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Jews as a chosen people

In Judaism, chosenness is the belief that the Jews are the chosen people: chosen to be in a covenant with God. This idea is first found in the Torah (five books of Moses) and is elaborated on in later books of the Hebrew Bible. Much is written about this topic in rabbinic literature.

Chosenness in the Torah

According to the Torah, Israel's character as the chosen people is unconditional as it says in Deuteronomy 14:2, "For you are a holy people to YHWH your God, and God has chosen you to be his treasured people from all the nations that are on the face of the earth."

Although the Torah also says, "Now therefore, if you will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then you shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people," God promises that He will never exchange His people with any other.

Other Torah verses about chosenness, "For all the earth is mine: and you shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation" (). "The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because you were more in number than any people; for you were the fewest of all people; but because the Lord loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your ancestors." ().

The obligation imposed upon the Israelites is emphasized by the prophet Amos (): "You only have I singled out of all the families of the earth: therefore will I visit upon you all your iniquities."

Rabbinic Jewish views of chosenness

The idea of chosenness has traditionally been interpreted by Jews in two ways: one way is that God chose the Israelites, while the other idea is that the Israelites chose God. Although collectively this choice was made freely, religious Jews believe that it created individual obligation for the descendants of the Israelites. Another opinion is that the choice was free in a limited context; that is, although the Jews chose to follow precepts ordained by God, Kabbalah and Tanya teach that even prior to creation, the "Jewish soul" was already chosen.

Crucial to the Jewish notion of chosenness is that it creates obligations exclusive to Jews, while non-Jews receive from God other covenants and other responsibilities. Generally, it does not entail exclusive rewards for Jews. Classical rabbinic literature in the Mishnah Avot 3:14 has this teaching:

Rabbi Akiva used to say, "Beloved is man, for he was created in God’s image; and the fact that God made it known that man was created in His image is indicative of an even greater love. As the verse states [Genesis 9:6], 'In the image of God, man was created.')" The mishna goes on to say, "Beloved are the people Israel, for they are called children of God; it is even a greater love that it was made known to them that they are called children of God, as it said, 'You are the children of the Lord, your God. Beloved are the people Israel, for a precious article [the Torah] was given to them ...

Most Jewish texts do not state that "God chose the Jews" by itself. Rather, this is usually linked with a mission or purpose, such as proclaiming God's message among all the nations, even though Jews cannot become "unchosen" if they shirk their mission. This implies a special duty, which evolves from the belief that Jews have been pledged by the covenant which God concluded with the biblical patriarch Abraham, their ancestor, and again with the entire Jewish nation at Mount Sinai. In this view, Jews are charged with living a holy life as God's priest-people.

In the Jewish prayerbook (the Siddur), chosenness is referred to in a number of ways. The blessing for reading the Torah reads "Praised are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has chosen us out of all the nations and bestowed upon us his Torah."

In the "Kiddush", a prayer of sanctification in which the Sabbath is inaugurated over a cup of wine, the text reads "For you have chosen us and sanctified us out of all the nations, and have given us the Sabbath as an inheritance in love and favour. Praised are you, Lord, who hallows the Sabbath."

In the "Kiddush" recited on festivals it says, "Blessed are You ... who have chosen us from among all nations, raised us above all tongues, and made us holy through his commandments."

The Aleinu prayer refers to the concept of Jews as a chosen people:

It is our duty to praise the Master of all, to exalt the Creator of the Universe, who has not made us like the nations of the world and has not placed us like the families of the earth; who has not designed our destiny to be like theirs, nor our lot like that of all their multitude. We bend the knee and bow and acknowledge before the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be he, that it is he who stretched forth the heavens and founded the earth. His seat of glory is in the heavens above; his abode of majesty is in the lofty heights.

An earlier form of this prayer, in use during the medieval era, contained an extra sentence:

It is our duty to praise the Master of all, to exalt the Creator of the Universe, who has not made us like the nations of the world and has not placed us like the families of the earth; who has not designed our destiny to be like theirs, nor our lot like that of all their multitude, who carry their wooden images and pray to a God who cannot give success.

