SOME ARE CHOSEN, ALL ARE LOVED
Rabbi Gilbert S. Rosenthal
Executive Director, National Council of Synagogues
I. THE PROBLEM
“The central point of Jewish theology and the key to an understanding of the nature of Judaism is the doctrine, ‘God chose Israel as His people.'” So argued Kaufmann Kohler, the eminent Reform theologian, in his classic work, Jewish Theology.1
“The idea of race or national superiority exercises divisive influence, generating suspicion and hatred,” countered Mordecai M. Kaplan in one of his less vehement rebuttals.2
What is the correct meaning of, “God chose Israel”? What does the concept of “chosen people ” imply? Is it critical to Judaism? And is the doctrine still valid and meaningful for today? The notion of Israel as the elect of the Lord is, curiously, not featured in the medieval catalogue of dogmas as enumerated by Maimonides or Albo.3 Still, it has been terribly important and potent in the eyes of world Jewry throughout the ages. This paper will seek to identify what Max Kadushin dubbed the “emphatic trends” in the notion of chosenness. And we shall endeavor to untangle the jumble of polarities so typical of Jewish theology. We shall trace the evolution of the idea through the Bible into the rabbinic period, noting how it crystallized in the liturgy, how it acquired new significance in the medieval era and how modernity has reshaped it. Finally, we shall attempt to define its relevance and role for the modern Jew.4
II. BIBLICAL ROOTS
The Bible is clear on the matter: God chose Israel to be His own beloved treasure, His first born son. The process of election began with the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Although the verb “chose, bahar” is not employed in the references in Genesis to the election of the Patriarchs, later tradition makes the point abundantly clear:
You are the Lord God who chose Abram,
who brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans
and changed his name to Abraham. Finding his
heart true to You, You made a covenant with him
to give the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the
Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the
Girgshite — to give it to his descendants.5
God singled out and set aside Abraham because He was confident that Abraham would “instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right …”6 In a sense, chosenness as mission was already born.
Later in our history, God extended the choice of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs to include all of Israel. Standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, Israel was informed that God had selected them not because of their numbers or power (indeed, they were and have always been a fraction of the human population and a distinctively minor power among the nations) but because He loves them, He sees the unique potential in them to become a “treasure people,” a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The Divine imperative was never clearer than the charge in Leviticus: “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.”7
The relationship between God and Israel is summed up in such verbs as “choose, love, desire.” The verb bahar, connotes several things: it means, of course, “choose.” But it can also mean “love, take delight in, test, refine, bring near, set aside, single out, sanctify.” Indeed, all nuances of this complex verb appear in Biblical texts. Nor is the concept limited to the choice of the Israelite people: God chose Eretz Yisrael as His land with Zion and Jerusalem as its capitol; He selected the site of the Temple; he elected the tribe of the Levites and the Aaronide priests to serve as His cultic officials; He singled out the Prophets of Israel for their special spiritual mission even as He chose the House of David to furnish the kings to rule over the people.8
The election of the Jewish people is not viewed in the Bible as a one-sided love affair. Quite the contrary: Israel was required to respond and reciprocate. It was only after the people proclaimed with one voice, “All the things that the Lord has commanded we will do!” that they became truly His treasured people.9 The Book of Joshua underscores the dialectic or two-way process in even bolder terms:
Joshua, however, said to the people,
“You will not be able to serve the Lord, for
He is a Holy God. He is a jealous God; He will
not forgive your transgressions and your sins. If
you forsake the Lord and serve alien gods, He
will turn and deal harshly with you and make an
end of you, after having been gracious to you.” But the
people replied to Joshua, “No, we will serve the Lord!”10
Chosenness was invariably linked to a mission. As Yehezkel Kaufmann noted, Isaiah and Jeremiah viewed God’s loving choice of Israel as a means to teaching monotheism, combatting idolatry, curbing human arrogance, ending violence, lust, greed, extreme chauvinism and warfare, and ushering in a new society. In a word, election is merely a means to a final end; our telos is spiritual achievements in the unfolding of history. This is Israel’s abiding and eternal mission.11
Sometimes, alas, that mission entails suffering and martyrdom. No Prophet stated this more dramatically than Second Isaiah who described Israel as “the suffering servant of the Lord.”
This is my servant, whom I uphold,
My chosen one, in whom I delight.
I have put my spirit upon him,
He shall teach the true way to the nations.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I created you, and appointed you,
A covenant people, a light of nations,
Opening eyes deprived of light,
Rescuing prisoners from confinement,
From the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I offered my back to the floggers,
And my cheeks to those who tore out my hair.
