What Should “The Chosen People” Mean?

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 this country, and I believe God chose Martin Luther King 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, noted in his famous essay, Many are Called And Many are Chosen,:  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.

God chose us, as Thomas Cahill teaches in his best selling book of several years ago Gifts of the Jews, 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. It is good that a gentile wrote the book because it might seem too prideful if one of us had.

Nearly three thousand years ago the Prophet Amos taught that we are not better than others and 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)”

To be chosen does not mean we consider ourselves better than anyone else. It means to see ourselves chosen to repair our broken world.  

Still, many Jews, both famous and ordinary, 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?

Let’s get 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 the ideals based on Torah to the world will not stop either anti-Semites or anti-Semitism.

Jews do not hold exclusive rights to acts of goodness. God revealed Torah to us, the Midrash teaches, 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 ½ of one per cent of the worlds’ population have won more than 30% of the world’s Nobel Prizes.

No it is not an accident. It 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, which teaches us, “Lo Toochal l’iheetalaym. 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 “L’or 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, which says, “just be a good person?”

I hope not.

Chosenness does not mean privilege, and chosenness does not mean exclusiveness. Still, there are people who want no part of it.   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.”

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—as individuals and as a people  to bring the ideals of Torah to the constant attention of the world.

2 thoughts on “What Should “The Chosen People” Mean?

  1. do we understand Par’o as being chosen by haShem -did he have a choice to act mercifully but chose not to, thereby hardening his heart? so if a great opportunity is presented to a person and it is rejected with no remorse is freewill forfeited?


  2. You ask an important question, Savta. I recommend that you read (or re-read) chapter XII in “What’s in it for Me?” Or the Torah commentary I wrote for parashat Vaera for the “Torah from Around The World” from the WUPJ a few weeks ago.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s