, the Nation of Islam, and of course so did the Nazis.
So why are we still being attacked for claiming that we are Chosen and in some way better? Why does it appear on so many anti-Semitic websites along with conspiracy theories that we control the world?
The problem is that many Jews, from across the spectrum, especially those with little knowledge, seem to believe they are superior in one way or another. It may be a defense mechanism and a response to the constant de-legitimization and prejudice that simply will not die. It is not only offensive, but it flies in the face of the famous Talmudic statement that we are all the children of the one God and descended from one source and we can all say “The world was created for me” Sanhedrin 37a.
Some Jewish thinkers, including Judah Halevi in his Kuzari, the Maharal of Prague, R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, R. Abraham Isaac Kook, and the Zohar, for example, believed in the idea that Jews are essentially distinct and superior to non-Jews. However, there is no biblical precedent for these ideas, nor is there much in classical rabbinic literature to support this contention which some argue gained currency only later when the degraded state of Jews in many medieval communities promoted this attitude as a means of maintaining self-esteem and surviving mentally. And as a response to both Christian and Muslim proselytizers.
Rambam (Maimonides) the great medieval rationalist insisted that there was no essential difference between Jew and non-Jew. All people must develop their intellect to know God and act morally. God chose Abraham because Abraham chose God, not because of any pre-existing metaphysical superiority of Abraham. God gave the Torah to the people of Israel because of that choice, and not because of any inherent characteristic in the people of Israel.
There is nothing wrong with trying to perpetuate one’s tradition and strengthen one’s community. Even if that makes one appear inward-looking. If anything, it has been our stubbornness and our way of life that has kept us alive. Many social, economic, and religious groups often prefer to live in communities or mix with their peers. That is free choice. So long as they are also sensitive to wider communities and express their civic sense positively. I haven’t heard people condemn money marrying money or aristocrats marrying aristocrats.
Yet anti-Semitism looks for any false excuse to condemn Jews. Together with the myth of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or that Mossad was behind the Twin Towers, or that the myth of chosenness makes us superior, along with the Blood Libel that Jews drink Christian blood, these are simply dangerous lies which are currently proliferating and need to be eradicated. But of course, we know they will only re-emerge under some other guise.
Different peoples have evolved different ways of life and different ways of expressing themselves spiritually. The shame was that they could not get on with each other. Competition between humans seems to have infected everything on earth. We are as far from Loving our Neighbors as ever. We should all be judged entirely based on our actions not on any claims to inherent superiority. And I am afraid that we are too often found wanting as individuals and a nation.
Some people think that the very survival of Judaism against the odds says something about being beloved by God. I often think of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, who turns to God in despair and says “ Please, God, can you choose someone else for a change?”
Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.