This sentence in italics is a quote from the Bible, Isaiah 45:20. "Come, gather together, Draw nigh, you remnants of the nations! No foreknowledge had they who carry their wooden images and pray to a God who cannot give success." (New JPS) In the medieval era some within the Christian community came to believe that this line referred to Christians worshipping Jesus; they demanded that it be excised. Ismar Elbogen, a historian of the Jewish liturgy, held that the early form of the prayer pre-dated Christianity, and could not possibly have referred to it.

This section contains information from the Jewish Encyclopedia originally published between 1901-1906, which is in the public domain.

According to the Rabbis, "Israel is of all nations the most wilful or headstrong one, and the Torah was to give it the right scope and power of resistance, or else the world could not have withstood its fierceness.

"The Lord offered the Law to all nations; but all refused to accept it except Israel.

How do we understand "A Gentile who consecrates his life to the study and observance of the Law ranks as high as the high priest," says R. Meïr, by deduction from Lev. xviii. 5; II Sam. vii. 19; Isa. xxvi. 2; Ps. xxxiii. 1, cxviii. 20, cxxv. 4, where all stress is laid not on Israel, but on man or the righteous one.

The Gemara states this regarding a non-Jew who studies Torah [his 7 mitzvot] and regarding this, see Shita Mekubetzes, Bava Kama 38a who says that this is an exaggeration. In any case, this statement wasn't extolling the non-Jew. The Rishonim explain that it is extolling the Torah.

Tosfos explains that the reason it uses the example of a kohen gadol (high priest) is because this statement is based on the verse, "y'kara hi mipnimim" (it is more precious than pearls) which is explained elsewhere in the Gemara to mean that Torah is more precious pnimim - which refer to lifnai v'lifnim - the Holy of Holies where the kahon gadol went.

In any case, in Midrash Rabba (Bamidbar 13:15) this statement is brought with an important addition: a non-Jew who converts and studies Torah etc.

Israel is likened to the olive. Just as this fruit yields its precious oil only after being much pressed and squeezed, so Israel's destiny is one of great oppression and hardship, in order that it may thereby give forth its illuminating wisdom. Poverty is the quality most befitting Israel as the chosen people (Ḥag. 9b). Only on account of its good works is Israel among the nations "as the lily among thorns, or "as wheat among the chaff.

Chosenness is not superiority

Views of superiority have been explicitly rejected by Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox Judaism. Communal Jewish organizations such as the B'nai Brith, American Jewish Committee and Anti-Defamation League reject discrimination against Gentiles as well as against Jews. Historically however, a minority strain in Judaism, usually associated with Jewish mysticism, did appear to hold that Jews were qualitatively different from Gentiles, rather than simply being chosen for a special mission.

The Encyclopedia Judaica provides a secular, historical explanation of this belief, stating that "It would seem that the more extreme, and exclusive, interpretations of the doctrine of election, among Jewish thinkers, were partly the result of reaction to oppression by the non-Jewish world. The more the Jew was forced to close in on himself, to withdraw into the imposed confines of the ghetto, the more he tended to emphasize Israel's difference from the cruel gentile without. Only thus did his suffering become intelligible and bearable… When the Jew was eventually allowed to find his place in a gentile world, the less exclusivist aspect of the doctrine reasserted itself."

Examples of these minority strains within Jewish thought include the following.

The Zohar

A mystical version of this idea exists in parts of the Zohar, one of the primary works of Kabbalah, esoteric Jewish mysticism. The Zohar comments on the Biblical verse which states "Let the waters teem with swarms of creatures that have a living soul" as follows: "The verse 'creatures that have a living soul,' pertains to the Jews, for they are the children of God, and from God come their holy souls....And the souls of the other nations, from where do they come? Rabbi Elazar says that they have souls from the impure left side, and therefore they are all impure, defiling anyone who comes near them." (Zohar commentary on Genesis)

The Raya Mehemna, a somewhat later work printed with the Zohar, has a similar view. One section states: "Israel merited that God called them 'men,' as it is written 'But you My flock, the flock of My pasture, you are men,' 'If any man of you brings an offering.' Why are they called 'men'? For it is written 'And you who cling to the Lord your God'. This means you and not the other nations, and because of this 'you are men', you are called men..." (Raya Mehemna, commentary on Torah portion Yitro, page 86a)

Such views are not mainstream in Judaism. They may be regarded as equivalent to the Christian view expressed by Augustine that Christian souls form part of the body of Christ while the merely natural man forms part of the massa perditionis.

