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.

Chosenness is not primarily for the benefit of the chosen, however. Recall the scheme of the Bible: God creates the world, and it quickly degenerates into wickedness. After the end of Eden, the tower of Babel, and the cataclysm of the flood, God decides to try to work the Divine will on a representative group. Perhaps if one people can carry out God's will it will elevate the general moral tone. Thus God tells Abraham (in Chapter 12 of Genesis) not merely that Abraham will be blessed, but that he will be a blessing. Abraham's task is to conduct himself in a way that benefits the world.

Judaism that does not provide a model for others traduces the tradition. If Judaism is lived quietly, out of the hustle of the world, it cannot serve its original purpose.

A chosenness that matters is a chosenness boldly asserted, but not exclusive. It is possible for Judaism to be chosen for certain tasks in this world. A cursory reading of history makes clear that Judaism has indeed had an exceptional, tumultuous, and often glorious journey. That does not mean that other peoples -- even other faiths -- are not chosen for other purposes in this world. The gazelle may be singled out for her grace, but she does not detract from the specialness of the eagle.

Judaism introduced the idea of one God in the world, and still upholds that ideal in the teeth of modernity. To be chosen for that task is itself a remarkable destiny. For two thousand years Jews have struggled. Their struggle has been imperfect. Propoganda should not spill over into history; Jews have been venal, and cruel, and dismally narrow, just as have been all other peoples. Nonetheless, they have also achieved remarkably in this world, despite the almost unimaginable disadvantages under which they have labored. Perhaps the line between a chosen people and a choosing people is blurry. Jews have never ceased choosing; in the end that may be the only evidence for chosenness that endures.

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