I did not hid my face from insult and spittle.
But the Lord God will help me —–
Therefore I feel no disgrace.12
Similarly sang the Psalmist plaintively:
You let them devour us like sheep;
You disperse us among the nations.
You sell your people for no fortune
You set no high price on them.
You make us the butt of our neighbors,
the scorn and derision of those around us.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
It is for your sake that we are slain all day long,
That we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.13
With the passage of time, how accurate did these prophecies seem!
To be sure, election tempts a people to arrogance. If God has singled out one person or nation as special, as beloved, as chosen, there is a natural tendency to feel superior, to laud it over others, to assume one can do no wrong, and to conclude that if Israel is chosen others are rejected. Evidently, some Israelites and Judeans were afflicted with this hubris. Amos tried to curb such conceit and introduced the theme of noblesse oblige:
Concerning the whole family that I brought up from the land of Egypt:
You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth —
That is why I will call you to account for all your iniquities.14
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
To me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians, declared
True, I brought Israel up
From the land of Egypt,
But also the Philistines from Caphtor
And the Arameans from Kir.
Behold the Lord God has His eye
Upon the sinful kingdom;
I will wipe it off
The face of the earth.15
Jeremiah, too, battled the overweening pride of Judeans who were convinced that as God’s elect they could do as they wished with impunity; their swollen ego led them to believed that no harm would befall them; that their land and temple were inviolate; that no conqueror would subdue them:
Do not put your trust in illusions and say, “The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, are these [buildings]. No, if you really mend your ways and your actions; if you execute justice between one man and another; if you do not oppress the strangers, the orphan, and the widow; if you do not shed the blood of the innocent …. then only will I let you dwell in this place, in this land … Will you steal and murder and commit adultery and swear falsely and sacrifice to Baal and follow other gods … and stand before me in this House which bears my name and say, “We are safe”?16
Is the election eternal and irrevocable regardless of Israel’s behavior? Biblical authors seem to suggest ominously that Israel’s sinful ways will lead to horrible consequences and even an annulment of the covenant with God and Divine rejection.17 But others insisted that no matter how sinful or perverse, Israel’s election is forever and, in Isaiah’s matchless words,
For a little while I forsake you,
But with vast love I will bring you back.
In slight anger, for a moment
I hid my face from you;
But with kindness everlasting
I will take you back in love.18
III. Rabbinic Exposition
Rabbinic theology was built on the Biblical foundations of chosen people and preserved and expanded on the ambivalent themes already propounded by the Bible, giving wide latitude to the richly fertile rabbinic imagination. Max Kadushin maintained that since there is no noun form in rabbinic Hebrew for chosen people, it is merely an auxiliary of basic value-concepts such as Torah or Israel. Professor E.E. Urbach, however, demurred rejecting Kadushin’s view that the only crystallized rabbinic value-concept is one formulated as a separate, identifiable noun. Irrespective of this controversy, chosen people is a lively theme discussed and debated by the sages and enriched with all of the hues and polarities so typical of rabbinic theology.19
For example, the sages sharply debated whether God compelled Israel to accept the Torah and become the elect of the Lord or whether Israel elected God. One famous legend describes God suspending Mt. Sinai over Israel, threatening them with instant destruction if they reject the Torah and even going so far as to admonish that the world will return to primordial tohu vabohu if Israel spurned God’s proposal.20
More popular is the charming idea that God went about peddling the Torah among the various nations of antiquity only to be spurned and rebuffed. In a word, He found no takers until Israel declared, “We will do whatever we are commanded!”20
The nations of the world were asked to receive the Torah in order not to give them an excuse for saying, “Had we been asked we might have accepted it … God revealed Himself to the children of Esau the wicked and said to them, “Will you receive the Torah?” They said, “What is written in it?” He said, “You shall not murder.” They replied, “This is the inheritance which our father left us …” He then revealed Himself to the children of Amon and of Moab and asked them, “Will you accept the Torah?” They responded, “What is written in it?” He said, “You shall not commit adultery.” They replied, “We all spring from an adulterer … “Then He revealed Himself to the children of Ishmael and said, “Will you receive the Torah?” They responded, “What is written in it? He said, “You shall not steal.” They demurred saying, “Our father was destined to be a robber … ” Finally, when God came to Israel they all proclaimed together, “All that the Lord has said we will do whatever we are commanded.”21
Moreover, it was Israel’s willingness to accept the Torah that qualified it as God’s own people:
Why is Israel called God’s people? Because of the Torah. Rabbi Jose ben Simon said: “Before you stood at Sinai and accepted My Torah you were called ‘Israel’ as all the other nations are called by specific names … But after you accepted My Torah at Sinai you were called ‘My People.'”22
Regarding these legends recalls the old saw,
How odd of God to choose the Jews;
It’s not so odd, the Jews chose God.
