Star of David 311.
(photo credit: (Dan Lowenstein))
What do we mean when we say Israel is a “chosen people”? This doctrine states
that God chose the Jewish people to be an “am segula,” a special people, and
that He is to be our God.
Rabbi Solomon Schechter pointed out that while
the doctrine is missing from Maimonides as an article of faith, perhaps the
clearest expression of the election of Israel can be found in the prayer, “Thou
hast chosen us from all peoples; Thou hast loved us and taken pleasure in us,
and hast exalted us above all tongues; Thou hast sanctified us by thy
commandments and brought us near unto thy service, our King, Thou hast called us
by Thy great and holy name.”
We cannot ignore that some of the medieval
Jewish philosophers asserted qualitative differences between Jews and gentiles.
Some of these philosophers picture Jews to be spiritual supermen, while others
classify the world into Mineral, Vegetable, Animal, Man, Israel. In the modern
era, Abraham Geiger saw Israel’s chosenness expressed in its genius for religion
and sensitivity to the call of the religious life.
Other Jewish thinkers
in the modern era reject the doctrine outright.
Mordechai Kaplan denied
that a people can be “called” to God or in any way chosen. Hugo Berman also had
difficulties with the “chosen people” doctrine and found it difficult to
reconcile it with his sense of God’s justice, prompting Rabbi Louis Jacobs to
write: “It may be that the Jew never comes closer to the truth in the doctrine
of chosenness than when he is severely critical of why and how God can choose
the Jewish People.”
Interestingly the sources do not include any type of
racial superiority at all. In fact, the Bible testifies to the mixed origins of
Israel. Ephraim and Manasseh, two of the Twelve Tribes, are half Egyptian; Moses
marries a Cushite woman; and King David is descended from a Moabite. Thus
Ezekiel says, “Thus says the Lord God to Jerusalem: Your origin and birth are
the Land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite and your mother Hittite”
This means that Jewish particularism is not exclusive to Israel
of the flesh, to borrow a Christian idea. Anyone from any race today can choose
to join our people, and they have full privileges thereof. There is no rejection
because of race, color or ancestry. While in the biblical past there were
peoples singled out as so rotten that they were not allowed to convert and join
the corporate Israel, in practice, even in Biblical times – as we see in the
Book of Ruth – it was never clear what the Halacha was, and in the end not only
was Ruth accepted, but she became the great-grandmother of King
WHAT, THEN, is meant by Israel? Who are the Jewish people? If
there was nothing physically special about us, and we come from mixed
backgrounds and races, why is Judaism manifested in a physical Jewish people?
Prof. Michael Wyschogrod explains that the Torah, Israel’s foundational
document, is the record of the relationship between the Jewish people and God.
It is through this relationship that all of Jewish theology is derived.
Therefore, since it is not a platonic truth, Judaism can never be fully given
over to another people.
One becomes a Christian by believing in the
message of Jesus and his apostles.
No one is actually born a Christian.
One becomes a Christian through baptism, a ceremony that leaves no physical mark
because it is a symbol of an inner spiritual and mental metamorphosis. The
foundation of Judaism is the family identity of the Jewish people as descended
from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Like most families, Israel needs others to
join it to continue its line. Other peoples are allowed to join the family, but
not by accepting the theology of Judaism alone; rather, they must join
themselves to the fate and destiny, as Rabbi Joseph B.
term it, of the Jewish people.
It wasn’t enough for Ruth to claim “Your
God is my God!” She needed to precede that statement with the proclamation, “For
where you go, I shall go; where you lodge, I shall lodge; your people are my
people” (Ruth 1:16). Her acceptance of Jewish peoplehood needed to come
Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits claimed that “God never chose the Jews;
rather, any people whom God chose were to become the Jewish people. The choice
of God made Israel.” Far more interesting, though, is the idea that God really
didn’t choose Israel, but Israel has chosen God.
This is a stark contrast
to the explanation that Prof. Bryon L. Sherwin offers of the famous talmudic
passage that the mountain would be brought down on Israel’s head if the people
did not accept the Torah. Sherwin makes the point in a rather “blunt analogy”
that “God raped Israel; the covenant binding God to Israel was forced upon a
reluctant people. Israel was coerced into passively accepting the covenant and
its laws.” Like any rape victim, he says, Israel is forever traumatized by the
event and now walks through history with Jacob’s limp, the burden of its
If it was Israel that chose God, however, Israel is
not really the chosen people, but the choosing people.The writer is a
doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many
post-highschool yeshivot and midrashot.