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In wondering about the singling out of one city - Jerusalem - from among all the cities in the Land of Israel, I find myself ineluctably led into its larger and even more mysterious context, which is the singling out of one people from among all the nations of the world.
And in puzzling over this belief that the children of Israel and their descendants who would in later centuries be called Jews were the chosen people of God, I find myself relying for help on an intriguing Christian concept: the one Christian theologians call the scandal of particularity.
There are many elaborate definitions of this concept, but in my opinion it was most strikingly elucidated not in any theological disquisition but in a little jingle often attributed to the British writer Hilaire Belloc. Actually, however, it was written in the 1920s by a British journalist named William Norman Ewer, and it went like this: "How odd of God/To choose/ The Jews."
Given the sly touch of anti-Semitic malice concealed beneath the whimsy of this jingle, it was inevitable that there should have been responses in kind. One of them, of uncertain authorship, was "But not so odd/As those who choose/A Jewish God/But spurn the Jews."
Ewer thought this an oddity, but to weightier and more solemn Christian minds, it was more than odd, it was nothing short of scandalous that the one true God, the universal God, the God of all should have singled out any one people on whom to bestow His special favor. And as if this were not scandal enough, the particular people he thus singled out was the Jews: a scraggly tribe only just freed from slavery and now wandering in the desert.
True, the often-bitter fruits of that special privilege would in the distant future sometimes lead the descendants of those scraggly wanderers in the desert to pray: "Dear God, please choose someone else for a change."
Christians were ultimately able to reconcile themselves to the scandal of particularity as applied to the Jews when they discovered how useful a concept it was as applied to the very cornerstone of their religion. Here, for instance, is how a British divine preaching not long ago in Salisbury Cathedral put it: "It's scandalous that, in some way, God... cares for the Jews more than anyone else... This is known as the scandal of particularity - that it was through a particular nation that God especially made Himself known. But then it was also at a particular time, in a particular place and in a particular person that God fully revealed His purposes and presence."
Obviously Jews could not and cannot subscribe to the second half of this expanded definition of the scandal of particularity: that is, what Christians call the Incarnation. Yet neither do many Jews subscribe even to the first half, in which the election of Israel is acknowledged - and it is not only because they wish that God had chosen someone else for a change that they reject the whole idea of a chosen people.
To Jews such as these, the idea of a chosen people is just another ridiculous myth that no enlightened person could possibly accept. Most Jews who feel this way simply do not believe in God, but there are also Jews who in some sense or other do believe in God but who nevertheless regard the idea of chosenness as a primitive tribal superstition - something to be outgrown.
Here is what the Reconstructionist Movement recommends be told to young people who are disturbed by the partiality God shows to the Israelites: "The Bible describes a time when the Israelite religion was becoming different from the religions of the neighboring peoples. Part of the 'sales pitch' was the idea that the Israelite religion was all good, and that the other religions were all bad... Sometimes that sounds very unfair to our modern ear, but it is really just an ancient 'hard-sell' campaign."
Needless to say, to Jews like this the restriction of all ritual practices to a single city, Jerusalem, only deepens the scandal of particularity.
AM I then saying that a belief in the Jews as the chosen people can only seriously be held by observant Jews and believing Christians? My answer is no. To be sure, I myself strongly agree that the universal can only be reached through the particular - and not just in religion, but also in art and science which, in the words of the English poet William Blake, "cannot exist but in minutely organized particulars."
Nevertheless I still find it so hard to make theological or just plain logical sense out of the election of Israel that I cannot altogether dismiss the old view of it as an oddity to reason and a scandal to theology. At the same time, I also find myself, if a little mischievously, beginning to think that if the idea of the Jews as the chosen people is taken not as a matter of faith that can never be proved, but as a hypothesis subject to empirical verification, it actually seems to make scientific sense.
For consider: All the great powers and principalities of antiquity - the Assyrians and the Babylonians, the Greeks and the Romans - all the powers which at one time or another conquered the Land of Israel and then outlawed the religious practices of its Jewish inhabitants, or executed some and banished others - all of these powers, each and every one, have crumbled to dust.
Having outlasted all these mighty empires by creating ways of surviving statelessness, the Jews then remained alive as an identifiable people for another 2,000 years: in spite of persecution by Christians and Muslims.
Only recently, an attempt to unravel this secret [of survival] was made by an American gentile, the brilliant political scientist Charles Murray. But after examining various theories purporting to account for the extraordinary and wildly disproportionate intellectual and cultural achievements of the Jews, Murray rejected them all as unsatisfactory and finally threw up his hands. "At this point," he wrote in Commentary, "I take sanctuary in my remaining hypothesis... The Jews are God's chosen people."
Excerpted from Podhoretz's address at the annual dinner of the Ingeborg Rennert Center, Bar-Ilan University, delivered May 24 at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.