Israel Zangwill put it aptly: “It is not so much a matter of the chosen people as the choosing people.” There is a dialectic to it all; a process of reciprocity is at work.
Is chosenness forever and irrevocable? Or is it contingent upon Israel’s behavior? This, too, was mooted vigorously by the sages, notably Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai versus Rabbi Meir:
Rabbi Yehudah said: The Torah teaches us, “You are children of the Lord” (Deut. 14:1). If you conduct yourselves as children then you will always be His children. If not, you are no longer His children. But Rabbi Meir demurred, insisting, whether you behave as His children or not “You are children of the Lord.” And the numbers of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, and it shall be that instead of saying to you, ‘you are not My people,’ it shall be said, ‘you are the children of the living God.'”23
Elsewhere, Rabbi Meir stressed that “even though you are full of blemishes, you are God’s children.”24
Why did God single out Israel? Were there no special reasons for Israel’s election? Or does Israel possess unique traits that make it worthy of the honor?
In the view of some, Israel was chosen by God out of unmerited, unrequited love. As Rabbi Akibah put it:
Beloved are Israel for they are called children of the All-present, as it is said, “You are children unto the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 14:1). Beloved are Israel, for unto them was given the desirable instrument [i.e., the Torah].25
But others viewed the election to be based either on Israel’s special virtues and merits or else Israel’s peculiar perversities and shortcomings.
God chose us because of our good deeds.
God chose Israel because we are weak, modest, humble
God chose us to break our stubbornness.26
The election has a purpose to it, even as the Bible had indicated. “You shall be holy for I, the Lord, am holy.” Said the sages: “You must consider yourselves part of the king’s retinue and emulate Him. Just as He is compassionate and merciful, so shall you be.” The elect of the Lord must engage in imitatio dei and become “God-like.”27
But the election entails suffering, observed the sages, even as Deutero-Isaiah had predicted in his remarkable prophecies on the Suffering Servant of the Lord:
Three good gifts were bestowed on Israel and all three were given via suffering. The three are Torah, the Land of Israel and the life to come. . . . . . . . . . . . God deliberately chooses persecuted characters such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David — and Israel.28
Does the election of Israel imply rejection of other nations? Not all all: God is both the sovereign of Israel as well as all the other peoples on earth, but He has “attached His name to Israel in a special and unique way.”29
Clearly as the new Christian church gained ascendancy, chosenness became a polemical issue and assumed an even greater role in Jewish thought and ideology. As Professor Salo W. Baron wrote, Jews “had to deal with an internal enemy who, even after the separation, appropriated the entire realm of Jewish history as its own and increasingly denied it to the Jewish people itself.”30 In making Christianity distinct from Judaism, the Church Fathers stressed the notion of God’s rejection of the Jews, pointing to the loss of the Temple, Jerusalem, political sovereignty in the Land of Israel, and the dispersion. The new Israel had superseded the old; God had replaced the Old Testament with the New, the chosen people with the Church. In George Foot Moore’s words, “For this national election Paul and the church substituted an individual election to eternal life, without regard to race or station.”31 There are numerous examples in rabbinic literature of polemics between “heretics” and the sages in which the “heretics” stress the loss of the Temple and Jerusalem as clear and convincing proof of God’s rejection of His formerly chosen. “He has turned away and withdrawn from Israel,” argued the new Christians. “Not at all,” countered the sage, “His hand is forever stretched over them to protect them.”32
A heretic said to Rabbi Hanina: “Now that your Temple is destroyed and you cannot cleanse yourselves from your uncleanness, you are defiled and God no longer dwells among you.” He replied, “It is written, ‘He dwells among them in the midst of their uncleanness’ (Leviticus 16:16).”33
Thus, the new challenge of Christianity elevated the concept of election of Israel to a higher rung than before. “Israel is the petra (rock) of the world” is an unmistakable rabbinic refutation of the portrayal of Simon-Peter in Matthew’s Gospel that claims the Church is the new rock of the world replacing the old Israel.34 Party due to this tension, partly due to the calamitous Roman wars and loss of the Temple and sovereignty, the sages stressed the idea of chosen people fashioning it into a basic element of Judaism.
