Think Again: On knowing we were chosen

Few claims make nonreligious Jews more uncomfortable.

By
April 23, 2009 15:18
Think Again: On knowing we were chosen

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Few concepts are so closely identified with the Jewish people as that of the "chosen people." That singularity is reiterated constantly in the Torah. We are referred to variously as "a kingdom of priests, a holy nation," "My special treasure among the nations," "My son, my firstborn son, Israel." Though our travails will be many, we are promised that God will never abandon us completely. A strong sense of distinction has characterized the Jews from our earliest days as a nation. The ancient Greek and Roman historians noted the Jews' refusal to intermingle freely with other peoples, their strict endogamy - and despised them for it. Until our own day, the clannishness of the Jews is a frequent theme of anti-Semites (even as others attack us for our attempts to penetrate every area of gentile society. Anti-Semites of a Hegelian bent synthesize the two claims: Jews attempt to enter everywhere to advance their group interests). Those who accuse Israel of war crimes often attribute those "crimes" to the Jews' belief that only their lives are of value and gentile blood may be freely shed. (In reality, no army in history has shed so much of its own blood to preserve that of enemy civilians as the IDF.) Once, the idea that Jews constitute a people specially chosen by God caused us to separate ourselves from others and others to hate us for doing so. Today it is more likely to divide Jews from one another. Few claims make nonreligious Jews more uncomfortable than that Jews are God's chosen. About 15 years ago, Commentary magazine ran a symposium of Jewish theologians from the so-called three "streams" of Judaism. Of the non-Orthodox respondents, hardly one was prepared to offer a full-throated affirmation of Jewish chosenness, no matter how the concept was defined. My colleague Amotz Asa-El spoke for many when he wrote a few years back, "The costs of being chosen have been far higher than the benefits." Amotz's problem was not so much the quality of our deal with God, as the very belief that we are His chosen people, as implied by his title, "Are we chosen?" Evangelical Christians have fewer problems with the Jews' status as the chosen people than do the non-Orthodox. For the latter, the whole concept flies too radically in the face of the egalitarianism of modern liberalism. Sure, there are still Jews who take pride in our astounding overrepresentation among Nobel Prize winners in science, medicine and economics. But such ethnic pride has no consequences for behavior - for instance the decision not to intermarry. If one values only brains, there are quite enough highly intelligent gentiles with whom to preserve one's gene pool (and minus the genetic diseases). THE CONTRAST between the non-Orthodox and the Orthodox in this regard could not be greater. At a convention of European Agudath Israel last year, it suddenly struck me that every speech was predicated on the assumption that everything any Jew does is of cosmic significance. Stories of ba'alei teshuva, for instance, inevitably made the point: See to what lengths God goes to bring a single Jewish soul to recognition of Him. I couldn't help thinking how amusing a Yiddish-speaking gentile would have found the absolute conviction of this small group of black-garbed men and modestly attired women that they stand at the absolute center of the divine plan for the world. That deep-seated belief in the centrality of the Jews underlies the strong feelings of mutual responsibility that have always characterized the Jewish people. And it is the loss of that conviction that explains the rapidly declining sense of mutual responsibility. Less than half of American Jewish adults under 35 respond affirmatively to the question: Do Jews worldwide have some special responsibility for one another? If there is nothing special about the Jewish people, why should young Jews feel more concern for another Jew than for anyone else? Isn't a universalistic, undifferentiated love for all human beings morally superior? (It's easier too. If no one has a special claim to your assistance, you can give as little to charity as US Vice President Joseph Biden - .12% of his annual income - with a clear conscience.) THERE IS one aspect of Jewish singularity about which all agree. The Torah belongs to the Jewish people. No other people has ever viewed its multitude of commandments as binding on them. And therein lies the explanation of why the non-Orthodox find it so hard to relate to the idea of the Jews as the chosen people: They have so little connection to the Torah itself. A mitzva-observant Jew finds his awareness of himself as a member of a unique people continually reinforced. But even mitzva observance by itself is not enough. For as Montesquieu observed, every nation has its own unique laws. The most intense feelings of being chosen are a product of a passionate commitment to Torah learning. Not by accident do we recite the blessing, "...Who has chosen us from all the nations...," before commencing our daily study of Torah or reading from a Torah scroll. Every aspect of yeshiva study reinforces the idea that Torah study transcends any other human activity. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato writes in The Way of God that Torah study is qualitatively different from the study of every other form of knowledge in its power to transform the world and the one involved in its study. In his classic statement of the ideal of Torah study for its own sake, Nefesh Hachaim, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin states that the universe would return to the original void if Torah study were to cease entirely for even a moment. Through the study of Torah one cleaves to the divine will, he writes, for Torah is, as the Zohar puts it, the blueprint from which God created the world. One who truly translates these ideas into his own Torah learning has no doubt that the Jews' acceptance of the Torah was the most important event in world history or that the Jews were thereby chosen to reveal God to the entire world. And without that experience of a passionate connection to the Torah, all claims of our having been chosen ring hollow.

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