The Chosen People: Reclaiming Our Sacred Myth

Mitchell Max

D'Var Chinuch, February 27, 1999


This talk is in part an expression of the summer that our family recently spent in Israel. I had never been a Zionist, but living in Israel calls to your blood and poses the question of where you stand regarding the survival of Judaism. My wife Lisa heard that call almost as soon as she arrived in Israel, suggesting that we make aliyah immediately, perhaps to an orthodox West Bank settlement. I declined this bold proposal, but gradually evolved my own responses to this question. Regarding my professional life, my answer is to remain in the US, where there are richer resources for medical research, but broaden the collaborations that I set up with colleagues in Israel. Many of the things I can do here to promote the future of Judaism depend upon having a building for our congregation, and I have embraced this project. Finally, the many miracles of Jewish persistence that are embodied in the state of Israel led me to ponder the meaning of the concept of the Jews as a chosen people, and I have titled today's presentation "The Chosen People: Reclaiming Our Sacred Myth."

Some of you may have thought that we don't talk about being the chosen people here. As you know, the Reconstructionist movement changed a number of the key prayers in the 1945 siddur, most notably the Torah and Haftarah blessings, Aleynu, and Kiddush, to remove the reference to being chosen. When my family joined Adat Shalom five years ago, Rabbi Sid Schwarz gave us a succinct description of Reconstructionism. To broadly paraphrase, he said, "Here's the deal at Adat Shalom: You cater two onegs a year, women count, God doesn't physically intervene in the universe, and we're not the chosen people."

Kaplan Rejects the Idea of a Personal God, an Essential Piece of the Chosen People Idea

As Sid further elaborated, the founding Reconstructionist rabbi Mordecai Kaplan had two main objections to the idea of the Jews as the chosen people. First of all, this implies the existence of a personal God who is doing the choosing, a formulation that Kaplan rejects. Instead, Kaplan posits that God is the process in the universe that makes for human salvation. In preparing this talk, I went back to Kaplan's writings (see the anthology Dynamic Judaism: The Essential Writings of Mordecai M. Kaplan, ES Goldsmith and M Scult, eds., Fordham University Press) and am impressed with the craft and consistency of this formulation. However, this formulation doesn't do anything for me. I seek a personal God, and I bet that others in Adat Shalom do too. The God that I pray to, and who on very rare occasions answers, is a personal God. Most of us at Adat Shalom are interested in warm relationships. When is the last time you got sympathy or a good hug from a process?

But let me not belabor this point. As the Shema says, God is one, and Kaplan and I are ultimately talking about the same God. We just prefer different metaphors.

Kaplan's Critique of the Chauvinism in the Chosen People Idea

Kaplan levels a far more telling critique, I think, against the chauvinistic tone of most formulations of the chosen people concept; i.e. we're chosen and you're not. This tone is hair-raisingly obvious in some of oft-told midrashim such as the one in which God first offers the Torah to other peoples and they ask about the requirements. Edom, the tribe later to become the Christians, says, "What? Give up murder? No.we can't accept the Torah." while Ishmael, the tribe to become the Moslems, say "What? Give up stealing? No.we can't accept the Torah."

The great philosopher Baruch Spinoza, son of a marrano family who had fled Portugal, attacked this chauvinism in his Theologico-Political Tractate of 1670. (See Jews: The Essence and Character of a People, by Arthur Hertzberg and Aron Hirt-Manheimer; Harper, San Francisco, 1998, 136-43.) As a 24-year-old Yeshiva graduate and synagogue member in Amsterdam, he pointed out that the prophets claimed Jewish chosenness reflected Jews' superior virtue. But, he continued, virtue arises among all people, not just Jews, so the chosen people idea must be nonsense. For this idea, as well as the proposal that the Bible was a creation of man, not God, the Jews of Amsterdam excommunicated Spinoza, just as the ultra-Orthodox were to ban Kaplan in 1945 after publication of the Reconstructionist siddur that was stripped of references to the chosen people.

Kaplan followed Spinoza's line of argument with a blistering attack on the arrogance often linked with the idea of the chosen people. Altering the liturgy may have been the most effective way in 1945 to gain attention for this essential critique, but today the absence of the chosen people idea from our liturgy has the unfortunate effect of letting Kaplan's valuable teachings on this point drop out of sight. Let me mention a few of my favorites. Kaplan dwells on the humility of Moses, who repeatedly protested to God that he was unworthy to be His messenger and the leader of the Jews. Wouldn't it be contradictory, Kaplan argues, for the humble Moses to have urged the Jews to consider themselves to be above all others? Kaplan punctures the arrogant idea often associated with the chosen people concept that "the Jews are chosen to deliver God's word to the rest of mankind" by recounting the story of Abraham Lincoln's visit from a group of Chicago clergymen at the beginning of the Civil War. The ministers said, "Mr. President, we come to tell you that it is God's desire that you end slavery." Lincoln replied, "I am always glad to receive the word of God, but am surprised that He would choose to send it by way of the wicked city of Chicago!" A third teaching is Kaplan's response to the argument that Christians and Moslems acknowledge that the Jews brought them the Ten Commandments and Torah and would therefore grant that they were chosen people at least in those early days. Kaplan points out that the idea of the chosen people would still offend groups such as the Hindus, whose holy traditions predate ours by many centuries.