IV. LITURGICAL CRYSTALLIZATION
Liturgy represent crystallized, normative Judaism. The prayers reflect the consensus of opinions of the sages and the emphatic trends of rabbinic Judaism. Consequently, Judaism met the challenge of the “New Israel” that sought to supplant the old as well as the tragedy of the Roman wars by emphasizing the motif of behirah, election, in numerous prayers.
Most familiar to all is the prayer Jews recite when called to the Torah for an aliyah:
Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the universe,
who chose us from all the peoples and gave us His Torah,
praised are You Lord, who gives the Torah.
The kiddush, recited on the eve of Sabbaths and Festivals, is equally familiar:
For You chose us and sanctified us from all the nations, and your holy Sabbath You bestowed upon us willingly and lovingly . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Praised be You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who chose us from all the nations, and elevated our language above all others and sanctified us with His commandments and gave us this Festival …
Likewise, the Amidah, the silent devotion, recited on the Sabbath, reemphasizes the notion:
You did not give the Sabbath to other nations of the earth
nor did You bestow it on the idolaters; the pagans may not rest
on the Sabbath. But to Israel, Your people, You have given it in
love, to the seed of Jacob whom You did choose …..
You have chosen us from all the nations, loving us and
taking pleasure in us; You exalted our language above all
others and sanctified us with Your commandments and brought
us near, our King, to Your service …
We observe the same emphasis on election in the blessing prior to the Shema:
You have chosen us from all peoples and languages and
You have brought us near to Your holy name in truth to
acknowledge You and Your unity in love. Praised are You
O Lord who in love chooses His people Israel.
The shift to the present tense at the end of the blessing is no accident; it
implies that election is an on-going process.
Max Kadushin and Louis Jacobs draw our attention to yet another peculiarity about election: The liturgy states that God’s choice of Israel is invariably linked to some spiritual vocation, including Torah, Sabbath rest, observance of mitzvot, a life of sanctity and service to God.35 In other words, chosenness is not an end in itself but a means to an end, namely the creation of a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” whose vocation is to serve God and humanity and lead a sanctified life. This is Israel’s eternal mission and the essence of being a Jew. Far from being rejected, as the Church Fathers insisted and as our historic calamities seemed to underscore, our mission as God’s elect is ongoing. The election does not imply racial or religious superiority and denigration of other nations or faiths; rather, it impels us to lead sanctified and sacred lives and uphold higher spiritual standards. The liturgy highlights this ideal for every single Jew.
V. MEDIEVAL PERMUTATIONS
The traumatic challenge of loss of land, Temple and political independence coupled with the defection of not one but two daughter religions, Christianity and Islam, compounded Israel’s need to find a raison d’etre. Christianity preached a theology of displacement and supersession of the mother faith. Islam, no less zealously, accused Jews of having falsified Scripture and rejecting the last and greatest of the Prophets, Muhammad. Both faiths denigrated Jews and Judaism, often stooping to vile epithets and periodically expressing their contempt in violent assaults and expulsions.
Interestingly, not all the medieval sages and philosophers met this dual challenge in the same way. Saadia Gaon, for example, did not stress the notion of chosenness in his works. Indeed, he warned Israel not to be arrogant for all nations are God’s and election does not imply exclusion of others.36 Likewise, Maimonides barely mentioned the concept in his Guide of the Perplexed.37 Yehudah Halevi, however, approached the issue from a racial perspective. For example, he insisted that “only an Israelite by birth is eligible to become a prophet” and he stressed that in his view, gentiles are of inferior stock.38 Maimonides rejected this approach, arguing that prophecy can be found among gentiles: “But we believe in a prophet because of what he says, not because of his descent…” He spurned the “biological” approach to Jewishness as is evident from his famous letter to Ovadiah the proselyte:
I received your inquiry asking whether you, as a convert to Judaism, are entitled to say in your daily prayers, “Our God and God of our Fathers.” I say to you: Indeed, you may say all of these blessings without changing the wording. You are just like any native-born Jew in this regard …. for Abraham is your spiritual father, and our inheritance is yours as well, since there is no racial distinction in our faith.39
Medieval philosophers split ranks over the issue of the racial factor in election: Several followed Halevi; Albo took the Maimonidean approach and just as Maimonides had refrained from listing chosenness as one of the thirteen “ikkarim” or principles of faith, so did Albo delete the idea from his category of basic principles.40
The school of Kabbalah reinterpreted chosenness in a bold and remarkable fashion. The well-known aphorism of the Zohar, “The Holy One, blessed be He, the Torah and Israel are one” articulates the view that knesset Yisrael (the ecclesia of Israel) unites in mystical union with God via the medium of Torah. Since Israel is the people of Torah, it may cleave to God as no other people. Indeed, it brings “fulfillness” to God. There is cosmic importance to keeping the mitzvot: “If you observe My commandments it is as if, so to speak, you made Me.” Conversely, if Israel separates from God, blessings are withheld and God removes His indwelling presence from their midst. When Israel went into exile, God’s presence accompanied them. In fact, a part of God Himself went into exile. Using erotically mythic terms, the Zohar identifies God’s shekhinah of indwelling presence with knesset Yisrael and the sefirah tiferet and suggests that God cohabits with Israel when they are virtuous while their sinful behavior ruptures that mystical sexual union.41