The Kuzari

The Kuzari, written by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi (c.1075–1141), is a fundamental Jewish philosophical work. It is widely accepted as a work that lays out Jewish beliefs. (His poetry is famous and is incorporated in some of the Kinot recited on Tisha B'Av as well as in the prayers for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.)

He states in 1st Maamar, os 95:

1) By the time the Jewish people had become a nation, with people such as Moshe, Aharon, Miriam, Betzalel, Yehoshua etc. even though there were sinners who were hated by God [for what they did], there is no doubt that they too were segula for from their root and nature they were segula, and in the future they would give birth to children who would be segula.

2) The children of Yaakov were all segula and were distinguished from the rest of mankind in their godly characteristics, for He made them as a distinct, angelic species [he actually writes, that asking why non-Jews cannot be like Jews is like asking why animals can't talk]

In his 5th Maamar, os 20 he sums up his position and writes that one must concede that:

3) In creation there are higher and lower levels. A being with awareness, grasp and senses is evidently higher than one without it ... The lowest plant is higher than the most important inanimate item. The lowest of animals is higher than the highest plant. The lowest of humans is higher than the highest animal.

Similarly, the lowest among those who fulfill the mitzvot [who he explained earlier can only be the Jewish people] is higher than the greatest who do not have mitzvos.

4) Even a Jew who sins is better than one who lacks mitzvos [I.e. a non-Jew] ... Furthermore, if offered the choice, a Jew would not choose to be on the level of those who lack mitzvos [I.e. non-Jew], just as a human being who is sick and suffers, if given the choice to be a horse or fish or bird, although these all live contentedly without suffering ... would not choose this.

Controversially, he claims that, while a convert to Judaism is equal to a born Jew in all other respects, he or she is not capable of prophecy. This view is not normal in Judaism, and there is a tradition that the prophet Obadiah was in fact a convert.

Halevi's "essentialist" view of Jewishness was also held by some later Jewish thinkers such as Judah Loew ben Bezalel (the Maharal of Prague). Many Modern Orthodox thinkers, such as Yeshayahu Leibowitz, reject this trend as an aberration from normative Judaism and as savouring of racism.

The Tanya

In the Tanya, chapter 1, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi writes, "The souls of the nations of the world, however, emanate from the other, unclean kelipos which contain no good whatever ..."

When Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi was imprisoned by the czarist authorities after being slandered by Misnagdim, he was questioned regarding this point, among other topics. Although he freely responded to all other questions, he refused to respond to this allegation - smiling enigmatically as his only response.

It is clear, however, that Rabbi Shneur Zalman did not intend to advocate discrimination against gentiles, as he codified in his Shulchan Aruch HaRav. Rabbi Shneur Zalman and his successors were recognized by the Czars for their extreme devotion to the nation; Rabbi Menachem Mendel often received gentiles and urged respect and honor be accorded them as the halacha mandates.

Views of chosenness

The three largest Jewish denominations—Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism—maintain the belief that the Jews have been chosen by God for a purpose.

