What Does it Really Mean To Be “The Chosen People”?

May 22, 2015Aron Hirt-Manheimer

On the first day of Shavuot, we read in Exodus 19 that God declares to the Israelites assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai:

“If you 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… the people answered as one, saying, ‘All that God has spoken we will do.’”

To this very day, before reading the Torah, we bless God “who chose us from among all the nations.”

Yet Jews have always been somewhat ambivalent about this special distinction imposed upon us for reasons that remain a mystery. God chose the Jews but would chastise them as a “stiff-necked people” who were no more righteous or deserving than other peoples. As the Prophet Amos declared in God’s name, ‘True, I brought you from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor” (Amos: 9:7).  What a come-down for the Israelites to be equated with the Philistines, their most bitter and powerful enemy!

Chosenness is not about merit; it is about responsibility. Jews live with the ever-present and inescapable discomfort caused by the conscience of a people expected by God – or by whatever inner force drives them – to be at the creative and moral vanguard of humankind.

Some have even called chosenness an affliction, for it has invited mockery of Jews in every age. The Romans derided Jesus by forcing him to wear a crown of thorns. Nineteen centuries later, the Nazis ridiculed Jewish claims to chosenness by taking fiendish delight in treating Jews as less than human.

When news of the Shoah reached one Hasidic rabbi in Baltimore (the father of my esteemed teacher, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, z'l), he declared to his congregation, “We should go back to Mount Sinai as a delegation and say, ‘Dear God, we, your chosen people, have carried your Torah around for 3,000 years. We have come now to give it back to you. We implore you, God, to choose somebody else. Let them carry the burden.’”

It remains a mystery why God would set this small tribe apart and expect so much from them on so stormy a journey.

The social and political theorist Sir Isaiah Berlin argued that the Jews would have been better off becoming a normal nation. He added a striking metaphor: The healthy oyster, he said, lives and dies in a state of normalcy and never produces a pearl. Only the oyster with an irritant embedded inside its shell can form a pearl. Berlin asked, if able to choose, wouldn’t an oyster prefer not to host the pearl? So it is with the Jews. Is persecution by our enemies worth the price of producing a disproportionate number of exceptionally brilliant men and women?     

What benefit, then, have Jews derived from thinking of themselves as God’s chosen people? Perhaps the biggest plus is that it has elevated us in our own minds. We are not merely another obscure little people in the global human family. Since Sinai, we have viewed ourselves as central players on the world stage.

To be sure, most modern Jews are offended and embarrassed at the mere suggestion that Jews are better or worse than anyone else. Yet they are not adverse to letting everyone know that one in seven Nobel Prize winners are Jewish, a remarkable number given that Jews account for less than 0.2% of the world’s population.

The sense of chosenness is so deeply embedded in the Jewish psyche that it persists even among those who no longer believe in the faith of their ancestors. Paradoxically, while they would deny that Jews are any different from their gentile neighbors, they cannot bring themselves to totally abandon an idea that has defined Jewish existence since the Israelites encountered God at the foot of Mount Sinai.

We Jews continue to make ourselves gloriously miserable by striving to be worthy of our chosenness.

This post was adapted from Jews: The Essence and Character of a People (HarperCollins) by Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg and Aron Hirt-Manheimer.

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