Lurianic Kabbalah cast Israel in a newer role, viewing the entire people of Israel as a messianic entity charged with the mission of releasing the sparks of divinity encasing the world via the process of tikkun, mending or repairing society. The Hasidic school incorporated this and other motifs and in the HaBaD version of Rabbi Shneor Zalman of Liady, founder of the Lubavitch dynasty, “the nations of the world emanate from the unclean kelipot (shells) which contain no good whatsoever, while Israel possesses a ‘Godly soul’ rather than an ‘animal soul’ as is found among the gentiles.”42
VI. MODERN REINTERPRETATIONS
With the modern era, the advancement of science, new philosophical schools, and the Enlightenment, the notion of the Chosen People — along with other basic tenets such as Divine revelation of Scripture and a supernatural Deity — were subjected to searing criticism. Chosenness seemed to be outdated and embarrassing. Worse, it cast other nations in an invidious light. After all, if one people is chosen doesn’t that imply all others are rejected?
The “enlightened” thinkers among European Jews sough to blunt the argument while preserving a remnant of the notion. Moses Mendelssohn, for example, substituted the idea of mission exhorting that Judaism is the “religion of religions” and it must be propagated and taught by Jews to all humans. Geiger followed suit and propounded the notion that Jews have a peculiar “genius” for religion and religious life and it is incumbent upon us to spread the word of God. Even the neo-Orthodox leader, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, propagated the ideal of a Jewish mission. The Reform movement picked up the theme, developing its mission to the gentiles motif but never actually excising the prayer or the idea of chosenness. Instead, it viewed chosenness as God’s mandate to Israel to spread His sacred teachings, of monotheism and morality.43 These reinterpretations of the ancient doctrine found deep resonance in the writings of Kaufmann Kohler, Herman Cohen and Leo Baeck. Thus Baeck reflected:
Every people can be chosen for a history, for a share in the history of humanity. Each is a question which God has asked, and each people must answer. But more history has been assigned to this people then to any other people … The word of the One God penetrated this people from its beginnings.44
Martin Buber viewed the idea of election teleologically, effectively espousing the mission of Israel:
What then is this spirit of Israel of which you are speaking? It is the spirit of fulfillment. Fulfillment of what? Fulfillment of the simple truth that man has been created for a purpose… Our purpose is the upbuilding of peace … And that is its spirit, the spirit of Israel … the people of Israel was charged to lead the way to righteousness and justice.45
Abraham Joshua Heschel regarded chosenness as a “spiritual act,” for Israel is a “spiritual order” and “in order to be a people we have to be more than a people. Israel was made to be a ‘holy people.'” Heschel insisted
We have not chosen God; He has chosen us. There is no concept of a chosen God but there is the idea of a chosen people. The idea of a chosen people does not suggest the preference for a people based upon a discrimination among a number of peoples. We do not say that we are superior people. The “chosen people” means a people approached and chosen by God. The significance of this term is genuine in relation to God rather than in relation to other peoples. It signifies not a quality inherent in the people but a relationship between the people and God.46
Alone among Jewish theologians and philosophers stood Mordecai M. Kaplan in his assault on chosenness and excision of references in the liturgy to the chosen people. He believed the doctrine to be racially tinged and dangerous as a breeder of contempt for others. “The idea of race or national superiority exercises divisive influences generating suspicion and hatred,” he wrote already in 1934. Later on, he added that “we cannot assume that Israel must at all times possess that spirit to a higher degree than other people.” In his personal diary, he reflected more vitriolicly: “Thank God I had had the courage to go through with the excision of such a cancerous growth from the Jewish consciousness …” And in a remarkable outburst in class, witnessed by this writer, he heatedly called the doctrine “racism and Nazism” — much to the outrage of the students. Kaplan carried his theory into practice as he expunged references to the chosen people from his Reconstructionist prayerbook. Thus, he reformulated the blessing upon receiving an honor to the Torah to read:
Blessed are You O Lord our God, King of the universe, who brought us close to His service and gave us His Torah….47
Curiously, many among the new generation of Reconstructionists are urging the restoration of the classic doctrine.48
More recent attempts at redefining the idea of election fall into the category of “Covenant Theology.” Thus, Professor Eugene Borowitz muses:
I believe we must supplement human choosing with God’s own action if we are to explain to ourselves our fundamental commitment to the continuity of the people of Israel. Yet I believe the traditional view that God “chose us from all peoples and gave us the Torah” clashes too much with our sense of history and reality for us to reaffirm it … Covenant theology expresses my belief in an enhanced reciprocity between God and people.49
VII. ELECTION AND BEYOND
Does the idea of chosenness still serve a function today? Has it still value and meaning? Can it elicit passion from the modern Jew? I believe it is still a vital and compelling component of Judaism for several reasons.