Modern Orthodox views

Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, former Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Great Britain (Modern Orthodox Judaism), describes chosenness in this way:
Yes, I do believe that the chosen people concept as affirmed by Judaism in its holy writ, its prayers, and its millennial tradition. In fact, I believe that every people - and indeed, in a more limited way, every individual - is "chosen" or destined for some distinct purpose in advancing the designs of Providence. Only, some fulfill their mission and others do not. Maybe the Greeks were chosen for their unique contributions to art and philosophy, the Romans for their pioneering services in law and government, the British for bringing parliamentary rule into the world, and the Americans for piloting democracy in a pluralistic society. The Jews were chosen by God to be 'peculiar unto Me' as the pioneers of religion and morality; that was and is their national purpose.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, a leader of Modern Orthodox Judaism writes:

The chosenness of Israel relates exclusively to its spiritual vocation embodied in the Torah; the doctrine, indeed, was announced at Sinai. Whenever it is mentioned in our liturgy - such as the blessing immediately preceding the Shema....it is always related to Torah or Mitzvot (commandments). This spiritual vocation consists of two complementary functions, described as "Goy Kadosh," that of a holy nation, and "Mamlekhet Kohanim," that of a kingdom of priests. The first term denotes the development of communal separateness or differences in order to achieve a collective self-transcendence.... The second term implies the obligation of this brotherhood of the spiritual elite toward the rest of mankind; priesthood is defined by the prophets as fundamentally a teaching vocation.

Haredi views

Numerous Haredi Jews hold a differing point of view. Based on teachings in the Kuzari, Zohar, and Tanya they hold that Jews have spiritual advantages over non-Jews. Nevertheless, Lamm's view has been said to be accepted by the mainstream Haredi community, and supported with a quote from Rabbi Malkiel Kotler, dean of the Haredi Lakewood Yeshiva, who said:

Our philosophy asserts that every human being is created in the image of the Lord and the primacy of integrity and honesty in all dealings without exception. I strongly repudiate any assertions in the name of Judaism that do not represent and reflect this philosophy.

What is omitted is that this was a response in the face of an attack on a book written by a former pupil at the yeshiva; Rabbi Kotler diplomatically referred to the first part of the mishna quoted above which says "Beloved is man, for he was created in God’s image."

In fact, in his earlier endorsement of the book, he said the author had written “on the subjects of the Exile, the Election of Israel and her exaltation above and superiority to all of the other nations, all in accordance with the viewpoint of the Torah, based on the solid instruction he has received from his teachers.”

Conservative views

Conservative Judaism and its Israeli counterpart Masorti Judaism, views the concept of chosenness in this way:
Few beliefs have been subject to as much misunderstanding as the "Chosen People" doctrine. The Torah and the Prophets clearly stated that this does not imply any innate Jewish superiority. In the words of Amos (3:2) "You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth - that is why I will call you to account for your iniquities". The Torah tells us that we are to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" with obligations and duties which flowed from our willingness to accept this status. Far from being a license for special privilege, it entailed additional responsibilities not only toward God but to our fellow human beings. As expressed in the blessings at the reading of the Torah, our people have always felt it to be a privilege to be selected for such a purpose. For the modern traditional Jew, the doctrine of the election and the covenant of Israel offers a purpose for Jewish existence which transcends its own self interests. It suggests that because of our special history and unique heritage we are in a position to demonstrate that a people that takes seriously the idea of being covenanted with God can not only thrive in the face of oppression, but can be a source of blessing to its children and its neighbors. It obligates us to build a just and compassionate society throughout the world and especially in the land of Israel where we may teach by example what it means to be a "covenant people, a light unto the nations.

Rabbi Reuven Hammer of Masorti Judaism comments on the excised sentence in the Aleinu prayer mentioned above:

Originally the text read that God has not made us like the nations who "bow down to nothingless and vanity, and pray to an impotent god," ...In the Middle Ages these words were censored, since the church believed they were an insult to Christianity. Omitting them tends to give the impression that the Aleinu teaches that we are both different and better than others. The actual intent is to say that we are thankful that God has enlightened us so that, unlike the pagans, we worship the true God and not idols. There is no inherent superiority in being Jewish, but we do assert the superiority of monotheistic belief over paganism. Although paganism still exists today, we are no longer the only ones to have a belief in one God.

Reform Judaism

Reform Judaism views the concept of chosenness in this way:
Throughout the ages it has been Israel's mission to witness to the Divine in the face of every form of paganism and materialism. We regard it as our historic task to cooperate with all men in the establishment of the kingdom of God, of universal brotherhood, Justice, truth and peace on earth. This is our Messianic goal.

