קְדשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְי אֱ-להֵיכֶם:
“You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy.” The second of this week’s two parshas, Kedoshim, opens with a commandment – the commandment for us to be holy, or set apart.
This idea of being holy or set apart is one that we see in several places in the Torah and in the rest of the Hebrew Bible. In this week’s Parsha, God tells us to be holy and then God gives us a bunch of commandments. Clearly the way in which we become holy is to follow God’s commandments. Sometimes the commandment to be holy is connected to ritual commandments like observing the Sabbath or keeping kosher or maintaining ritual purity. Sometimes the commandment to be holy is connected to ethical commandments, like not stealing, cursing, or lying. In Exodus chapter 19 we are given a good summary of what God has in mind: “Now therefore, if you will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own treasure among all peoples; for all the earth is mine; And you shall be to me a mamlechet kohanim, a kingdom of priests, and an am kadosh, a holy nation.
And what is it that we are set aside for? The prophet Isaiah says we are set apart to be a light to the nations: “I the Lord have called you in righteousness, and will hold your hand, and will keep you, and give you for a covenant of the people, for a light to the nations (Isaiah 42:6).” In fact Isaiah further says “I will also give you for a light to the nations, that my salvation may be to the end of the earth (Isaiah 49:6).” The prophet says our mission is to light the way to salvation for the entire world.
All of which, of course, adds up to what is known as the doctrine of the election of Israel, or Jews as the “chosen people.”
The concept of the Jews as the “chosen people” is probably one of the most misunderstood religious ideas around. Christian anti-Semitism may have had its roots in the Jews being cast as “Christ killers,” but surely our continuing to view ourselves as some sort of “chosen people” in the face of all evidence to the contrary helped fuel anti-Semitism. The sin of deicide was compounded by our stubborn sin of chutzpah.
But what does it mean to be a “chosen people?” Is the concept of the “chosen people” one that still has value, or is it an idea whose time has passed in a more egalitarian-minded world?
Traditional sources clearly and unambiguously attribute a unique and special relationship between God and Israel. Solomon Schechter says that God is not only Israel’s God, but also “their father, their strength, their shepherd, their hope, their salvation, their safety; they are his people, his children, his firstborn son, his treasure, dedicated to his name, which is sacrilege to profane. In brief,” Schechter says, “there is not a single endearing appellant in the language, such as brother, sister, bride, mother, lamb, or eye, which is not, according to the rabbis, applied by the Scriptures to express this intimate relation between God and his people.” The prophet Isaiah says “what is God’s name? El Shaddai, Tzevaot. What is the name of his son? Israel!” While God is God to the entire world, the rabbis say “God is to help in the support of all mankind, but still more of Israel.”
Most rabbis in the Talmudic era say that this relationship with God is unconditional. In the very beginning of the book of Isaiah we read “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the Lord has spoken, I have reared and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me.” The message that comes through from the prophet is clearly that Israel has been like a stubborn and rebellious child. The parent, God, disciplines the child reluctantly. God waits and prays for his child to repent. But ultimately, the relationship is parental – the love remains, the potential for reconciliation always remains, even when the child has gone far astray. This relationship is lovingly used by our great Rabbi Akiva in one of the prayers that is central to our high holiday liturgy – Avinu Malkenu. Avinu malkenu, chatanu l’fanecha, our Father, our King, we have sinned before you. Avinu malkenu, s’lach umchal kchol avonoteinu, our Father, our King, forgive and pardon us for all of our transgressions.
Our chosen-ness shows up in the liturgy in a number of other places as well. In the blessing before the morning Shema we recite כי א-ל פועל ישועות אתה, ובנו בחרת מכל עם ולשון for You are the God of deliverance, and You have chosen us from among all peoples and languages, and You have drawn us near to Your great name in truth. There is a blessing we recite every morning that we also recite when called up to the Torah for an aliyah: “Blessed are you God, our God, ruler of the universe, אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים ונתן לנו את תורתו, who has chosen us from among all the nations and given us His Torah.