Repairing the Chosen People Concept: A Look at the Torah

I completely agree with Kaplan that chauvinism is a tempting and damaging error and can negate much of what we have to offer to other people. But we can clarify the idea of the chosen people so that it does not sanction chauvinism. The problem emerges when we fail to specify exactly what God is choosing us for, and sloppily assume we are chosen by God for the best of everything---loved unconditionally more than any other people, chosen to be the smartest, noblest, and so on.

In order to recapture a better specification of chosenness, let us look at the two key Torah passages in which the idea was elaborated. (For lack of time, I will omit the episodes in which God appears to Abraham and the other patriarchs and wait until the Exodus, when there actually was a people to be chosen.)

The only place in Torah where I could find the actual word to choose, bachar, was in Deuteronomy 7:6-7 (p. 1378 in the Plaut version). I am not going to quote or discuss this passage, because it is in a very chauvinistic context, right after the lines in which Moses urges the Hebrews (at God's behest) to doom the seven conquered nations of the Promised Land to total destruction. Perhaps this chauvinism is a reflection of the several centuries of idolatry that many scholars believe preceded the writing down of Deuteronomy, which may have been a relatively late revivalist text.

The most commonly cited passage outlining the concept of the chosen people (although not using the word bachar) is in Exodus 19:5-8, Parsha Yitro (p. 522 in Plaut):

The Lord said to Moses: Declare to the house of Israel.Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep my covenant you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples.You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.All the people answered as one saying, "All that the Lord has spoken we will do."

In the chapter that follows, God delivers the ten commandments and then the rest of the Torah to Moses and Israel. The idea of chosenness in this passage has a very well-defined and limited context: God offers to treasure us to the degree that we become the people who receive, know, and live by the Torah. I also want to add to my formulation a word about time-frame. This is not just an ancient story whose relevance has expired today. The Torah says that the revelation at Sinai is a moment of the continual present. All Jews ever to live were there, and we can live in this promise of chosenness whenever we interact with Torah.

I don't see how one can quarrel with this formulation. There's strong evidence that if God chose anyone to give the Torah to, it was we Jews. Look in the Ark. We've got the Torah. We're the specialists. My Christian friends have confirmed to me that although the read the Pentateuch, they are far more focused on the New Testament. So I propose that we reclaim the chosen people idea as this: God will love us more, bless us more and inspire us to finer deeds when we let the Torah live in us. There is nothing in this formulation that appears to me to be chauvinistic or exclusive. Perhaps God offers a similar deal to Christians when they live by the Gospels, or to Moslems when they pursue the Koran.

A related point is that I see nothing objectionable about the old fashioned Torah blessing: "Blessed are you our God who has chosen us from all the peoples and given us your Torah." In the course of preparing this talk, I realized that I would like to use this when I have a Torah aliyah. I wondered if this would be against the rules, and perhaps I would be thrown into the dock at a Religious Practices committee meeting. But Kol Haneshamah, the current Reconstructionist siddur, prints the traditional and revised versions and suggests on page 397 that the reader assemble a Torah blessing according to his or her preferences. I conclude, therefore, that I can say the old barucha without Rabbi Fred giving me the hook.

Conclusion: If We Are the Chosen People, So What?

In the conclusion of my talk, I'd like to consider whether it makes any difference to have a formulation that we are God's chosen people. Many writers have pointed out that this idea was crucial in sustaining the Jews through centures of persection, Crusades, and pogroms. But in sunny days like these, when we don't need to console ourselves with the thought that we are superior to our oppressors, does it make a difference to retain this myth that we are God's treasured people when we live in Torah?

I say yes. A religious community is sustained by devotion to its sacred activities, and if we believe that God will treasure us more for our studies and Torah-inspired living, that may elevate their priority above alternative pursuits. For me, reading and studying the Torah has been the central part of my participation in Adat Shalom ever since other members taught me to chant trope five years ago and as I study my three or four lines during the weeks before my reading I repeatedly have remarkable moments that I experience as encounters with God. For me, taking part in our building campaign means much more because we designing a space in which we and generations to follow can be a special treasure of God. The nightly sessions with Rachel and Laura, my 8-year-old daughters, in which Lisa and I help them to learn to read Hebrew letters and words, become holy within this sacred myth.

So in conclusion, I would emphasize that God has no shortage of love and may love many peoples in special ways. Let us avoid chauvinism, but let us not deny the gifts that God and our tradition have given us. The Talmud emphasizes that although humility is a virtue, denying our special gifts is an error, especially if a favorable self-assessment would lead us to be more optimistic and enthusiastic in pursuing joyful and virtuous living.

We can heed Kaplan's warnings against arrogance yet also emulate his colleague Heschl, who retained a belief that we are a chosen people but studied the Torah and Prophets with Christian leaders such as Martin Luther King and Pope John XXIII in a way that invigorated the strivings of all towards greater justice and respect.

And so I say, with profound gratitude for our movement's founders, "Blessed our you our God, sovereign of all the worlds, who has chosen us from all the peoples and given us your Torah."

Shabbat Shalom.