In 1999 the Reform movement stated:

We affirm that the Jewish people are bound to God by an eternal covenant, as reflected in our varied understandings of Creation, Revelation and Redemption....We are Israel, a people aspiring to holiness, singled out through our ancient covenant and our unique history among the nations to be witnesses to God's presence. We are linked by that covenant and that history to all Jews in every age and place.

Criticism of chosenness: Reconstructionist Judaism

Reconstructionist Judaism rejects the concept of chosenness. Its founder, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, said that the idea that God chose the Jewish people leads to racist beliefs among Jews, and thus must be excised from Jewish theology. This rejection of chosenness is made explicit in the movement's siddurim (prayer books).

For example, the original blessing recited before reading from the Torah from contains the phrase "asher bahar banu mikol ha’amim"; "Praised are you Lord our God, ruler of the Universe, who has chosen us from among all peoples by giving us the Torah." The Reconstructionist version is rewritten as "asher kervanu la’avodato", "Praised are you Lord our God, ruler of the Universe, who has drawn us to your service by giving us the Torah."

In the mid-1980s the Reconstructionist movement issued its Platform on Reconstructionism. It states that the idea of chosenness is "morally untenable", because anyone who has such beliefs "implies the superiority of the elect community and the rejection of others.

Not all Reconstructionists accept this view. The newest siddur of the movement, Kol Haneshamah, includes the traditional blessings as an option, and some modern Reconstructionist writers have opined that the traditional formulation is not racist, and should be embraced.

An original prayer book by Reconstructionist feminist poet Marcia Falk, The Book of Blessings has been widely accepted by both Reform and Reconstructionist Jews. Falk rejects all concepts relating to hierarchy or distinction; she sees any distinction as leading to the acceptance of other kinds of distinctions, and thus leading to prejudice. She writes that as a politically liberal feminist, she must reject distinctions made between men and women, homosexuals and heterosexuals, Jews and non-Jews, and to some extent even distinctions between the Sabbath and the other six days of the week. She thus rejects idea of chosenness as unethical. She also rejects Jewish theology in general, and instead holds to a form of religious humanism. Falk writes:

The idea of Israel as God's chosen people...is a key concept in rabbinic Judaism. Yet it is particularly problematic for many Jews today, in that it seems to fly in the face of monotheistic belief that all humanity is created in the divine image - and hence, all humanity is equally loved and valued by God...I find it difficult to conceive of a feminist Judaism that would incorporate it in its teaching: the valuing of one people over and above others is all to analogous to the privileging of one sex over another.

Reconstructionist author Judith Plaskow also criticises the idea of chosenness, for many of the same reasons as Falk. A politically liberal lesbian, Plaskow rejects most distinctions made between men and women, homosexuals and heterosexuals, and Jews and non-Jews. In contrast to Falk, Plaskow does not reject all concepts of differences as inherently leading to unethical beliefs, and holds to a more classical form of Jewish theism than Falk.

A number of responses to these views have been made by Reform and Conservative Jews; they hold that these criticisms are against teachings that do not exist within liberal forms of Judaism, and which are rare in Orthodox Judaism (outside certain Haredi communities, such as Chabad). A separate criticism stems from the very existence of feminist forms of Judaism in all denominations of Judaism, which do not have a problem with the concepts of chosenness.

Charges of racism

Many books and websites promote the idea that Judaism is inherently racist. Hundreds of websites exist run by neo-Nazis, White supremacy advocates, Christian Identity adherents, and radical Islamist groups offer what they claim are authoritative quotes from rabbinic literature, all attempting to prove that Jews hate non-Jews and perceive them as non-human.

These books and websites generally attempt to prove their thesis through two techniques: a) Outright fabrication of quotes and b) Quote-mining, the deliberate sifting of hundreds, or thousands, of years of a literature to find a small group of quotes, and then presenting these quotes out of their historical context in order to falsely present the beliefs of a few people as the beliefs of all members of a religious, ethnic or national group. Writings such as the Talmud, which contain arguments immediately followed by refuting counterarguments, are particularly subject to such abuses.

