Just A Thought: The chosen people

If there was nothing physically special about us, and we come from mixed backgrounds, why is Judaism manifested in a physical Jewish people?

Star of David 311 (photo credit: (Dan Lowenstein))
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” (16:3).
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 David.
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.
Soloveitchik would 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 first.
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 historical mission.
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.