“The Chosen People–Again!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, we once again encounter the challenging concept of the “Chosenness” of Israel.

After referring to the Jewish people as “G-d’s children,” Moses declares in Deuteronomy 14:2, “Kee ahm ka’dosh ah’tah la’Hashem Eh’lo’keh’chah, oo’v’chah ba’char Hashem leeh’yoht lo l’ahm s’goo’lah mee’kol ha’ah’meem, ah’sher ahl p’nay ha’ah’dah’mah,” for you are a holy people to the L-rd, your G-d, and G-d has chosen you for Himself to be a treasured people from among all the peoples on the face of the earth.

This, of course, is not the first time that Israel is called a “Chosen People.” In Exodus 19:5, G-d says, “and now, if you harken well to Me and observe My commandments, you shall be to Me the most beloved treasure of all peoples, for Mine is the entire world.”

In Deuteronomy 7:6, G-d says, “for you are a holy people to the L-rd, your G-d; the L-rd your G-d has chosen you to be for Him a treasured people above all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.”

And finally, in Deuteronomy 26:18, the Torah says: “And G-d has distinguished you today to be for Him a treasured people, as He spoke to you, and to observe all His commandments.”

The fact that the concept of chosenness is repeated four times in the Torah, underscores the obvious centrality of the concept of the special election of Israel in Jewish life.

Despite its importance, not only is the meaning of chosenness rather unclear, it has also been a source of great contention and challenge to the Jewish people throughout their history. The biblical scholar W. Gunther Plaut writes in his commentary, “This promise of special election or chosenness has been a core factor of Jewish life for thousands of years. In times of stress, it was a source of hope and reassurance, and Jewish survival might not have been possible without the conviction that Israel was indeed G-d’s beloved, destined for a high purpose and spiritual glory.”

Some, however, regard the concept of chosenness very negatively, seeing it as a foundation for self-exaltation and religious conceit on the part of Jews. This false sense of superiority has resulted in much contempt and hatred among non-Jews.

In contemporary times, when people decry inequality of any kind, the doctrine of special election has actually been disavowed by not a few Jewish leaders and thinkers. Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan (1881-1983), the founder of the Reconstructionist movement, mounted a great effort to do away with the concept of chosenness, arguing that the Chosen People idea had become a model for racist ideologies. Furthermore, he maintained that seeing the Jews as a Divinely chosen people goes against modern thinking.

Even the classical commentaries differed over the meaning of “chosenness,” and were unable to agree about what the term, “Am Segulah,” a treasured people, really means. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) says that, although all the earth is the L-rd’s, His cherished treasure, above all other people, is Israel. Nachmanides (Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) says that chosenness is evinced by G-d’s special protection of Israel. The Sforno (Obadiah ben Jacob, 1470-1550, Italian Bible commentator) maintains that the reason for Israel’s selection is that G-d loves the righteous of all peoples.

Ha’Ktav V’HaKabbalah (a comprehensive commentary on the Pentateuch by R’ Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, 1785-1865, Chief Rabbi of Koenigsberg, Germany) rejects these proposed explanations. Offering his own interpretation, Rabbi Mecklenburg suggests that it is not G-d’s special devotion to the People of Israel that is the essence of the chosenness of the Jewish people, but rather the reverse–the people’s absolute devotion to and love of G-d. The entire concept of being a Chosen People depends upon the people adhering to the specific conditions outlined in the Torah: If you will harken to G-d’s voice and observe His covenant, cling to G-d in love, then you will be special to Me, for I have the power to fulfill all your wishes (based on Exodus 19:5).

While many modern scholars were quick to abandon the idea of chosenness, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in his superb work, Jewish Literacy, offers a spirited defense, arguing that the Jews indeed deserve to be called the Chosen People, if only because they gave the notion of one G-d to the world. In support, Telushkin cites the British scholar, Rabbi Louis Jacobs, who strongly maintains that this is not a “dogma that is incapable of verification, but the recognition of a sober historical fact. The world owes to Israel the idea of one G-d of righteousness and holiness, this is how G-d became known to mankind.”

Telushkin forthrightly notes that the doctrine of chosenness does not endow the Jew with any special rights or privileges. In fact, argues Telushkin, it may very well be the opposite. As proof of his contention, Rabbi Telushkin recalls the striking words of the prophet Amos (3:2) who says that G-d has chosen Israel not because of their superior righteousness, but because of their iniquities. Neither is chosenness a factor of race, to wit the fact that the Messiah himself is to be a descendant of Ruth, a convert to Judaism.

The most remarkable aspect of the special role of the Jews is the fact that bringing the idea of G-d to the world was not accomplished by coercion, but by example and persuasion. Telushkin very beautifully proves that the idea of being a special people is not a case of “might makes right.” As a prooftext to this position, Rabbi Telushkin cites Deuteronomy 7:7 where G-d says, “It is not because you are numerous that G-d chose you, indeed you are the smallest of the people.” It is the power of the idea of G-d, argues Telushkin, and not the power or militancy of man that led to the success of bringing the idea of G-d to the world. Had the Jews been a powerful armed force, the success of their ideas would have been attributed to might, rather than to the power of G-d.

Despite the cogency of the idea of chosenness, it is sometimes very difficult to appreciate this concept, especially in light of the fact of how often Jews have failed to live up to the exalted standards of the Torah, and at times, have even forsaken basic morality.

How tragic it will be if our people lose the special status of being a “treasured people,” because of outright greed, undue lust for wealth, glory or comfort. It is time for our people to stop the madness, and seek out values of goodness, righteousness, and justice that our Torah and our prophets promote. Only then will we deserve to be called G-d’s special people.

May you be blessed.