According to a report by the Anti-Defamation League,

By selectively citing various passages from the Talmud and Midrash, polemicists have sought to demonstrate that Judaism espouses hatred for non-Jews (and specifically for Christians), and promotes obscenity, sexual perversion, and other immoral behavior. To make these passages serve their purposes, these polemicists frequently mistranslate them or cite them out of context (wholesale fabrication of passages is not unknown)...

In distorting the normative meanings of rabbinic texts, anti-Talmud writers frequently remove passages from their textual and historical contexts. Even when they present their citations accurately, they judge the passages based on contemporary moral standards, ignoring the fact that the majority of these passages were composed close to two thousand years ago by people living in cultures radically different from our own. They are thus able to ignore Judaism’s long history of social progress and paint it instead as a primitive and parochial religion.

Those who attack the Talmud frequently cite ancient rabbinic sources without noting subsequent developments in Jewish thought, and without making a good-faith effort to consult with contemporary Jewish authorities who can explain the role of these sources in normative Jewish thought and practice.

Gil Student, an expert on exposing antisemitic misuse of Talmud, writes:

Anti-Talmud accusations have a long history dating back to the 13th century when the associates of the Inquisition attempted to defame Jews and their religion [see Yitzchak Baer, A History of Jews in Christian Spain, vol. I pp. 150-185]. The early material compiled by hateful preachers like Raymond Martini and Nicholas Donin remain the basis of all subsequent accusations against the Talmud. Some are true, most are false and based on quotations taken out of context, and some are total fabrications [see Baer, ch. 4 f. 54, 82 that it has been proven that Raymond Martini forged quotations]. On the Internet today we can find many of these old accusations being rehashed...

Books and websites that charge the Jewish people with collective racism generally rely on the above mentioned fabricated or out-of-context quotes, and ignore explicit statements on the topic from representatives of mainstream Jewish denominations. Each of the modern mainstream denominations of Judaism is on record as opposing any form of racism.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote:

Even as the Jew is moved by his private Sinaitic Covenant with God to embody and preserve the teachings of the Torah, he is committed to the belief that all mankind, of whatever color or creed, is “in His image” and is possessed of an inherent human dignity and worthiness. Man’s singularity is derived from the breath “He [God] breathed into his nostrils at the moment of creation” (Genesis 2:7). Thus, we do share in the universal historical experience, and God’s providential concern does embrace all of humanity.

Such misuse of Talmud by the Soviet authorities was exposed in a 1984 hearing record before the Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Organizations in the US Congress concerning the Soviet Jewry,

This vicious anti-Semitic canard, frequently repeated by other Soviet writers and officials, is based upon the malicious notion that the "Chosen People" of the Torah and Talmud preaches "superiority over other peoples," as well as exclusivity. This was, of course, the principal theme of the notorious Tsarist Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
What those who charge Jews with racism invariably ignore is the emphasis on a lack of Jewish superiority over their neighbors and that converts are regarded as the equal of the born Jew. Indeed, the Talmud states that "the convert is dearer to me than the born Jew," and the greatest of Jewish kings and ancestor of the messiah, David, is recorded as being the grandson of a convert, Ruth.

Notes

See also

External links

Charges of racism

References

  • Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, JTSA, New York, 1988, p.33-34
  • Platform on Reconstructionism Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot, Sept. 1986, pages D, E
  • Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, 1999 Pittsburgh convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis
  • Encyclopedia Judaica, Keter Publishing
  • Ismar Elbogen Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History JPS, 1993. The most thorough academic study of the Jewish liturgy ever written.
  • Marcia Falk The Book of Blessings HarperSanFranciso, 1996
  • Reuven Hammer, Ed. Or Hadash: A Commentary on Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, The Rabbinical Assembly, 2003
  • Nosson Scherman, Ed. The Complete Artscroll Siddur, Mesorah Publications, 2nd edition, 1986

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