THE CHOSEN PEOPLE - AN OFTEN MISUNDERSTOOD IDEA
Oct 25, 2006
The Jewish nation is often referred to as “the Chosen People”. Many people find this concept disturbing, since chosen-ness appears to set one group of people apart from the rest, designating them as superior. This strikes the modern mind as racist and seems uncomfortably close to the Nazi concept of a superior ‘Aryan’ nation. Given that the great passion of our time is equality for all, any discussion of what chosen-ness really means is lost in a storm of negative emotions.
In actual fact, when the Torah refers to the Jews as having been “chosen”, it is not a claim of racial difference or superiority. How could it be? After all, our nation includes Germans, Russians, Arabs, Americans, Asians, etc. because Jews are as racially varied as there are races! All the same, the term “Chosen People” does denote a distinctiveness to those who are part of the Jewish nation.
Before analysing the Jewish idea of chosen-ness, let’s first examine the flip-side of chosen-ness – equality. Western thinking promotes the idea that all people are equal. In fact the American Declaration of Independence states, “We declare all men to be created equal.” But is this true? Are all people, in fact, equal?
As Rabbi Professor Dovid Gottlieb points out: “Clearly, in some respects, we are all the same. We are all born, we die, breathe, eat and sleep. Yet we vary considerably in most other areas: physical characteristics, intelligence, financial well-being,personality traits, education, etc... Furthermore just as individuals differ, so do nations. They are strong in certain areas and weak in others. The United States, for example, is consistently strong in technology and weak in fundamental theoretical science, whereas Germanic education has produced one-third of the Nobel prizes in science in this century.”1
Given these differences, does a wholesale assertion of equality make any sense? We cannot philosophically oppose the existence of chosen-ness, based merely on the blind desire of wanting everyone to be equal. As such, when we refer to equality nowadays, we cannot and do not mean this descriptively but rather conceptually; namely that everyone should be treated fairly, without negative discrimination. This is a position which Judaism wholeheartedly endorses and promotes.
A Chosen Nation: Chosen by whom and why?
In ancient times, Abraham came to a belief in monotheism, and taught this concept to others. He was even willing to suffer persecution for his ideas, so much so, that after years of dedication forged in fire, God chose Abraham and his descendents to be the bearers of this monotheistic message.
In other words, as much as God chose the Jews, the Jews (via Abraham) chose God. In point of fact, the Torah tells us that this ‘choosing’ was not actually part of God’s “original plan.” Only after Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden, followed by the sins of the generation of the Flood and the Tower of Babel, did the elevated level on which Adam automatically related to God, disappear. Henceforth, it would have to be achieved through the individual choices of each member of mankind. Abraham made those choices. 2
Five hundred years later at Mount Sinai, the opportunity presented itself once again for the entire world to share in this gift. However, the other nations of the world turned down this offer, leaving the Jewish people as the ‘Am HaNivchar’ the Chosen People, since they were the only ones who accepted upon themselves the task of living a Torah way of life.
Nevertheless, even today, 3,000 years down the line, thatchoice is still available to anyone who wishes to take it up. Regardless of race, creed and culture, Judaism will accept sincere converts from any background. Who is more central to Judaism, to Monarchy and to the messianic concept than King David? Who is more important to the Oral Law than Rabbi Akiva? Yet, both of them were descended from converts, as the Talmud clearly relates. Whereas, Shemaya and Avtalyon, two great leaders, and the teachers of the famous sage Hillel, were converts in their own right. For those willing to make the extra effort, the rewards are commensurate.
To draw an analogy, it is reasonable that an employee who agrees to work overtime, attend training seminars, and put themselves out for the company, should be entitled to certain privileges, particularly if each employee was, and is, offered the same opportunities.
Chosen-ness in Judaism although intrinsically due to past performance is still open to every member of the human race, without exception.
Chosen for what?
The essence of being chosen means undertaking the challenge and responsibility to influence the world – not by converting everyone to Judaism, but by living as a model community guided by Divine ethics and morals: to establish a culture devoted to God, and in doing so, be exposed to the possible scorn and, at times, hatred of other nations.
Ironically, this chosen-ness, rather than resulting in a smug sense of superiority, has left many Jews saying, “It’s too hard to be a Jew, to be chosen!!”
Chosen-ness in Judaism is for the purpose of accomplishment. We are chosen to perform a role.
The consequences of chosen-ness
The natural corollary of being chosen for the assignment of bringing the Divine into the world is that our destiny has to enable us to carry this out. Thus, our history is different from that of all other nations. This is evident in two ways:
Firstly, our historical uniqueness is evident in our miraculous national survival. As Paul Johnson writes, “The Jews are the most tenacious people in history; Hebron is there to prove it. When the historian visits there today, he asks himself where are the Canaanites, the Edomites, the Babylonians, the Hellenes, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Franks, the Ottomans. They have vanished into time irrevocably… but the Jews are still in Hebron.”3
It is further evident through our prominence. Our contribution to almost all societies amongst whom Jews have lived is disproportionate to our miniscule numbers. We don’t make up even 1% of human race.4 Yet as Mark Twain commented, “The Jew has contributed to literature, science, art, finance, medicine, and has done it with his hands tied behind him.” He ends, in fact, by asking, “What is the secret of his immortality?”5 Sociologically speaking, it is a fair question.
Even our enemies have spoken of our achievements. Hitler in Mein Kampf writes, “The Jews have inflicted two wounds on mankind – circumcision on its body and ‘conscience’ on its soul. They are Jewish inventions…. I free humanity from the shackles of the soul, from the degrading suffering caused by the false vision called conscience and ethics.”
Chosen-ness in Judaism contains certain divine promises – both positive and negative – which can be clearly traced through the last 3,000 years of history.
Is Judaism racist?
Judaism believes that all of mankind was created in the image of God. In fact, the Talmud tells us we are all descended from one couple, and therefore the Torah begins not from the life of Abraham, but with the creation of Adam.
Moreover, Judaism has no missionaries because it believes that non-Jews can potentially achieve a share in the World to Come without converting, in accordance with their deeds. Indeed in Temple times, the Jewish nation would bring 70 sacrifices on Succot in order to pray for the welfare of the 70nations of the world, acknowledging not only their existence but their individuality.
Furthermore, Judaism fully believes that other nations can be superior in many respects. Each nation has a God-given genius. Who can match the contribution of ancient Greeks in design and architecture, of the Phoenicians in their genius for commerce and trade?
Our chosen-ness does not lessen our concern for, and duty toward, mankind. Nor does it interfere with the potential ability of other nations to create for themselves a place in the World to Come, and it certainly does not allow or excuse arrogant behavior toward others. However, it does demand of us to exhibit a stubborn tenacity in creating a yearning for, and contact with, God, so that the qualities of godliness can be brought into the world. This is a privileged and rewarding yet awesome undertaking, but it can be chosen by anyone prepared to make the necessary commitment should they so desire. Chosen to teach, to inspire… by personal and collective example.
1 The Informed Soul – Artscroll publications p.112
2 The idea is developed further by Rabbi Shraga Simons
3 Paul Johnson: History of the Jews – p.4
4 World population figures: 6.4 billion. Jewish population figures: 14 million
5 Mark Twain: Concerning the Jews (1898)
This article was first published in 60 Days for 60 years.