The concept of chosenness is both central to Judaism and often misunderstood. Throughout history, it has been seen as an affront by many non-Jews. Rare is the indictment of the Jews that does not, in some way, invoke this idea that presumably suggests the Jews are better than everyone else.
It seems not to bother the accusers that every faith has claims about its superiority; or that many (including classical Christianity) insist that an adherence to that faith is essential to eternal salvation, which Judaism does not; or that chosenness does not preclude a special mission for other peoples in other ways, or that it can have no racial, genetic implications because one can convert to Judaism, and one cannot "convert" to be native American or Chinese. It is, in the eyes of an unforgiving world, the original conceptual sin--the sin of chosenness.
For some Jews, too, chosenness is problematic. The American Jewish thinker Mordecai Kaplan, a Conservative rabbi who became the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, famously renounced the idea; in his theological view, there is no personal God to do the choosing. Other Jews have felt that the very idea of being chosen brings untold trouble down on the Jewish people.
One of my congregants insisted to me that deciding one is “chosen” is like strutting, inviting someone else to knock the chip off your shoulder. And then there are others who simply feel it brings unwanted attention, from human beings or perhaps from God. As the fictional character Tevya famously laments, "Can’t you choose somebody else for a while?" Better to simply say we are a nation like all others.
Jean Daniel, a French journalist and commentator, and a Jew himself, has written a book called "The Jewish Prison: A Rebellious Meditation on the State of Judaism," in which he outlines the problem in being chosen and yet yearning for normality, being a people impelled by a spiritual message and yet forced to run a modern, secular state.
Daniel traces this theme through the tangled modern political situation of the state of Israel in the world. He does so with a sympathy for Israel alongside an intermittent--and very French--outrage at Israeli policies.
By feeling both sympathy for Israel and anger, Daniel himself is trapped, unable to find his way to consistency or ease about hissituation as a Jew. He embodies, as he acknowledges, the very dilemma that his book addresses: How does one accept the Jewish state as a normal country, and still believe its actions should be above reproach?
Daniel wants the State of Israel to be better. Why should it hold itself to high moral standards? Although he is not himself religious, Daniel's writing often sounds a theological note. The book is divided into chapters each of which opens with a quotation from the book of Job.
Throughout his ruminations, Daniel finds it difficult to escape the idea of Judaism having a mission. He quotes the renowned French classicist and historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet to summarize his own feelings: "The paradox of Israel is that it is both the accomplishment of a dream of normalization--having finally, like other countries, customs inspectors, prisons, and judges to fill these prisons--and the embodiment of a very old messianism that aims to create a righteous city. I myself feel this keenly, and, to give a clear example, an Israeli torturer...makes me more indignant than a French torturer."
Such sentiments are widely shared by both Jews and non-Jews. When Jews defend Israel by pointing to the abuses of other regimes (including those surrounding Israel) that are far worse, we are often told, "But you are supposed to be better!" Jews are supposed to be better because they have suffered, and because they are chosen. This, Daniel points out, is the Jewish prison.
He knows the character and history of Israel's opponents: "I have long been aware of the fact that Palestinian nationalism was born and developed, thanks to the Israelis. Arabs don't like to be reminded of this." But at the same time, Daniel does not turn away from the brutality, the suffering, and the conflict that has engulfed Israel and its enemies throughout the twentieth century.
The turning point of Israel's reputation in the larger world and of its own struggle to reconcile conquest with holiness was the 1967 war. With that victory, Israel suddenly became the custodian of territories it never previously aspired to own. But now the question of controlling them or giving them back was fraught. "We might even say that all revolutionary countries have to confront the problems of the goal and the means to it, of betraying principles to preserve existence, or denying freedom to enemies of freedom." He goes on to say, in a careful sentence, "We should accept the idea of Zionism is a movement of liberation that was perceived as an act of colonization."
Reading this book, I was reminded of Balzac's famous observation, that every great fortune is founded on a great crime. Similarly, every country is founded in part on a crime. Fortunate are those countries whose crime has passed out of historical memory. Some--for example England in 1066—are remembered only as history. Some, as with America and Native Americans, still dispute the question, but it is largely outside of the collective consciousness.
But Israel's founding, and all the suffering attendant to it, is in memory, and it still rankles Jew and Palestinian alike. There are so many crimes that made the state necessary and attended its creation--from anti-Semitism, to the Holocaust, to expulsions, to occupations, to wars--that it is inevitable that it can both be defended on grounds of necessity, and attacked on grounds of causing suffering.
Daniel's attachment to Judaism is a kind of mystic chord of memory. He dismisses the idea of God, or revelation--anything supernatural about Judaism or Jewish history: "I am less concerned with what God said than I am with the reasons for which He was made to say what He said."
Why then did Jews understand God to choose this tiny, beleaguered land? Why insert a people into history, when history is inevitably littered with the detritus of unrealized dreams? A people living in history and with dreams will always be struck by the gulf between reality and the promise.
For Daniel, Judaism is an exhortation to growth and betterment, but after the Holocaust and in a dangerous world this often collides with simple survival. Perhaps Judaism lives in the balance between these two imperatives. If that is indeed a prison, it is not primarily the Jewish people who have forged the bars.