First, chosenness recognizes the unique contributions of Jews and Judaism to civilization. We are, after all, a speck of a people, a mere fraction of the world’s population. Yet we spawned two major faiths claiming some two-billion adherents, and we brought the message of monotheism, ethics, social justice, and messianic fulfillment to countless numbers. And we continue to enrich this planet disproportionate to our numbers as evidenced by the list of Nobel laureates. Accident? I think not.
Second, we draw inspiration from the notion of election and are urged on to seek to spread God’s word to an all-too-often obdurate, indifferent, cruel world. As long as violence, bloodshed, racism, bigotry, exploitation, wars and all the other man-made ills of society continue to afflict us, we are unfulfilled and unredeemed. There is yet much to be done. There is a teleology to our election: we must become a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” a people created in the image of the Divine.
The rebirth of the State of Israel has added a new dimension to the ancient summons. The State must be a laboratory of the highest Jewish and human values and exemplify the Prophetic ideals by championing righteousness and justice for all citizens of all faiths and ethnic groups. It must preserve moral and spiritual values and be more than just another nation or political entity. Thus it will serve as a light for the nations and fulfill the Divine mandate and mission and respond to God’s charge and challenge.
Third, the notion of election offers us a transcendent raison d’etre for remaining Jewish in a gentile society, even as it inured us to withstand the pressures of paganism, Christianity and Islam from ancient times until the modern area. After all, the ancient question, “Why be a Jew?” still resonates and it assumes more implications in a secular society. The only compelling answer, I believe, is: We remain Jews because God elected us to our mission and our task is not yet fulfilled.
Fourth, a belief in the chosen people enables us to better handle the subject of the bloody fate of Israel. If we are not the elected Suffering Servant of the Lord, then why continue our perilous journey? Our bloodied footsteps have stained the terrain of many a land, most recently in the Holocaust. Why not give it all up and enjoy some measure of tranquility as many have done through the ages? Why not, indeed, except that national suicide would annul forever the charge laid on Abraham and his seed so many millennia ago and erase the Jewish factor from civilization.
Finally, the notion of chosen people is a constant goad to us to be loyal Jews and to lead Jewish lives; to champion righteousness and justice, morality and truth, love and peace; to be involved as God’s partners in the never-ending process of tikkun ha-olam, mending and repairing our fractured world and building a saner, safer society. The process is on-going and reciprocal and we are both the chosen and the choosing. God places his charge on us in every generation: will we now repudiate and reject it? If we do, the consequences for Israel and the world would be disastrous. But if we accept the call and persevere in the mission, we will be a blessing to ourselves and humanity We will preserve the uniqueness, the mystery, the majesty of our role in history:
You are one and your name is one and who is like
Your people Israel, a unique nation on earth.50
1. Kaufmann Kohler, Jewish Theology (Cincinnati: The Riverside Press, 1943), p.323.
2. Mordecai M. Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization (New York: The Reconstructionist Press, 1957), p.43.
3. See Maimonides, “Thirteen Principles of Faith,” in his Introduction to Chapter X of Sanhedrin, ed. Rabinowitz (Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 1960), pp. 147 ff.; Joseph Albo, Ikkarim, ed. Husik (3 vols., Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1949), passim.
