At Torah Study a few weeks ago, several people took offense at the concept of Israel as God’s chosen people. My response: yes, the Torah portrays Israel as chosen. But as I write in GOD’S OTHERS, going beyond a surface reading reveals just what Israel is chosen for.
Throughout the biblical narrative, all nations remain free to honor God in any monotheistic form. They are bound only by the seven Noahide laws, which include prohibitions against worshipping idols, killing, robbery and incest/adultery. Israel, on the other hand, must adhere to 613 commandments—a matter entailing not privilege but responsibility.
The late Israel scholar Nehama Leibowitz comments that, “the Almighty did not release Israel from the burden of persecution [in Egypt] in order to set them free from all burden or responsibility. He wished them to become free to accept another burden — that of the kingdom of Heaven — of Torah and Mitzvot.” The “yoke of the Torah” binds Israel to righteousness and adherence to the highest standards of justice. This charges Israel with the duty to impel—rather than compel—humanity to notice, admire and emulate its example.
As such, the chosen people do not rule. They serve. And that can bring consequences. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, the father of modern German Orthodoxy, points out that if God grants the priest extraordinary rights and privileges, God also places him under greater scrutiny. Hirsch imagines God saying, “The more a person stands out from among the people as a teacher and a leader, the less will I show him indulgence when that person does wrong.”
What about other nations and religions? Rabbi Joel Rembaum emphasizes “that YHVH [God’s unpronounceable name—DP] maintains relations with all nations, with regard to whom God can act either as judge or as redeemer.” God’s approval is earned through conduct. One can claim no privilege simply for being born a Jew. Moreover, right conduct is available to all humanity.
True, the Sages of the Talmud railed against the nations’ improper behavior. They found many Roman and Greek practices abhorrent. But they did not—indeed could not—denigrate the basic human worth of non-Jews who also are created in God’s image. In fact, any society, no matter how wicked, may produce “God’s others” who have a relationship with the Divine since all human beings contain the Divine spark. God did not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), the mythic prototype of evil, because no single righteous person lived there but because as many as ten righteous people could not be found.
Understandably, Jews living in twenty-first century, egalitarian San Francisco feel uneasy about the concept of chosenness even if the Bible makes it explicit. But a careful reading of the text along with ancient and modern commentaries should allay those apprehensions. They demonstrate that Jews are not “better than” but “more burdened than”—which removes one weight from their shoulders and replaces it with another.
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