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November 25, 2011 10:31 am

Why I Dislike the Term ‘Chosen People’

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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I cannot begin to tell you how much I dislike the expression “The Chosen People”. It is not that I have any problem with what the Bible says. To me it is the most essential text (and also its Talmudic expansion). But the fact is that some of its ideas and laws have fallen by the wayside, even as it remains a source of moral and legal guidance, an inspiration to some and the word of God to others.

It should be obvious that certain aspects of a document revealed in time would be time-bound. Slaves were common currency then and needed regulation and protection. Biblical laws about slaves are no longer relevant other than in symbolic ways. The Canaanites no longer exist. Amalek cannot literally be identified, only figuratively. And Biblical diseases that attacked humans, buildings, and clothes might be called leprosy but it is not what we call leprosy. Nazirites are pretty rare nowadays and no husband gets to bring his rebellious wife to the priest. As for the Temple, recently an eager youngster asked if we will be allowed to use modern technology to rebuild it. I replied that I’d be amazed if we could ever agree on who the architect would be without Divine intervention but we have been told by our sages to leave all that to Elijah to sort out.

The idea of “The Chosen People” falls within this category. It is an idea that was indeed relevant in its pagan context and at a time when Judaism offered a dramatic and the only ethical alternative. But no matter how rabbis twist, turn, and squirm to remove the implied sting of superiority, it must now be consigned to those ideas no longer in currency.

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 own treasure among all peoples, for all the earth is mine. And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

In a pagan, primitive world, a nation of slaves emerges into the Sinai desert and there at Sinai they are given a new constitution. They need inducements (all the more so because of the large number of restrictions) and God promises them a special relationship if only they can adhere to His program. This relationship with God is part of the reciprocal Sinai Covenant.

The history of the succeeding years shows how the Israelites did not succeed as a nation to do this and, as a result, headed slowly and surely 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. Chosenness has never protected us from ignominy and destruction. If anything, it has been our stubbornness that has kept us alive. God called us that too more than once, “a stiff-necked nation” (Exodus 33).

It is true that even today when we are called to the Torah we recite a blessing thanking God for choosing us from other nations through giving us the Torah. But that is no more than statement of delight in and commitment to our religion and our constitution. That is no more pernicious than saying, “I am glad I am an American” (or whatever).

But here’s the issue. We Jews are still attacked for claiming we are Chosen. What does that mean? Does it mean that we are automatically guaranteed salvation? No. But that’s what most Christians think they are. How often, even in America, do little kids 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? If you answer because it is a matter of choice, so too is being a Jew; we still accept converts. (We do make it rather difficult, but that is, in part, because we don’t think you have to be a Jew to be “saved”.)

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 their members are saved. Jews have always claimed that goodness and a relationship with God are the universal criteria, rather than notional membership. Only one’s actions can ensure a relationship with God.

The problem is that many Jews, from across the spectrum, actually seem to believe they are superior in one way or another. I find it to be spiritually and intellectually ridiculous, unsustainable hogwash that anyone should automatically, by birth, be better. That is prejudice. It may be a defense mechanism and a response to the constant delegitimization and prejudice that simply will not die. But I find it really offensive. Not only is it 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).

I am not objecting to the desire to perpetuate the people by encouraging Jews to marry Jews. That is a choice and no different than, say, money marrying money or aristocrats marrying aristocrats. I haven’t heard anyone trying to ban that. Though I have to say, the way to perpetuate the people is not simply by marrying a coreligionist, but by living a Jewish life together and passing it on to one’s children. The mere act of marriage guarantees nothing.

Then what can the idea of being Chosen actually mean? I suggest nothing more than a historical statement of how we came to be different. You might say it’s no different than choosing a football player for a specific position he’s most suited for. This does not make him a better person. And if he’s no good at what he does he gets replaced. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the Almighty decided we had not done a good enough job in spreading monotheism and decided to give Christians, Muslims and Hindus a chance. But this does not mean we could not come back and try again. Neither does it mean that the Johnny-come-latelies did a better job (though if numbers matter, they certainly did).

I’d put this idea of thinking Chosen means “better” in the same bracket as thanking God for not making me a woman. That might have meant something when women were uneducated and subjugated. Nowadays, with more of them getting a degree than men, being successful in every aspect of modern life, I’d be more inclined to ask to be on their side!