4. For background see Solomon Schechter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (reprint Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1993), pp. 57-64; Kaufmann Kohler, op.cit., pp. 323-341; Benjamin Helfgott, The Doctrine of Election in Tannaitic Literature (New York: Columbia U. Press, 1954); Ephraim E. Urbach, Hazal (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1969), pp. 466-502; Louis Jacobs, A Jewish Theology (New York: Behrman House, 1973), pp. 269-275. For essays on special aspects of the concept, see Baruch Frydman-Kohl, “Covenant, Conversion and Chosenness: Maimonides and Halevi on ‘Who is a Jew?'”, Judaism Vol. 41, No. 1, Winter 1992, pp. 64-79; Lippman Bodoff, “Was Yehudah Halevi Racist?”, Judaism Vol. 38, No. 4, Spring 1989, pp. 174-184; Raphael Jospe, “The Concept of the Chosen People: An Interpretation,” Judaism Vol. 43,No. 2, Spring 1994, pp. 127-148.
5. Exodus 4:22; Deut. 14:1 f.; Genesis 12:1 ff. & 17:1 ff; Nehemiah 9:7.
6. Genesis 18:19. The verb, yada, has many meanings including “know, love, have sexual relations, single out,” etc. See Nahum Sarna’s commentary in the JPS edition of Genesis (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), pp. 31 & 131.
7. Exodus 19:5 ff; Deut. 7:6 ff., 10:15, 14:2; Lev. 19:2.
8. On the many nuances of bahar and its application to people, land, Zion, Jerusalem, Priestly tribe and House of David, see Deut. 4:37, 10:15, 12:5, 18:1-6, 21:5; I Chronicles 15:2; II Chronicles 34:6; Ps. 78:67 f.; I Samuel 10:24 & 20:30; I Kings 8:44-48; Isaiah 14:1; 58:5f.; Zechariah 1:17 & 2:16; and passim. Cf. Exodus Rabbah 37:4.
9. Exodus 24:3 & 7; Deut. 26: 17-18; Psalms 65:5; 105:7ff. & 43-45; 135:43, etc.
10. Joshua 24:l4-26
11. Yehezkel Kaufmann, Toledot Ha-Emunah Ha-Yisraelit (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1953), Vol. III, Book 1, pp. 255f.
12. On the Suffering Servant see Isaiah 41:8ff., 42:6, 43:10, 49:8; Kaufmann, op.cit, IV, 1, 108-156; John L. McKenzie, Anchor Bible Second Isaiah (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1967), pp. XXXVIII-LV.
13. Psalms 44:10-27. Cf. Lamentations passim.
14. Amos 3:2.
15. Amos 9:7.
16. Jeremiah 7:1-12. Cf. Isaiah 28:14 ff.; Micah 3:11; Deut. 7 & 8.
17. Leviticus 18:22 ff.; 20:22 ff.; 26:27-46; Deut: 7:5-20 and 28:45 ff.; Hosea 2:1.
18. Exodus 19:5 ff.; Isaiah 54:7-10. To be sure, while God warns Israel of dire consequences for their sinfulness, He doesn’t quite threaten to annul the brit and revoke their election, although the intimation is present.
19. Max Kadushin, The Rabbinic Mind (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary, 1952), pp. 52-56; E.E. Urbach, Hazal, op.cit., p.466, n.5.
20. Shabbat 88a; A.Z. 2b-3a; Tanhuma Yitro 14 (ed. Buber), p.39a, and many parallels.
21. Sifre Deut. (ed. Ish Shalom) 343, p.142b; Mekilta (ed. Lauterbach, 3 vols. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society), II, 234f.; Hagigah 3a; Numbers Rabbah 14:10 and many parallels. See Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews (7 vols., Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1954) I, 85 III, 92, V, 204-206, and passim.
22. Tanhuma Vaera 1, p.9a. The theme of reciprocity or of a duet between God and Israel appears often in rabbinic literature. See Sifre Deut. 312, p.134b & 355, p.148a; Berakhot 6a; Hagigah 3a, etc.
23. Sifre Deut. 96, p.94a.
24. Sifre Deut. 308, p.133a. Some texts seem to indicate that Rabbi Yehudah conceded the point to Rabbi Meir. See L. Finkelstein’s edition of the Sifre`, p.347.
25. Avot III, 18. Cf. Leviticus Rabbah 13:2.
26. Tanhuma Ekev 4, p.18; Sifre Deut. 97, p. 94a; Ex. R.31:13; Nu. R. 3:2; Betza 25b. Rashi on Betza 25b interprets the election as designed to break Israel’s stubborness but Maharsha views election of Israel as a reward for its stubborn refusal to forsake the service of The Holy One.
