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Should We Call Jews the ‘Chosen People’?

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

Opinion

Reading from a Torah scroll in accordance with Sephardi tradition. Photo: Sagie Maoz via Wikimedia Commons.

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 were given a new constitution — a unique and universal ethical alternative to paganism. With this came the promise of a special relationship with God, if only they would adhere to it.

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.

It is true that the idea of having a mission in life — to try and show how a spiritual life should be led — has given us a sense of responsibility and pride in our heritage.

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But unlike some other religions, we do not believe that you must be Jewish to be saved or get into 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.

Ironically it is the New Testament that has taken up the myth of “chosenness” in an exclusive way. 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?

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 antisemitic 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.

Some Jewish thinkers, including  Judah Halevi in his Kuzari, the Maharal of Prague, R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, and R. Abraham Isaac Kook, 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. Rambam (Maimonides), the great medieval rationalist, insisted that there was no essential difference between Jew and non-Jew.

There is nothing wrong with trying to perpetuate one’s tradition and to 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.  Yet antisemitism looks for any false excuse to condemn Jews — from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, to the idea that the Mossad was behind 9/11, to the Blood Libel that Jews drink Christian blood.

Different peoples have evolved in different ways. The shame is that they could not get along with each other. Competition between humans seems to have infected everything on earth.

Some people think that the very survival of Judaism against the odds says something about being beloved by God. But 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?”

The author is a writer and rabbi currently living in New York.

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