In the Zohar, R. Abba says “Blessed are the children of Israel whom God has chosen above all nations and brought near to Himself.” The Zohar connects the chosen people, Israel, with the holy land, Israel, through the Torah: “Observe how God has promised Israel in many places to make them worthy of the world to come, as He has not chosen for his portion any other people or language, but only Israel. It was for this purpose that He gave them the Torah of truth, by whose means they may live virtuously and learn the ways of the Holy One, blessed be He, so that they may inherit the Holy Land; for whoever is thought worthy of the Holy Land has a portion in the world to come.”
In the Talmud the idea of Israel as the chosen people is carried to an extreme that to modern sensitivities seems almost absurd. It’s one thing to say Israel was chosen to be a light to the nations, a gift to the world; the rabbi Resh Lakish turns that on its head and says not that Israel was created for the world, but that the entire world – the entire universe – was only created for the sake of Israel. In the Talmud (Brachot 32b) Resh Lakish says: “The community of Israel said before the Holy One, blessed be He: Sovereign of the Universe, when a man takes a second wife after his first, he still remembers the deeds of the first. You have both forsaken me and forgotten me! The Holy One, blessed be He, answered her: My daughter, I have created twelve constellations in the firmament, and for each constellation I have created thirty hosts, and for each host I have created thirty legions, and for each legion I have created thirty cohorts, and for each cohort I have created thirty maniples, and for each maniple I have created thirty camps, and to each camp I have attached three hundred and sixty-five thousands of myriads of stars, corresponding to the days of the solar year, and all of them I have created only for your sake, and you say, You have forgotten me and forsaken me! Can a woman forsake her sucking child?
Many modern thinkers are very troubled by the election of Israel and the concept of the “chosen people,” perhaps few more so than the late Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan. Kaplan is especially disparaging to Resh Lakish’s notion of Israel as in some supernatural relationship with God and the world: he said “the modern man who is used to thinking in terms of humanity as a whole can no longer reconcile himself to the notion of any people, or body of believers, constituting a type of society which may be described as belonging to a supernatural order.” In other words, don’t go thinking you’re so special.
I can understand someone coming from a rationalist frame of reference not being enamored with way out supernatural descriptions like the one of Resh Lakish. But I thought that everyone in the Jewish world accepted at least a mild and benevolent notion of the chosen people. So I was surprised when earlier in the week, in a discussion with some Reconstructionist colleagues, I found that many Reconstructionist rabbis are opposed to any notion of the Jews as the “chosen people.”
In researching why, I found that Kaplan was opposed to even a more mild picture of chosen-ness, as he wrote “from an ethical standpoint, it is deemed inadvisable, to say the least, to keep alive ideas of race or national superiority, inasmuch as they are known to exercise a divisive influence, generating suspicion and hatred.” Kaplan sees the whole notion of a chosen people as an anachronism, an outdated concept that has outlived its usefulness.
Since Reconstructionist doctrine doesn’t hold by the Jews as “the chosen people,” they reflect this in their siddur. The blessing they recite on being called up for an aliyah replaces asher bachar banu mikal ha’amim, who has chosen us from among all the nations, with asher kervanu la’avodato, who has drawn us towards Him with his service.
But are those our only options? To believe that the universe revolves around Israel, or to completely excise the concept of the chosen people from our minds and prayer books?
Clearly, there are other options that strike a balance between these two extremes. For one thing, if we look at many of the places in the Torah where God commands us to be kadosh, to be holy, to be a nation set apart, it is immediately followed by a set of commandments. What makes us chosen then is not anything innate in the Jewish race or in the Jewish soul, but rather in our choosing to follow the Torah. We choose God as much as God chooses us.
