Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Saturday, 25 April 2009

On Being Chosen

Well, there's alway the old line from Fiddler on the Roof:
I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can't You choose someone else?
Rav Yonasan Rosenblum, in his latest column for The Jerusalem Post, notes something that is an obvious source of discomfort for many non-observant Jews:
Few concepts are so closely identified with the Jewish people as that of the "chosen people." That singularity is reiterated constantly in the Torah. We are referred to variously as "a kingdom of priests, a holy nation," "My special treasure among the nations," "My son, my firstborn son, Israel." Though our travails will be many, we are promised that God will never abandon us completely.
A strong sense of distinction has characterized the Jews from our earliest days as a nation. The ancient Greek and Roman historians noted the Jews' refusal to intermingle freely with other peoples, their strict endogamy - and despised them for it.
Until our own day, the clannishness of the Jews is a frequent theme of anti-Semites (even as others attack us for our attempts to penetrate every area of gentile society. Anti-Semites of a Hegelian bent synthesize the two claims: Jews attempt to enter everywhere to advance their group interests). Those who accuse Israel of war crimes often attribute those "crimes" to the Jews' belief that only their lives are of value and gentile blood may be freely shed. (In reality, no army in history has shed so much of its own blood to preserve that of enemy civilians as the IDF.)
Once, the idea that Jews constitute a people specially chosen by God caused us to separate ourselves from others and others to hate us for doing so. Today it is more likely to divide Jews from one another. Few claims make nonreligious Jews more uncomfortable than that Jews are God's chosen. About 15 years ago, Commentary magazine ran a symposium of Jewish theologians from the so-called three "streams" of Judaism. Of the non-Orthodox respondents, hardly one was prepared to offer a full-throated affirmation of Jewish chosenness, no matter how the concept was defined.
My colleague Amotz Asa-El spoke for many when he wrote a few years back, "The costs of being chosen have been far higher than the benefits." Amotz's problem was not so much the quality of our deal with God, as the very belief that we are His chosen people, as implied by his title, "Are we chosen?"

The first question one must ask is: what does being chosen mean? For many, it seems to be a source of pride, a sense of superiority. God likes us better than the rest of mankind, get it?
Only that's not entirely true. As Tevye Milchiger noted, being chosen isn't a one way gift. It's not like it means that we always get the winning lottery ticket. In fact, too many times in history it has proved to be the opposite. On account of being chosen, we have suffered more than any other people in history although the fact that we were chosen allowed us to endure and survive.
The truth seems to be that being chosen may confer rights but it also confers hefty responsibility on us as a people. Being a light unto them nations means living as a moral example of how well a world run by God's rules would be. It's no surprise that we fail at this task quite often. But it also demands fealty to God and His Torah, something too many of us either openly or covertly are unwilling to give.
Perhaps we can all take something positive from this concept of being chosen. If we fall, we fall further than anyone else but if we struggle to rise towards God and the perfection He has promised us that we can attain, we can rise higher and inspire humankind towards greater perfection. That is a chosen that we can then be proud of.
The second point to make though is relevant to the recent discussion in a previous post on whether or not one can define oneself as being a proud, belonging Jew while denying the absolute truth of Torah. In other words, can one be a cultural Jew but still feel a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish nation and its destiny?
What the remainder of Rav Rosenblum's article goes on to point out is that one can but this sense is very different from the sense of a believing Jew. The Jew who denies the truth of Sinai may maintain a personal connection to the Jewish nation but cannot believe in the concept of being chosen for a special mission by God. What that means, then, is that he must conclude that the Jews are one people amongst many in the world, and that while he is proud to have membership with him, this pride is no different for him than for a proud Muislim, or proud Frenchman. I think that's a pity because it does diminish one's sense of depth, and a willingness to tie into a shared history through the good times and the bad. Yes, one can technically be a cultural Jew but without even realizing it, he's giving up the main specialness that makes the Jew what he is.


Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

First of all, good question -- how did this get posted on Shabbos?

Anyway, it would seem that you effectively connect the circle. If one does not believe that the Torah is the Divine gift to the Jewish People, thereby also indicating that they are special, it would be improper to view the Jewish People as special. That would only be a reflection of ethno-centricity with all the possible negative consequences of that thought. Only if one accepts the idea of Torah MiSinai, could a person have any proper reason for accepting a special status for the Jewish People -- but thereby one also has to recognize that with specialness comes responsibility -- not just to God, self and the Jewish nation but to the entire world.

In a certain way, I am comfortable with secular Jews having a problem with the specialness of the Jewish nation. Specialness and secularism is a matter of which I am very wary. A perception that the Jewish nation is special is only appropriate for individuals who understand that this is foremost a statement of responsibility. This recognition, though, does leave me with the additional concern of individuals who use Torah MiSinai as a way of justifying their own feeling of Jewish specialness and ethnocentricity. Even if one believes in Torah MiSinai and the fact that our nation has been chosen by God, one must always question oneself whether this is simply a feeling of desired pride or a recognition of a Divine truth which carries extensive responsibilities beyond, even, what we may like.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Garnel Ironheart said...

First of all, there are a couple answers as to how I posted on Shabbos.

1) You can set up timed posts so that Blogger puts it up at a specific time. However, as I like my blog to observe Shabbos, I didn't actually use that option.

2) My blog observes Shabbos when I do even though it reports things in North American time, and as I'm in Israel right now, if I post on motzei Shabbos it looks like a Shabbos post because of the time difference.

3) OTD why are still reading my blog?

E-Man said...


I was dan likaf Zechus and figured you were in Israel. Also, the paradox about secular Jews not believing in the choseness of the Jewish people is like this: if you don't believe Judaism is special then why be Jewish? Why not be a christian or muslim or some other religion? Christians and Muslims believe they are the chosen religion. Choosing a denomination is in a way a declaration that you believe your religion is the chosen religion by an omnipotent G-D.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...


There was a brochure put out by Liberal Judaism in England (another name for Reform) in the 1980s which asked the question of what is the difference between Liberal Judaism and Unitarian Christianity (the most liberal form of that religion). The answer: nothing. Those who practice Liberal Judaism choose to use Jewish motifs in their practices while Unitarians choose to use Christian motifs. Basically, the way many people see religion is simply as a way of achieving spirituality. Its a desire for a specific high which, until Maslow, people thought could only be reached through religion. (Maslow showed that this high could actually be reached in many ways -- which led to Timothy Leary advocating the use of drugs to gain spirituality). So how do many peopoel understand the difference between relgions? Just the way you like to get your spiritual experience. And that is the basis of many people's understanding of freedom of relgion -- why get uptight of how a person wants to do this thing? To the many, different religons is like some people liking to exercise playing golf while others like tennis. And would you get upset because your friend likes golf while you like tennis? The real answer is to try both -- which is like the new fad of having both the Xmas tree and the Chanukiah.

Of course, this misses the whole point of Torah, but what else is new. This is, though, the way people think.

Rabbi Ben Hecht