The Meaning of Being Chosen

Q. Are the Jews chosen?

Few doctrines have been as contentious as that of chosenness. It has pride of place in invective leveled against the Jewish people by their enemies, and even comes in for detraction among admirers. For some Jews it is an embarrassment, and they qualify the idea until it is fairly empty of any significance. In Exodus 19:5, God refers to the Jewish nation as "am segulah"--a treasured people. There are many biblical echoes of this idea, including Isaiah 43:20, 45:4 and many others.

It would be dishonest to pretend that this has never been taken by Jews to imply superiority. In the history of the world, there has been no group that did not at times, perhaps even most of the time, assume it was superior to those who surrounded it. To think oneself better is part of people's collective constitution, and it has both bolstered self-esteem and kept communities cohesive. Yet it has also done a great deal of harm, when it implied that those who were not superior were therefore dispensable or could be treated badly.

Part of the irony of the charge of chosenness is that those who level the charge claimed chosenness themselves. The Christian church claimed that those who accepted Jesus were the legitimate heirs to the status of chosenness, even as they reviled the Jews for claiming it. The same strange projection applies to Islam, which reckoned itself chosen, and vilified the people who made that claim thousands of years before.


But this sordid history should not detain us here, because what we are after is this: can chosenness be meaningful in a modern, pluralistic world, or is it better dispensed with altogether? Some Jewish thinkers, like Mordecai Kaplan, argued for the elimination of the idea from Jewish liturgy and theology. He found it distastefully egocentric.


At times in the Bible, chosenness seems to be conditional--the Children of Israel are chosen if they act in accordance with God's wishes.  At other times, however, chosenness seems inherent in Israel, and even in disobedience they are chosen.  Indeed, the severity of their punishment for disobedience is one more piece of evidence that they are chosen.  We are harder on those we love.  In the Bible, God, like human beings, regards wickedness in the beloved more seriously than wickedness in others.

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