The idea of the "chosen people" is one of the most controversial concepts in Judaism and also one of the most basic. It is articulated quite clearly in the Torah and repeated countless times in our prayers. Probably the most well-known example of that is the blessing recited when one has an aliya to the Torah: "...who has chosen us from all the peoples and given us the Torah."
Some groups within Judaism have found this so offensive that they have changed the wording of this blessing in their prayer books. The Reconstructionist Movement, for example, introduced instead the formula "who has brought us close to Your service..." Its objection, obviously, is that chosenness implies superiority and therefore teaches a doctrine not dissimilar from that of "the master race."
Is that in fact the meaning of the "chosen people"? I think not - although the danger always exists that some people - both Jews and non-Jews - may interpret it that way. Let us be very clear that both the Torah and rabbinic Judaism know nothing of a concept of inherently superior and inferior human beings or races. The story of creation, in which all humans are descended from one father and one mother, was rightly understood by the rabbis as intended to teach the basic equality of the entire human race.
This was clearly articulated by them in the statement in the Mishna that the reason only one man - Adam - was created at the beginning was "so that no one should say to another, 'My father is greater than yours!'" (Sanhedrin 4:5). Deviations from this basic principle, such as the teaching found in some mystical circles that Jewish souls are somehow purer or superior to others, are contradictions of Judaism's normative teaching and should be rejected as such.
The idea of the chosen people comes from the fact that the Torah narrative depicts God as disappointed in humanity. Time and time again human beings fail to abide by the basic moral codes that God commands. Adam and Eve are the first disappointment. When humankind becomes completely corrupt, God decides to start afresh, finding one man, Noah, who will be the new Adam. Unfortunately Noah and his descendants are similarly a disappointment, but rather than destroy them, God determines on a new way. To borrow Heschel's phrase - God is continually in search of man - i.e. of someone who will live according to God's ways and will teach that way to his descendants so that they can serve as an example to others.
Abraham emerged as that man and was therefore chosen by God to be the father of a people that would be given that task. "You are the Lord God, who chose Abram... Finding his heart true to You, You made a covenant with him..." (Nehemiah 9:7-8). The covenant, carried over to his descendants, meant that they were given the task of being "a priestly people and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6). They were chosen not for privilege but for a task.
The Torah itself seems aware of the danger that knowing that it is chosen, Israel might ascribe greatness or superiority to itself. Therefore in Deuteronomy Moses states, "It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the Lord set His heart on you and chose you - indeed you are the smallest of peoples - but it is because the Lord loved you and kept the oath He made to your fathers..." (Deuteronomy 7:7-8).
The prophet Amos too dealt with this problem. He clearly enunciated the paradox of chosenness when he stated that "you alone have I known of all the families of the Earth. That is why I call you to account for all your iniquities" (Amos 3:2), while on the other hand "to Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians..." (Amos 9:7). Just as God freed us and cared for us, so did He free and care for other nations.
It should be clear, then, that this chosenness does not negate the relationship of others to God. Israel is the pioneer, but the pioneer is the first, not the last. Thus Isaiah taught that in the time to come others would follow our example so that "in that day, Israel shall be a third partner with Egypt and Assyria as a blessing on Earth; for the Lord of Hosts will bless them, saying, 'Blessed be My people Egypt, My handiwork Assyria and My very own Israel'" (Isaiah 19:24-25).
The time will come when others too learn the truths that we have known and when that happens, there will be no distinction between us and others. All will be - as it were - "chosen."
Chosenness is indeed a difficult and mysterious doctrine which can be distorted. On the other hand, it is so integral to Judaism that it cannot be easily dismissed. Rightly understood, it defines us and our task, but let it never be distorted in such a way as to contradict Judaism's other basic belief - the oneness and equality of all human beings.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court (Beit Din) of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.