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  • zalman kinn

    YOU ‘dislike the expression The Chosen people who are YOU to say that.G-d made this world not YOU if a non-Jew wants to become a Jew he can convert and became a Jew the same as A Jew born to A Jewish mother. Stop trying to change the word of g-d Exodus Chapter 19 שְׁמוֹת Now therefore, if ye will hearken unto My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be Mine own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine and ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.’ Also [Ata Vichartanu] You have chosen us from all the peoples; You loved us and found favor in us; You exalted us above all the tongues and You sanctified us with Your commandments. You drew us close, our King, to Your service and proclaimed Your great and Holy Name upon us.” YOU DID NOT MAKE G-D G-D MADE YOU.

  • Joe

    1. I believe that we, the Jews, ARE chosen people, since our whole history proves that.

    2. I believe, in light of the recent genetic findings, that we, the Jews, are collectively different from the rest of the humanity – a difference which was proven time and again.

    3. I believe that the unique record of Jewish achievement proves that our difference from the rest of humanity is positive, not negative. I also believe, that, when decoupled from the ethics of Torah, this difference can be quickly turned to evil purposes with great success (witness Jewish Bolsheviks for one example).

    • frania kryszpel block

      Please explain how history has proven that Jews are the Chosen people. What recent genetic tests are you referring to? The Jewish Bolsheviks banned all religious instruction and the learning of Hebrew. Russian oppression of Jews caused them to join various revolutionary movements. The Bolsheviks were the majority faction in a crucial vote of a mass organization consisting of workers who were leaders of the working class ,the workers revolution. Nazi Alfred Rosenberg(Protocols of the Elders of Zion) followed later by Hitler’s Mein Kampf and then a major source for propogsnda was the pro Nazi and antisemitic international Welt-Dienst news agency used this Bolshevik conspiracy theory to blame all Jews. Rosenberg said Bolshevism was the revolt of Jewish,Slavic and Mongolian races against the Aryan German. element. Germany had been sidelined by the Bolsheviks who represented the Chinese and ethnic Jewish population and now were taking credit away for Russia’s historic achievements .A credit the Germans deserved,according to Nazi Alfred Rosenberg.

    • John McNab

      I keep telling myself that it is bigoted of me to think that Jews are irritating. Then I read comments like yours and realise that I am being too hard on myself.

      • John McNab

        previous comment was meant for Joe

  • Reuven

    I think that it would be very sad to stop infusing the term “chosen people” with meaning. As it was pointed out, this very notion was reason for persecution of Jews over centuries. It was, however, the misunderstanding of the term by Christians that made it just one more reasons for persecution. To the best of my knowledge, the Torah does not allow at any point an interpretation of “Am Kadosh” or “Am Nivchar” as something higher, better, then the other nations. Being chosen means rather being chosen for the burden of the commandments. Just as you would tell your kid that it is very special and significant to perform a certain task of help in the home, The Jewish people were termed “chosen” for they basically have lots of more work to do in their lives in order to get the same thing as every righteous gentile. Don’t we say Kaddish, the prayer of the highest praise of G-d just then when we have a great reason to complain to G-d (when a loved one passed away)? It is the same principle, whenever there is hardship, the Jews declare it something positive. If they have to work harder to get the same merit, they call it “being chosen”, when they are in pain, they say Kaddish. And when a man stands at 5.00 a.m in Shul, to perform his duty to the creator, wouldn’t he rather be still home in bed? It is then when he says the blessing “that HE has not made me a woman”. Same principle. What about the Mitzvot haTluiot Baaretz, the commandments that are dependent on Eretz Israel? Couldn’t the diaspora Jews have said with the same right some 600 years ago that we should stop embracing them because they are not relevant anymore?! Well they are relevant today again.
    An abandonment of this term, after we have come so far in history would be very sad, it would mean to give in to the misinterpretation that has haunted us so far.

  • jeremy rosen

    And I suppose you will tell me that the Atheist regimes of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and their like who massacred far more were religions too.
    The fact is that humans are as Hobbes said ‘Nasty and Brutish’ and they can even turn a game of football into a war.But you wouldn’t I assume ban football because of it?

    I agree I dislike power, including religious power, and all power corrupts. But that is an entirely different issue to the nature of religious inspiration.

    Apples and Pears dear sir.

