Monday, February 14, 2011

The Chosen People

From the dawn of Jewish existence, we have been referred to as the Chosen People. It's an inescapable fact (Deuteronomy 7:6). Yet, this concept isn't mentioned all that much in Jewish life - and for good reason. For one, it has caused a great deal of agony, persecution and hostility. But secondly, and most importantly, it's very easy to misinterpret what it actually means. It has absolutely nothing to do with racial or ethnic superiority. It simply means we have a unique mission to make the world aware of God and His ethical demands. That's it. These demands are basic values of decency that everyone can understand and abide by, regardless of who they are or where they came from.

We are not worthy of this title on our own merits. God only chose us because we are the descendants of the first ethical monotheist, Abraham (Genesis 18:19). That's the sole reason. In fact, to prevent ourselves from any arrogance that might be compelled by this title, one has to look no further than episodes throughout Tanach, where we have often failed to live up to God's standards. This is hardly a tradition based on inherent superiority. Instead, goodness is always based upon a person's overall behavior.

Two of the clearest examples which demonstrate that chosenness has nothing to do with innate superiority are the stories of Noah and Ruth. Noah was not Jewish, but was saved from annihilation because "he was the most righteous person in his generation" (Genesis 6:9). Similarly, Ruth was not born a Jew, but due to her righteousness was rewarded with having the Messiah himself, Mashiach Ben David, descend from her. Once again, good deeds are more important than who your parents happened to be.

While we have the responsibility of being "a light unto the nations" (Isaiah 42:6), we first have to be a light unto each other. As the saying goes, "charity begins at home." Still, we can't let this task overwhelm us to the point where we are either only good to Jews or only good to non-Jews. The more consistently we try treat other people well, the easier it will become to achieve both outcomes. Whether we're in shul on Friday night or out shopping during the week, we must always strive for top-notch behavior. Because of who we are, the world scrutinizes everything we do. At times, this can be frustrating, but it isn't always a bad thing. It can also be a great opportunity to show people the kind of character God truly desires.

Other peoples and religions have tried to strip us of the Chosen People role, but it's doubtful they actually realize what such a label entails. It's not all it's cracked up to be, and it's not something that can be transferred. As a prominent non-Jew, the Reverend Edward H. Flannery, put it: "It was Judaism that brought the concept of a God-given universal moral law into the world . . . the Jew carries the burden of God in history [and] for this has never been forgiven."

Due to the antagonism and responsibility this title brings, there's an old joke that most Jews would have preferred if God had chosen someone else. Nevertheless, spreading ethical monotheism to the world rests on our shoulders. The Chosen People idea is not dogma but historical fact. It's a powerful concept, but nothing to brag about. It's simply a calling we must try to live up to.


  1. [quote]..........But secondly, and most importantly, it's very easy to misinterpret what it actually means. It has absolutely nothing to do with racial or ethnic superiority. It simply means we have a unique mission to make the world aware of God and his ethical demands...........[end quote]

    But God ALLEGEDLY offered the Torah to others but they rejected it, only the Jewish people accepted it. That should count for some kind of superiority isn't it ?
    But Judaism does not proselytize, so how is the rest of the world suppose to know God and His ethical demands ??

  2. You bring up two excellent points, Anonymous.

    With regard to your first question, the legend goes that God did offer the Torah to others. Each nation rejected it for a different reason. Some didn't want to be told not to steal, others didn't want to be told not to commit adultery, etc. When the Jewish people accepted the Torah, it revealed a superiority in VALUES. So in that sense, you're right. I just wanted to clarify that it has nothing to do with innate superiority.

    When it comes to your second question, historically, Judaism did proselytize. The Talmud (Pesachim 87b) even goes so far to say that "God exiled Israel among the nations for the purpose of gaining converts." Over the generations, however, it was abandoned because Jews lived in places where they were harassed. Nevertheless, Judaism has made its mark throughout much of the world. For example, on many government buildings in the United States is a rendering of Moses bringing down the Ten Commandments. That became known through the Jewish people.

  3. In a way, Judaism doesn't have to proselytize, at least not in the sense of trying to attain converts. People from the rest of the nations of the world can merit a place in the world to come by studying and obeying the 7 Noahide Laws. Most religions, Christianity for example, say that you must become a full member in order to gain access to God, but in Judaism, you need not convert as long as you comply with God's requirements as outlined to Noah in Genesis.

    I remember having a conversation with a fellow once who was angry at Judaism for withholding access to God because Jews didn't proselytize. Apparently, it's not generally well-known that Judaism believes access to God is potentially available to all, but that there are two standards of obedience, one for Jews and a different one for the rest of the world.