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What Should it Mean to Be "The Chosen People"?

What Should it Mean to Be "The Chosen People"?

With all my heart, I believe God chooses specific individuals for specific tasks.

I believe God chose Abraham to begin the journey that created the Jewish people. I believe God chose Moses to lead us out of Egypt. I believe God chose William Harvey to teach humanity about the circulation of blood, and I believe God chose the Wright brothers to inaugurate the era of aviation. I believe God chose Abraham Lincoln to end slavery in the United States, and I believe God chose Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to make the dream of racial equality more of a reality in our society.

If individuals can have destinies, why not peoples as a whole?

Just as God chooses individuals for certain tasks, so too does God choose peoples. Milton R. Konvitz, the late professor of labor relations at Cornell University, noted in his famous essay, Many are Called and Many are Chosen, that God chose the ancient Greeks to bring the world an unprecedented sense of beauty, and God chose the Romans to teach the world new ideas about order.

God chose us Jews, too.

In his bestselling book, Gifts of the Jews, Thomas Cahill teaches that God chose us to give the world a sense of the sanctity of time. Before we came along, Cahill notes, people perceived life as a series of repeating cyclical events:

“The Jews were the first people to break out of this circle, to find a new way of thinking and experiencing, a new way of understanding and feeling the world…”

Cahill’s book affirms the concept of chosenness. It invites us to take pride in the role our people play in history – and it’s probably good that a Gentile wrote the book because it might seem too prideful if one of us had!

Nearly 3,000 years ago, the Prophet Amos proclaimed:

“I have known you uniquely among the peoples of the earth. Therefore I will hold you accountable for every one of your transgressions.” (Amos 3:2)

Indeed, to be chosen does not mean we consider ourselves better than anyone else. It simply means that we see ourselves as being chosen to repair our broken world.

Still, there are people who want no part of chosenness. We have often been the targets of enemies, and many have looked at our history and our suffering and said with Tevye the Dairyman, “God if this is what it means to be chosen, please, choose someone else.” Still, many Jews, both famous and otherwise, shy away from the concept of chosenness because they fear anti-Semitic reactions.

Do we really think we will mollify anti-Semites by disavowing our destiny as a people?

I think it’s time we got over that.

Anti-Semitism is the responsibility of anti-Semites, not us. Abandoning the idea that God has chosen us for the task of bringing to the world the ideals based on Torah will stop neither anti-Semites nor anti-Semitism.

And Jews do not hold exclusive rights to acts of goodness. The Midrash teaches that God revealed Torah to us in the desert so we would know that its ideals are open to everyone who wishes to embrace them. They are not the exclusive property of any one faith or people.

Still, Judaism has done much to civilize this world. It is no accident that Jews, who represent less than half a percent of the world’s population, have won more than 30% of the world’s Nobel Prizes.

This statistic is the product of a religious and cultural system that has stressed learning and literacy as ways of serving God. It is the product of a religious and cultural system that teaches us, “Lo tuchal l’hitaleim, you must not remain indifferent” (Deuteronomy 22:3) to the suffering of another, even if the other is our enemy. It is the product of a religious system that calls on us to be "or l’goyim, a light to the nations.” (Isaiah 49:6)

Look at the violence that stalks our schools, our cities, and our towns. Is it really time for us to turn away from a way of life that has done so much for humanity over the centuries? Is it time to be less particular in our Jewish practices and studies? Should we trade Jewish worship and practice for a generalized civil religion that says, “Just be a good person”?

I hope not.

Chosenness does not mean privilege, nor does chosenness mean exclusivity. Chosenness is a choice, a challenge, and an achievement.

Choosing to be chosen is to believe that God cares deeply about the choices we make. I pray we continue to choose, both as individuals and as a people, to bring the ideals of Torah to the constant attention of the world.

Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs is the author of What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. He is the former president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford, CT.

Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs

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