Chosenness Is a Dangerous Belief

The idea of the chosen people is one of the most dangerous and misapplied concepts in Jewish tradition.

Ideally, more difficult facets of our tradition may not only be defanged, but perhaps can be harvested for some deeper, better meaning that might be put forth to replace the dangerous interpretations. It was Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (z”l), as I recall, who characterized the most difficult aspects of the Torah as anvils, which we must strike with hammers (based on TB Sanhedrin 34a). When our hammers strike the anvil, they together create sparks of Torah which may yet illuminate our path.

Any simple or literal application of words of Torah inevitably involves raising human ideas and institutions of that moment to the level of the Divine. That conveys neither truthfulness nor faithfulness to tradition, but is one definition of idolatry.

Literal and simplistic use of the concept of chosenness leads to division and dissension within the realm of humanity. We claim to speak of God’s oneness, linked to a universal hope of justice, compassion and peace (shalom). By contrast, the claim of chosenness leads us away from that shalom, which is an expression within humanity of Divine unity Itself. For us to make a claim about God that leads to enmity and divisiveness among God’s children might be the closest we get to a statement of blasphemy.

Yet precisely because the claim of chosenness can be so dangerous, we cannot afford to leave it alone. Judaism is a universalistic way of a particular people, and it is in terms of this particularistic path to universalism that we must understand chosenness. The teachings of Torah are rooted in real human experience; they, therefore, have real power. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s implication was that Jewish sacred ideas, teachings and practices were inseparable from the Jewish people. The sacred as we understand it exists and is expressed in our world through us. Israel, Torah and God are one.

We hear that as we keep the Divine covenant, we can be for God a treasure among all the peoples (all a paraphrase of Exodus 19:5-6).

A claim about God that leads to enmity and divisiveness among God’s children might be the closest we get to a statement of blasphemy.

Near the end of his life, Kaplan attempted to describe such teachings as “A Religion of Ethical Nationhood,” in a book by the same name, overtly connecting who we are with what we teach.

This unity of our being and our teaching, the unity of the people of Israel with the Torah of Israel pointing towards the God of Israel, constitutes for me the spiritual reality underlying all the words about chosenness.

At the same time, there is no reason to think that we Jews are the only people through whom Divine wisdom is filtered. Our own Torah describes all of humanity created in the image of God, into whom was breathed the breath of Divine spirit.

We claim a close and intimate particular relationship with the Divine. But for us to claim exclusive relationship crosses into an explosive falsity, akin to saying that a parent could never love deeply more than one child at a time.

Yet because words of chosenness are so often misapplied and so demonstrably dangerous, we are right not to treat them casually. Responsible spiritual leaders would refrain from including them in regular community prayers.

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