Yet it was to your fathers that the Lord was drawn in His love for them, so that He chose you, their lineal descendants, from among all peoples — as is now the case. Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For the Lord your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. — You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Devarim 10: 15-19).
Chosen to befriend the stranger,
as we were strangers once.
Chosen to uphold the poor,
the widow and her child.
Chosen, for the world is broken,
to lift up scattered sparks.
Chosen to remove the husk
that suffocates the heart.
Chosen not for who we are
but who we might become.
Chosen to receive Torah.
In Parashat Ekev, Moses reminds the people that God has chosen this particular nation for a specific purpose: to uproot idolatry and serve Him as a holy people, living by His commandments.
Immediately following Moses’s declaration that the Children of Israel have been chosen by God, he tellingly continues with an exhortation to “circumcise their hearts” which is understood to mean to remove the barrier that blocks them from absorbing God’s teachings. Moses continues, reminding them that God is an incorruptible judge who upholds a compassionate society and tends to the disenfranchised, and he concludes this chapter with the admonition that the people too should befriend the stranger, remembering that they once were strangers in Egypt.
The notion of Jewish chosenness is one that engenders discomfort in many modern readers.
In her book The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah, Dr Ellen Frankel addresses “the mixed blessing of chosenness.” She notes that the claim to specialness has singled the Jewish people out for resentment, censure and persecution. She says “Our broken world still needs God’s Torah as its repair manual. That’s why the traditional blessing for an aliyah [laTorah] still echoes this biblical verse proclaiming that God “chose us from among all the peoples and gave us the Torah.” ” She notes some modern attempts to address contemporary discomfort with the concept of chosenness. One of these retranslates this blessing: instead of “chose us from among all the peoples and gave us the Torah” the reformulated rendition says “chose us from among all the peoples by giving us the Torah” hence intimating that the Jewish people is special only in its possession of the Torah. Others, Dr Frankel notes, go further by replacing the phrase “Who chose us from among all peoples” with “Who has drawn us to Your service [by giving us the Torah].” She adds that some of the early Zionists totally repudiated the singular burden of chosenness and maintained that the antidote to anti-Semitism was for Jews to deny their chosenness and become a nation like all others in their own land.
However, Dr Frankel notes in conclusion, “But many of those who settled in Israel reappropriated for themselves the biblical prophets’ legacy of ethical vocation, a variation of chosenness. In our own ways, each one of us must choose how to serve as chosen advocates of God’s teachings.”
From earliest times, the concept of the chosenness of the Jewish people never contradicted the belief that God has a relationship with other peoples. Judaism understands that God has a relationship with all mankind. Both biblical and rabbinic texts support this view: Moses refers to the “God of the spirits of all flesh,” (B’midbar 27:16), and the Tanach (Hebrew Bible) also identifies prophets outside the community of Israel. The Mishnah tells us that “Humanity was produced from one man, Adam, to show God’s greatness. When a man mints a coin in a press, each coin is identical. But when the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, creates people in the form of Adam not one is similar to any other.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) The Mishnah teaches further that anyone who saves (or destroys) one single human, not Jewish, life, has saved (or destroyed) an entire world. The Tosefta (a collection of post-Talmudic discourses) also teaches: “Righteous people of all nations have a share in the world to come” (Sanhedrin 105a).
It is clear that this chosenness with which God endows the Jewish people is connected with ethical obligations. It is understood that Jews have obligations exclusive to them, while non-Jews receive from God other covenants with concomitant responsibilities.
Thus, Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits (1921-1999), former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, propounds his (Modern Orthodox) understanding of chosenness: “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, another 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)…”
The Conservative movement states the following: “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 blessing 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”. (Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, JTSA, New York, 1988.)
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. ” (Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, adopted at the 1999 Pittsburgh Convention, Central Conference of American Rabbis.)
Finally, Reconstructionist Judaism rejects the concept of chosenness. Its founder, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983) believed that the idea that God chose the Jewish people leads to racist beliefs among Jews, and thus must be expunged from Jewish theology.