A Chosen People, for Better or Worse (Ideas #131)

The Jews’ claim to being a chosen people makes many people ill at ease. In fact, it made the Reconstructionist movement so uncomfortable that it decided to do away with this concept altogether.


The idea that G-d would treat one nation with more interest than others certainly goes against the grain of modern thinking about religion. But it is actually not a new problem – more universalistic religions have long seen the Jews’ claim as arrogant and self-aggrandizing. The Koran, for example, advises its adherents as follows: The Jews … say, “We are G-d’s children and his favorites. “Say [back to them], “… you are people just like others.” (5:18)


It cannot be denied that classical Judaism sees the Jews as different than other nations. (Then again, it sees all nations as having a unique personality in the same way as each individual has a unique personality.) Still, that is not really what troubles most people. What truly upsets them is the assumption that when Jews say they are chosen, they really mean that they are better. It is true that the kabbalistic tradition, spread so widely by Chassidut, has led many to think that this is exactly what is intended. The rabbis, however, were apparently not so certain of this. In fact, as we shall see, some saw being chosen as implying just the opposite. 


In the Talmud (Beitza 25b), we read that the reason G-d gave the Jewish people the Torah is that otherwise there would not have been a single nation able to defend themselves against the Jews. That is to say that the only way they could be kept in line was to make sure that they would be restrained by the observance and study of all these extra laws that other nations did not require. Lest we miss the point, Rashi (in the Ein Ya’akov edition) explains that the Jews were assigned the Torah to subdue their natural wickedness. In fact, the Talmud continues and compares the Jews to wild dogs.


Perhaps this is an expression of mikimee meafar dal, that G-d raises the poor from the dust – meaning to show that if the spiritually lowly Jews could become close to G-d, then any nation can. Alternatively, it may be that only an extremely stubborn nation (the Talmud’s discussion above also describes the Jews as the most audacious people) would be able to withstand the pressures of a world constantly trying to get them to “go with the flow.” Whatever its explanation, it should give us pause the next time we would like to think about what makes the Jews such an unusual nation.


I don’t mean to pretend that this necessarily represents a dominant view among the rabbis. However, I think it is highly significant that such a view not only existed but was printed for all to see. In my mind, the most important thing is not coming to a conclusion about the reason we are chosen. Much more significant is to appreciate what the rabbis were after. Rather than displaying national hubris or cheap nationalism, the rabbis were interested in seeking an accurate understanding of ourselves. They understood that being human means having national weaknesses as well as national strengths. And no matter how we are to understand it, they did not see chosenness as some sort of blanket pardon that allows us to ignore our national vices.


Thus, if the rabbis were willing to praise the Jewish people for its virtues, they were also willing to squarely censure it for its faults. In this context, as well as in others, they were willing to follow the Bible’s lead and look self-critically at ourselves. For the point is not to wallow in self-glorification but to strive to improve upon who we are. And knowing that self improvement begins with looking for our faults and not for our merits, is perhaps the greater part of the Jews’ true excellence.