To Be or Not to Be...Chosen
1 א

Dear God, You have chosen us from among the nations.

Why did you have to pick on the Jews?

Yiddish Proverb

2 ב

Biblical Sources

3 ג

(א) וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה' אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃ (ב) וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה׃

God said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.

4 ד

(יט) כִּ֣י יְדַעְתִּ֗יו לְמַעַן֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצַוֶּ֜ה אֶת־בָּנָ֤יו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ֙ אַחֲרָ֔יו וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ ה' לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט לְמַ֗עַן הָבִ֤יא ה' עַל־אַבְרָהָ֔ם אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֖ר עָלָֽיו׃

For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of Adonai by doing what is just and right....

5 ה
אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי לְמִצְרָיִם וָאֶשָּׂא אֶתְכֶם עַל כַּנְפֵי נְשָׁרִים וָאָבִא אֶתְכֶם אֵלָי. וְעַתָּה אִם שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת בְּרִיתִי וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל הָעַמִּים כִּי לִי כָּל הָאָרֶץ. וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ.

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Me. Now therefore, if you will heed My voice, and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.

6 ו

כִּ֣י עַ֤ם קָדוֹשׁ֙ אַתָּ֔ה לַה' אֱלֹקֶ֑יךָ בְּךָ֞ בָּחַ֣ר ׀ ה' אֱלֹקֶ֗יךָ לִהְי֥וֹת לוֹ֙ לְעַ֣ם סְגֻלָּ֔ה מִכֹּל֙ הָֽעַמִּ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הָאֲדָמָֽה׃ (ס) לֹ֣א מֵֽרֻבְּכֶ֞ם מִכָּל־הָֽעַמִּ֗ים חָשַׁ֧ק ה' בָּכֶ֖ם וַיִּבְחַ֣ר בָּכֶ֑ם כִּֽי־אַתֶּ֥ם הַמְעַ֖ט מִכָּל־הָעַמִּֽים׃ כִּי֩ מֵֽאַהֲבַ֨ת ה' אֶתְכֶ֗ם וּמִשָּׁמְר֤וּ אֶת־הַשְּׁבֻעָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֤ר נִשְׁבַּע֙ לַאֲבֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם הוֹצִ֧יא ה' אֶתְכֶ֖ם בְּיָ֣ד חֲזָקָ֑ה וַֽיִּפְדְּךָ֙ מִבֵּ֣ית עֲבָדִ֔ים מִיַּ֖ד פַּרְעֹ֥ה מֶֽלֶךְ־מִצְרָֽיִם׃

For you are a people consecrated to your God: of all the peoples on earth God chose you to be God's treasured people. It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that God set God's heart on you and chose you—indeed, you are the smallest of peoples; but it was because God loved you and kept the oath God made to your ancestors that God freed you with a mighty hand and rescued you from the house of bondage, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

7 ז

Chosenness invoked in Jewish Practice

8 ח

Blessing over the Torah scroll

Praised are you Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who chose us from among the nations and gave us God's Torah. Praised are you, Adonai, who gives the Torah

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלקֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעולָם. אֲשֶׁר בָּחַר בָּנוּ מִכָּל הָעַמִּים. וְנָתַן לָנוּ אֶת תּורָתו. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה', נותֵן הַתּורָה:

9ט

כִּי בָֽנוּ בָחַֽרְתָּ וְאוֹתָֽנוּ קִדַּֽשְׁתָּ מִכָּל הָעַמִּים, וְשַׁבַּת קָדְשְׁךָ בְּאַהֲבָה וּבְרָצוֹן הִנְחַלְתָּֽנוּ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה', מְקַדֵּשׁ הַשַּׁבָּת.

Shabbat Kiddush

For You have chosen us and sanctified us out of all the nations, and have given us the Sabbath as an inheritance in love and favor. Praised are you, Adonai, who sanctifies the Sabbath.

10 י

A Superiority Complex?

11 יא
Zohar I 47a on Genesis 1:20 (Kabbalah, 13th Century)
And God said: ‘Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures (nefesh chayah), and let fowl fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.’
Creatures that have a "soul"—that pertains to the Jews, for they are the Children of God, and from God came their holy souls.... And the souls of other nations, from where do they come? Rabbi Elazar says that they have souls from the impure side, and therefore, they are all impure, defiling anyone who comes near them.
12 יב

Lou Silberman, Encyclopedia Judaica, "Chosen People"

The more extreme, and exclusive interpretations of the doctrine of election among Jewish thinkers, were partly the result of reaction to oppression by the non-Jewish world. The more the Jew was forced to close in on himself, to withdraw into the imposed confines of the ghetto, the more he tended to emphasize Israel's difference from the cruel gentile without. This type of interpretation reaches its height in the Kabbalistic idea that while the souls of Israel stem from God, the souls of gentiles are merely of base material.

13 יג

Mordecai M. Kaplan, The Future of the American Jew (1948)

The idea of race or national superiority exercises divisive influences generating suspicion and hatred....We cannot assume that Israel must at all times possess that spirit to a higher degree than other people....Thank God I had had the courage to go through with the excision of such a cancerous growth from the Jewish consciousness.

14 יד

Marcia Falk, The Book of Blessings (1996)

The idea of Israel as God's chosen people... is a key concept in rabbinic Judaism. Yet it is particularly problematic for many Jews today, in that it seems to fly in the face of monotheistic belief that all humanity is created in the divine image—and hence, all humanity is equally loved and valued by God... I find it difficult to conceive of a feminist Judaism that would incorporate it in its teaching: the valuing of one people over and above others is all too analogous to the privileging of one sex over another.

