The Jews as a chosen people is one of the most fundamental ideas in Judaism, historically, philosophically and culturally. The very nature of our national and religious identity, as defined in the Bible, is bound up with the story of the Divine revelation at Sinai and the election of the Jewish people as a chosen and special people (Exodus19:5/6). Our prayers are replete with references to this, particularly on the holidays when the primary blessing of the Amidah, or silent devotion, opens with the declaration, “You have chosen us from all the nations.”
Yet ‘choseness’ is an idea which, perhaps more that any other in Judaism, makes many modern Jews uncomfortable. The claim of ‘choseness’ is seen as clannish, parochial and exclusionary. Some go so far as to argue that the very notion of ‘chosenness’ is a form of bigotry. Indeed, modern liberal thought promotes universalism as a critical value of enlightened society making our modern Jew all the more squeamish. As a result, many explanations have been offered to soften the idea.
Truth be told, though, the Jewish idea of a chosen people is, in fact, the most liberal and tolerant approach to religion. Here’s why.
Early Christianity was an attempt to bring the idea of monotheism to the broad masses without the encumbrances of mitzvah observance. In order to do that the first thing that had to go was the notion that the Jewish people were chosen and special. All of mankind was brought into the big tent of “the covenant” and it was no longer the private domain of a particular people, it was universal. That proved to be a great success.
Some six centuries later Islam followed the same basic prescription and became the next great universalistic religion.
The Jew, looking at these two religions with their inclusiveness and universalistic vision, understandably becomes uncomfortable and apologetic.
‘The Jewish idea of a chosen people is, in fact, the
most liberal and tolerant approach to religion.’
But let’s look at the other side of this so-called inclusiveness. If my religion is the truth and is the only religion for all of mankind, then you, who are not part of my religion, are in critical error and must, as a matter of belief and truth, be brought to my religion. There can be no other legitimate truth and therefore no alternative can be tolerated. This tragic reasoning lies at the root of the centuries, and indeed millennia, of human conflict that has led to more carnage and destruction than any other ideology in history. The event of 9/11 was another recent manifestation of this fact. Over the course of history it has been nothing short of catastrophic, particularly for Jews.
What seems on the surface to be a noble universalistic and inclusive idea when put into practice turns out to be the very foundation of intolerance. To this day neither Christianity or Islam has been able to come to terms with this, although in recent years some, particularly the Catholic Church, have made great strides in showing tolerance toward other peoples’ religious views.
Judaism, on the other hand, has always been tolerant of others precisely because of the notion of choseness. The Jews are the ones who have been chosen — others do not have to accept our religion. Any society or belief system that recognizes the one God and conducts itself in accordance with the basic principals of civilization (the seven Noahide laws) is acceptable in the eyes of Judaism.
To be clear; for a Jew, once he/she has been chosen by God to be born as a Jew or converts to become Jew, in accordance with Jewish law, there is no longer any other valid option. A Jew is and must always be a Jew and only a Jew. But others can be whatever they want to be.
The next time someone tells you they are uncomfortable about being one of “the chosen people” tell them about the other alternative and its consequences, and then let history offer the irrefutable evidence of which religions have been most intolerant.
Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan is regional director of Chabad Lubavitch in Maryland.