And of course, anyone can choose to follow the Torah – so becoming part of the “chosen people” is an option that is open to anyone. This is powerfully demonstrated in a teaching of Maimonides. A convert once wrote Rambam and asked “when I pray the Amidah, should I say “our God and God of our ancestors? But it’s not the God of my ancestors.” Rambam replied that yes, he could pray as other Jews pray, calling out to “our God, God of our ancestors, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” because Abraham is the spiritual father of all who choose to follow the Jewish faith.
But for many people that is not much of an answer. Yes, you can choose to be part of the nation, but it still smacks excessively of being exclusionary. But as Solomon Schechter points out, “this doctrine of election – and it is difficult to see how any revealed religion can dispense with it – was not quite of so exclusive a nature as is commonly imagined. For it is only the privilege of the first – born which the rabbis claim for Israel, that they are the first in God’s kingdom, not the exclusion of other nations.” So Schechter would see our chosen-ness as a kind of “first among equals.”
Schechter said it is difficult to see how any revealed religion could dispense with the doctrine of election. A revealed religion – a religion which is based on the idea that God revealed some special knowledge to someone or to some group of people – will pretty much automatically think that there must be something special about why they were chosen for this important privilege. Many Christians believe they inherited the “chosen-ness” of the Jews, and are now God’s favorites, and the Jews are no longer “chosen” because they rejected Jesus. Many Christians think of themselves as far more “chosen” than Jews do – many Christians believe that the only path to salvation is through Jesus, everyone else is going to Hell. The Catholic Church holds that the church itself, as an institution, is elected for a special role. Muslims also believe they have the “true” word of God, and Jews and Christians have distorted versions.
But just because one person is chosen, just because one person is special, that does not mean there aren’t other people who are also special. I have five daughters, ken einah harah, and when I tell one that she is really special to me, it doesn’t mean that any of the others are any less special.
The Talmud even speaks of this, and says different people are chosen for different things. The Jews may have been chosen to bring the knowledge of God to the nations, but the Romans were chosen to be great builders and build roads and aqueducts and bridges. I’m reminded of a t-shirt I once saw which I really liked. It read “I am a completely unique individual – just like everyone else.” We are unique and special, and other people are also unique and special.
In fact, in this morning’s Haftorah, the prophet Amos taught us exactly that lesson: God tells the people through his prophet Amos “True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt; but I also brought the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Arameans from Kir.” God bluntly says “To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians!”
When I teach the idea of the chosen people in my Introduction to Judaism class, what I teach is that the Jewish people were not chosen for special privileges, but rather for special responsibilities. You don’t have to be Jewish to have a place in heaven. Anyone who follows the seven Noachide laws – which basically say to be an ethical monotheist – is a righteous Gentile who has a place in the world to come. So to be a Jew doesn’t mean you’re chosen for the express lane when you get to heaven – rather it means you’re chosen to fulfill a particular mission or destiny in this world. In fact, if you’re Jewish it’s harder to get into heaven: instead of being obligated to follow seven Noachide laws, you have to follow 613 commandments!
Rabbi Michael Lerner says that since we were one of the first peoples to understand that human beings are created in the image of God this conferred upon us an obligation. Lerner writes “but the chosen-ness is an obligation: it immediately confers upon us the responsibility to become witnesses to the possibility of a different logic in the world, to treat every human being as created in the image of God, to build a community that is testimony to that possibility, and spread the word.”
In fact, for me, is why I want to keep the idea of the “chosen people” alive and well. There are Jews who are tired of being the chosen people, who want Israel to be just like everyone else. But for me that’s not enough. I want Israel to be an exemplar – for me it’s not enough to say “well, Israel is better than Syria
or Saudi Arabia.” It helps invigorate us with a sense of mission if we believe we should be a beacon of morality and good living, l’or goyim, to light the way among the nations, a role model to other people. And I have no problem with other people wanting to consider themselves “chosen” as well.
Let’s have a grand and glorious competition – a competition to see which chosen people can lead the world to world peace, a world of harmony, a world of love and brotherhood, a world of justice, a world where all live in peace, prosperity and security,