15 טו

Alternative Approaches

16 טז

Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno, Italy, 1475-1550 on Exodus 19:4-6

And you will be a treasure from among all peoples - Although all humans are important to Me [as the rabbis say in Ethics of the Fathers 3:18: 'Humans are beloved because they were created in God's image'], you will be treasured from among them.

Because Mine is all the earth - and the difference between you exists in smaller or bigger amounts despite the fact that the whole earth is Mine since the Righteous of the Nations are important to Me without a doubt.

17 יז

"Are Jews Chosen?" - Aryeh Bernstein

Sh'ma Journal, February 2015

If we want to promote a non-chauvinistic sense of chosenness, we need to articulate that vision more clearly.

Here’s my stab at it: The association of chosenness with superiority reflects the faulty assumption that what I know is all there is to be known, that since I can testify to our chosenness because I remember Sinai, and since I have no personal knowledge of anyone else’s chosenness, therefore, we must be the only people to have been chosen.

However, other peoples know things we don’t know and have their own inspiration. Our covenant is no evidence of superiority. The reason non-Jews cannot testify to Sinai is simply that they weren’t there. I mean that poetically; I’ll translate this into prose: Culture exists and inheritors of a culture have something unique to contribute to the world. It would be spiritually colonialist for me to testify to any other people’s chosenness or revelation. My role is to listen and take people at their word, at their testimony to their experience, just as I hope they’ll take my word and listen to my testimony of my experience.

The character of this chosenness is our unique, particular story. When we are called to the Torah, we say, “Praised are You… God… Who chose us from among the nations by giving us the Torah.” But all nations—all humanity—are responsible for a universal ethics as encapsulated by the seven Noahide laws that ordain core guidelines of civilized, human life.

Every nation must sustain an ethical culture. As Jews, we must sustain the particular ethical culture shaped by having been slaves in Egypt, guided through the desert, etc. We are chosen to serve as we are and it seems as though everyone else probably is, too.

18 יח

"The Centrality of Jewish Chosenness" - Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz

Tablet Magazine, June 7, 2010

The idea of chosenness is more than presumptuous—though it is that. It is also foundational. Who are the Jews in the first place if not a people that believe that their ancestor was singled out—if unaccountably—by God?

In a way, the Jewish people have invented the idea of chosenness, but in truth, the idea of chosenness has also invented the Jewish people.

When Chabon credits Jewish survival to blind luck, he ignores the essential significance of the idea of chosenness—that only by believing themselves to be God’s dearest children, and therefore bound to principles that distinguish them from the nations of man, do the Jews manage to retain their distinct identity. Now, as in the days of Abraham, we owe all to this rich and strange idea.

...Trying to work out the meaning of holiness, figuring out their moral responsibilities to themselves and to others—this is their mission....Seen in this light, chosenness is central to the existence of the Jews. To reclaim it is not a warrant for smugness but a holy obligation. ...To be chosen means to spend one’s days trying to ascertain what it means to be chosen, a quest that, if undertaken with an open mind and an honest heart, leads to the growth of the spirit.

The idea of chosenness is too deeply ingrained in us to be overlooked, patronized, or definitively repealed. Whether or not we believe that the descendants of Abraham were singled out, in perpetuity, by God, and whether or not we find this to be an outlandish, if not offensive, notion—no matter what, we must grapple with it, for it is, behind our backs, grappling with us.

19 יט

"If Jews Are Chosen, What About the Rest of Us?" - Lynda Schwartz

Sh'ma Journal, February 2015

When I married my husband more than 20 years ago, I did not become a Jew, but I became part of the Jewish community. Over the years, I have had warm, enriching and sometimes transcendent experiences with Jewish life, most recently when we celebrated our twins’ b’nei mitzvah. But I recognize that interfaith families feel barriers to engagement in Jewish life. We have a hard time finding rabbis to officiate at our weddings; we may, initially, feel like an outsider in the synagogue and ill-equipped to raise our children as Jews — even when we want to. We bump up against negative and ambivalent attitudes, and we hear people say that families like ours are a problem for the Jewish people.

Sometimes those attitudes are fueled by a tribal sensibility. I think it is time to set aside such insular thinking about who is in the tribe, and focus instead on the blessings and opportunities that the “new-to-Jewish” bring to the community: our struggles, our questions, our energies, and our hopes for our children.

Everyone who participates in Jewish community is one of the “choosing people,” either a Jew or an ally. Forced to make explicit choices about our religious and communal life, interfaith families face both everyday and existential dilemmas: Do I participate in my sister’s neon colored plastic Easter egg hunt? Should I say kaddish for my Lutheran father? Should I laugh at a Jewish joke? What does God want from me? As “choosing people,” we question and ponder, debate and reconcile. We wrestle with love and religion, and our choices shape our lives.

Even a traditional view of chosenness should inspire a confident engagement with those who are new-to-Jewish. If there is a special responsibility to exemplify Jewish principles and ethical values, it cannot be for the benefit of insiders only. Everything I know about Judaism I have gleaned from the privilege of living within this community and learning by doing. As I navigate the challenges of daily life, I suspect that it hardly matters whether I am one of the chosen people. After all, the Torah’s greatest challenge is the same for all of us who choose to accept it, whether Jews or fellow travelers: to live lives of meaning that exemplify its values.