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The term "Chosen" has long confused both lovers and haters of the Jewish People.
I write this during the election season in Israel. But don't worry, this isn't a post about party politics. Thinking about the election has merely got me thinking about the Jewish doctrine of the election.
When scholars of religion talk about the doctrine of The Election, it's just a fancy way of them talking about the idea that the Jewish people are the chosen people. Few doctrines are so central to the story and mission of the Jewish people. And yet, our chosenness is also controversial, and it can easily collapse into something that looks like racism or national supremacism. Sadly, some Jewish thinkers have taken it in that direction. Moreover, some antisemites certainly take it that way, fixating upon the doctrine as a pretense for their inexcusable hatred.
When God elected Abraham, he was told exactly the role for which he had been chosen. He had been chosen so that "all of the families of the earth shall be blessed through you" (Genesis 12:3). Admittedly, it's not immediately clear how choosing one family from all of the others and giving them a special covenant and a particular set of laws, would bring blessing to all people.
Perhaps they would do so by setting an example. Maybe they would do so through the particular story of their history and the message it would communicate to those who witness it. Perhaps some mystical mechanism translates the observance of Jewish law into blessings for all people. That's an issue that's open to debate. What isn't open to debate is that the Jews were chosen specifically for the good of Jews and non-Jews alike.
What isn't open to debate is that the Jews were chosen specifically for the good of Jews and non-Jews alike.
This theme continues when God describes us as a "kingdom of priests" (Exodus 19:6). You can't have a priest without a community for the priest to serve. But if there's a sense in which every Jew is a priest, then the community that we're called upon to serve must lie outside the kingdom of Israel. We are supposed to be priests unto the entire world: ambassadors of an ethical monotheism.
This theme is amplified in the words of the prophet Isaiah, who called upon us to be "a light unto the nations" (see, for example, Isaiah 42:6). And so, the first overlooked aspect of chosenness is its focus on the good of the non-Jew. Once this aspect of chosenness is understood, it becomes easier to see how chosenness differs from the toxic notions of racial supremacy or a master race. As explained by my teacher, the late Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:
A chosen people feels called to serve; a master race [by contrast, feels called] to dominate. The characteristic emotion of a chosen people is humility; the virtue of a master race is pride, in Latin superbia. A master race sees victory in terms of its own merits; a chosen people attributes it to God or Providence or history, not itself. A master race sees defeat as humiliation; a chosen people sees it as a call to repentance.
Suppose a person manifests a lack of humility and a disregard for the welfare of others. That is strong evidence that they don't see themselves as chosen – called upon to serve others – but that they really think of themselves as supreme. That is not a holy attitude. It is a vice.
A second, and surprising aspect of chosenness in the Bible is that it isn't exclusive. There are passages of liturgy and sections of the Bible and Talmud that can make it seems as if the Jews were chosen and that the non-Jews were left to one side, without the ability to have their own relationship with God, either as communities or as individuals. But I would argue that those appearances are deceptive. Indeed, there is a passage in the Hebrew Bible that would shock any ill-informed reader who thought that God only cared about having a relationship with Jews.
I'm not here talking about the book of Jonah, in which God manifests his care for the non-Jewish inhabitants of Nineveh and calls upon them to repent. I'm talking about the passage in Isaiah, in which God declares, "Blessed be My people Egypt, My handiwork Assyria, and My inheritance Israel." Is it shocking to see God talk about other people as his own? It shouldn't be. This is why another former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Rabbi Lord Jacobovitz, could write:
I believe that every people—and indeed, in a more limited way, every individual— is "chosen" or destined for some distinct purpose in advancing the designs of Providence. Only some fulfill their mission, and others do not. Maybe the Greeks were chosen for their unique contributions to art and philosophy, the Romans for their pioneering services in law and government, the British for bringing parliamentary rule into the world, and the Americans for piloting democracy in a pluralistic society.
God chose the Jews to be "peculiar unto Me" as the pioneers of religion and morality; this was and is their national purpose.
In this time of election, I wanted to explore these two features of the doctrine of the election: (1) to be chosen is to be called upon to serve (and therefore to care about) others; and (2) everybody in the world, be they Jewish or Gentile, should view themselves as elected. Election isn't exclusive. We are all called upon, each in our unique way, to contribute to the world around us and answer to the call of God.