Reclaiming the light of chosenness

I’m not budging. I continue to hold onto our chosenness.

A general view shows Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
A general view shows Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
I was recently called up to the Torah at my synagogue. My rabbi, who had recently announced she was going to leave our community, was already up on the bima, so I spontaneously asked her to do the aliya with me as a gesture of love and support. It was a tender moment, uncoordinated.
We began the blessing on the Torah, but our words were not coordinated either. Where I was chanting that “God has chosen us from among all nations” – mikol ha’amim – she chanted “God has chosen us along with all the nations” –im kol ha’amim. We smiled at the brief moment of theological incongruity and just continued.
Since Simhat Torah is a time when a record number of aliyot are bestowed, within which pluralistic Jews are grappling with language of chosenness, let’s not mince holy words anymore: Judaism is out of balance.
In the past decade I have noticed more of my pluralistic friends, including rabbinical students who come for Shabbat meals, also replacing unique chosenness for a more inclusive notion of chosenness during recitiation of kiddush and havdala.
At the same time, extreme and chauvinistic versions of Judaism and Zionism have been growing in influence, grotesquely distorting one of the great world faiths and chipping away at the letter and spirit of Israel’s inspired Declaration of Independence. I believe these trends are related.
The Torah is not ambiguous about the special relationship between God and the Jewish people. This is no surprise – it’s our holy book. “God has chosen you to be his treasured people from all the nations that are on the face of the Earth” (Deuteronomy 14:2).
But we also pick and choose. “To me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians,” declares the Lord in Amos 9:7. “True, I brought up Israel from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir.” In other words, don’t think you’re that special.
Some references to a special status are unconditional and some are, indeed, conditional. At Sinai we were told, “You shall be a treasure unto Me from all peoples” (Exodus 19:5), but only “if you will obey My voice indeed.”
Obeying God’s voice is tricky business.
The certainty found in religious fundamentalism of all kinds derives from a belief in the absolute, narrow understanding of what God wants. The accelerated drift toward fundamentalism in Judaism is emblematic of what my wife, a rabbi, deems idolatrous – if you can hold God, or God’s will, in your mind, it is no different from holding a statue in your hand and seeing it as God – a minuscule symbol has replaced the unknowable infinite.
The religious and political triumphalism that increasingly dominates Israeli political life glorifies a misguided exaggeration of the special relationship between God, the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.
I understand when my friends dilute the special relationship between God and the Jewish people when they are called up to the Torah or celebrate havdala or recite the Shabbat kiddush. They want to counter the growing triumphalism that can lead to racism, intolerance and even violence.
But I’m not budging. I continue to hold onto our chosenness.
ONE OF the reasons world Jewry is adrift is precisely because we’re getting soft on the unique mission and purpose of the Jewish people.
When I was an educator and co-launched initiatives like and, Joe Kanfer, who chaired my strategic planning committee, challenged me to come up with a mission statement for the Jewish people that would drive our collective work. I was sensitive to the backlash that any sense of elitism of Jewish mission would have on the majority of American Jews, so I knew I had to dance around the issue of chosenness.
The wonderfully convoluted mission statement, which still works for me today (but maybe only for me) is that the purpose of the Jewish people is to be an ongoing, distinctive catalyst for the advancement and evolution of morality in civilization.
Making the shift from Jewish education to solar energy also simplified the mission statement for the Jewish people – becoming a renewable light unto the nations.
Isaiah’s call for the Jewish people to “be a light unto the nations,” certainly resonates in world where 1.3 billion people do not have access to electricity and the dignity that power enables. The State of Israel’s increasing re-engagement with Africa, a movement I have had the privilege to help ignite, is certainly energizing for me and for our investors. Israel and world Jewry can come together to make the Jewish state a superpower of goodness in the developing world through our industries of goodness, like water, agriculture, green energy and medicine.
Not surprisingly, some of my most enthusiastic investors in bringing solar and wind power to Africa are Christians who deeply believe the Jewish people are chosen to bring light unto the nations. And when I am in the field, in some of the poorest countries on the planet, the Bible-believing citizens also count on this to be true.
That is a lot of historic responsibility.
The prophet Joel taught, “Without vision, the people perish.” The fundamentalists have it easy – they believe they know exactly what God wants of them (although they make it hard on the rest of us). The non-fundamentalists, however, are moving to greater universalism without a special vision or role for Israel or the Jewish people in the world.
When I am called up to bless the Torah, I accept the uniqueness and conditionality of the covenant. Therefore, I strive to live a life reflective of the generous values of our people and resist fundamentalist forces in our society and among our people.
What I take away from my uncoordinated aliya to the Torah with my rabbi is that in order to strengthen the center of Jewish life, we should be encouraging both versions of the blessing on the Torah. Being chosen from among the peoples of the earth demands Jewish responsibility to be in our unique covenant with God, and we should seek it out, individually and collectively. And being chosen alongside the nations of the Earth warns us of the bigotry that an unchecked and self-satisfied sense of chosenness can create.
The writer is an international solar pioneer and activist, a recipient of the Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education, Israel’s Green Globe Award in the Knesset, a Wexner Fellowship and a frequent contributor to these pages. He can be followed @KaptainSunshine.