  • frania kryszpel block

    I would say it in a second. He is a man who is a disciple of a renowned Rabbi who is revered and had made decisions on Jewish halacha that make so much sense in their purity and wisdom. The greatest ,in any profession, when they rise to the top ,have to contend with all manner of poison arrows slung at them. It is no different where rabbis are concerned. He also taught that just because someone has rabbi on front of their name, does not make him a rabbi. And just because someone says he is orthodox does not make him truly religious. As a matter of fact a nice Jewish young woman was being bullied by rabbis in a marital situatian. He told her to tell the supposed religious rabbis that she is not allowed to step one foot in their synogogue AND HE TOLD HER TO TELL THEM WHO SAID . Then, because this young lady was smart,beautiful and could easily go out of the religion and succeed But instead wanted to be Jewish,as she was a grandchild of Holocaust survivors ,he took care of everything. His stamp is gold among the highest rabbis. I do not say the name so he is not inundated by rabbis who are not worthy of the name. And to give him some peace in his last years. Your article he would like very much.

  • jeremy rosen

    Thank you Frania
    I wish you’d tell us who this wonderful rabbi is.

  • frania kryszpel block

    Sorry..the typos. 1. Is to do a mitzvah. 2. Is to get a taste of what true Judaism really is. That is why it has lasted so long. Hillel said ‘do unto others ad you would have them do unto you. Everything else is commentary”. This Is the real, unadulterated

  • frania kryszpel block

    Thought provoking article. It makes a lot of sense. A wonderful old gray bearded ,wise rabbi has converted non Jews for many years. He allows for the special people who want to become a part of the Jewish nation. He said it is not an easy thing as these Chosen people have been chosen for a lot of suffering. And 70 years ago the entire Jewish culture that had been present in Europe for hundreds of years was destroyed.The thinkers, scientists,great rabbis, the butcher, the Baker,all gone. Then the fight for Israel that killed and continues to kill off more sons every day. The war to annihialate the entire jewish religion did not end 70 years ago. It continues now with the children of the petpetrators and entire continents against Israel.
    The best were taken and since then we flounder like fish out of water. To include others ,who know how hard it is, and still desire to put their lot in with the jews I’d to for a mitzvah and to gather needed good people to multiply and hopefully reproduce the best. The Rabbi I speak of is not a “fringe” person. His name is honored and his teachings will be used for hundreds of years . When you hear him you see why …and you get a taste of the wisdom,understanding ,common sense that true Judaism

  • Telmi

    Whether God-chosen or not, someone once said “religion is a curse on humanity” and to a non-theist such a view does not seem like a hyperbole, in fact has a certain relevance as it is a fact that religions or religious differences have been the cause of many wars in history, for example, the Crusader Wars [11th to 13th centuries], the Reconquista [Reconquest] wars fought between Christian Kingdoms and Muslim states in the Iberian Peninsula, commonly accepted to have started in 722, with the Battle of Covadonga, and finished in 1492 with the conquest of Granada, the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants in France in the 16th century, not counting the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre [in 1572] of Huguenots [French Protestants] by Catholics, the so-called Taiping Rebellion in China [1850-1864] that ended the lives of about 20 million people, and between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland in the 20th century. The conflicts in Northern Ireland were, however, partly influenced by turf and politics, though we can’t rule out that politics could also have been a factor for the other cases I have just cited.

    In the Indian subcontinent, at around the time of the partition [1947] of India into India and Pakistan, religious riots accounted for the death of about 1 million people and caused the displacement of over 10 million. Skirmishes between Indian and Pakistani nationals since the emergence of Pakistan as a separate country have led to deaths in the thousands, with the plausibility of their religious differences being one of the underlying factors, if not the principal or sole factor. Arguably, the birth of Pakistan as a separate Muslim nation would probably not have occurred if Islam had not been introduced into India centuries ago.

    And what is God? The barbaric, bellicose, bloodthirsty, capricious, chauvinistic, cruel, destructive, freakish, genocidal, unhinged, malevolent, manipulative, prejudicial, psychotic, nutcase or bastard portrayed in the Old Testament?

    • jeremy rosen

      You are simply describing human beings. The worst murderers have been those without a god Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot,Hitler.
      You cannot find any area of human activity, culture or politics, even sport which humans have not succeeded in demeaning and corrupting. Blaming God simply shifts the responsibility from mankind.