27. Sifra (ed. Weiss), p.86b on Lev. 19:2.
28. Mekilta II, 279; Sifre Deut. 355 p. 148a; Berakhot 5a and parallels.
29. Mekilta III, 184f.; Sifre Deut. 31, p.73a; Yer. Taanit II, 6; p.65d.
30. Salo W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews (New York: Columbia U. Press, 1952), II, 136.
31. George F. Moore, Judaism (3 vols., Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U. Press, 1958), I, 398f.
32. Yevamot 102b on Hosea 5:6
33. Yoma 56b-57a.
34. Yalkut Numbers par. 766. Cf. Matthew 16:18.
35. See Max Kadushin, Worship and Ethics (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern U. Press, 1963), pp. 90 ff; Louis Jacobs, “Chosen People,” Encyclopedia Judaica (16 vols., Jerusalem: Keter, 1971), Vo. 5, p.500.
36. Saadia Gaon, Emunot Ve-Deot II, ll, III, 7 and VII, 3 ed. Rosenblatt (New Haven: Yale U. Press, 1948), pp. 126, 158, 267ff.
37. Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed 2:25 & 2:39.
38. Yehudah Halevi, The Kuzari (ed. Zifroni) I, 102-111 & 115, pp. 56-64. Barukh Frydman-Kohl and Lippman Bodoff, op.cit. in n.4, debate whether Halevi was or was not a racist in this matter.
39. Maimonides, Responsa II, 293.
40. Albo, Ikkarim III, 37, pp. 336-351; Maimonides, Introduction to Chapter X of Sanhedrin (ed. Rabinowitz), pp. 147 ff.
41. Zohar III, 17a & b, 73a, 93b; , 159b-160a; llI, 74a-75a & 114a-115b; Isaiah Tishby, Mishnat Ha-Zohar (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1959), I, 231-265; Gershom Scholem, On The Kabbalah on Its Symbolism (N.Y.: Schocken, 1965), pp. 105ff.; idem., Origins of the Kabbalah(Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1987), p 167-169; Moshe Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives (New Haven: Yale U. Press, 1988), pp. 158-194.
42. G. Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism (N.Y.:Schocken, 1971), pp. 46ff. Tanya, Likkutay Amarim I, 5-11 and especially 6a.
43. Mendelssohn’s position is summarized in Alexander Altmann, Moses Mendelssohn: A Biographical Study (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1973), pp. 537-547 and passim. For S.R. Hirsch’s stance, see his Horeb (London: Soncino, 1962), pp. 609f. and The Nineteen Letters on Judaism (New York: Hermon, 1960), pp. 80-81. Geiger’s approach is analyzed by Max Wiener in his Abraham Geiger and Liberal Judaism (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1962), pp. 262-264 and passim.
44. Leo Baeck, This People Israel (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1965), p. 402.
45. Martin Buber, Israel and the World (New York: Schocken, 1948), pp. 185-187.
46. Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1956), pp. 423-426.
47. Mordecai M. Kaplan, The Future of the American Jew (New York: MacMillan, 1948), pp. 211 ff.; The Greater Judaism in the Making (New York: The Reconstructionist Press, 1957) pp. 33-40 & 292 ff.; Questions Jews Ask (New York: The Reconstructionist Press, 1956), pp. 204-211. See, too, his Journal entry of April 29, 1941, published by Jack Wertheimer in Conservative Judaism Vol. XLV, No. 4, Summer 1993, pp. 31f. After much debate, the new Reconstructionist prayer book retains the basic position on chosen people but offers several options of traditional texts below the line.
48. On the chosen people concept in the various modern movements in Judaism see my Contemporary Judaism: Patterns of Survival, (New York: Human Sciences Press, 1986), pp. 67 ff., 129 ff., 192 f.; 242-245 and 364 ff.
49. Eugene Borowitz, Renewing the Covenant (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1991), pp. 144-146, 195-220 and especially 211 ff. David Hartman and Irving Greenberg are also exponents of “Covenant Theology.” See Hartman’s A Living Covenant (New York: Free Press, 1985), passim. Orthodoxy seems committed to the chosen people idea and while Conservative Judaism accepts it, it has reinterpreted it and stressed the teleological aspect of the notion. See Emet Ve-Emunah, Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism (2nd edition, New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary, 1990), pp. 33 f.
50. From the Sabbath afternoon Amidah prayer based on II Samuel 7:23.