Kaplan, Chosenness & Us

When I was in my late 20s, before I knew much about Reconstructionist Judaism, I had stopped saying most of the first paragraph of the Aleinu. When attending services, I’d chant “Aleinu l’shabe’akh) … leyotzer bereshit,” then shut my mouth, and pick up again on “Va’anakhnu korim.” I knew enough Hebrew to feel profoundly uncomfortable thanking God for not making me like other people. Imagine my delight when, as I was reading about Mordecai Kaplan and Reconstructionism in preparation for my first visit to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, I discovered that there was a movement that had completely removed the idea of the Jews being a “chosen” people from the liturgy!

In the 30 years since, I have remained a farbrente (fervent) Kaplanian when it comes to the idea of chosenness. While many in our movement have a fairly good sense of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s ideas about Jewish peoplehood or God as Power rather than Person, fewer seem to be familiar — or even comfortable with — his adamant rejection of this core Jewish idea. I’d like to revisit his arguments here and explore the ways in which Kaplan’s innovation is needed now more than ever.

Kaplan brilliantly demolishes the idea of chosenness in The Future of the American Jew (FAJ), first published in 1948. While you might imagine that his rejection of a supernatural God who could “choose” one nation over others would form the crux of his argument, it is not the tack that he chooses. Instead, Kaplan applies his formula of “revaluation” to the concept: exploring what the idea of chosenness historically meant to the Jewish people, and then deciding whether or not there are core elements of the concept that can be “reconstructed” into something good and useful for modern Jews.

Kaplan argues that the biblical conception of chosenness was similar to many ancient communities’ understanding of themselves as a distinct people at the center of history. He notes that there was nothing particularly grand about the Israelites’ being chosen, quoting from Deuteronomy: “Not because you were greater than any other people did the Lord set his heart on you and choose you — for you were the smallest of all people.” He goes on to say that “the assumption of being God’s chosen people was at first merely a way of expressing Israel’s self-awareness as a distinct and unique people” (FAJ p. 212).

Kaplan explores how this idea took new forms after the Babylonian exile and into the rabbinic period, where possession of Torah became the foremost sign of election and privilege:

“Throughout the period of the Second Commonwealth, the accent in the doctrine of election was not on national self-awareness as such, but on being the most privileged of all peoples, by virtue of possessing God’s Torah” (p. 212).

It was with the rise of Christianity that Kaplan sees our current understanding of and emphasis on the Jews as the Chosen People emerging. He argues that:

“Christianity … has gone far beyond Judaism in utilizing the doctrine of election to affirm the divine prerogative of the Church. … It set itself the task of realigning mankind into the chosen and the damned. … In this process, the Jewish people was singled out as the people which, having at one time been the elect of God, repudiated Him and thereby became a people accursed and damned” (p. 213).

The Jewish claim of chosenness became a defensive response for the sake of Jewish survival:

“In the face of this ruthless attack on its reputation, there was little else for the Jewish people to do but to elaborate its traditional claim to superiority as to counter effectively the claim to superiority advanced by the Church.” (p. 213). [1]

With Emancipation and the Enlightenment, these earlier bases for belief in the election of Israel were undermined, and the Maskilim (Jewish proponents for enlightenment) and Reformers proposed new interpretations of the idea of chosenness. These included the idea that Jews possess “hereditary traits which qualify them to be superior to the rest of the world in the realm of the religious and the ethical”; the claim that the Jews were the first in history to formulate religious and ethical ideals that have become universal ideals, or that they possess the “truest form” of those ideals; and the idea that Jews have a “mission” to communicate these ideals to the rest of the world. Kaplan disposes of these rationales one by one, as noxious, racialized claims to superiority, historically inaccurate or sheer arrogance.

Ultimately, Kaplan concludes that the idea of chosenness is un-reconstructable. There are two elements to his argument. The first is that it is impossible to honestly make the claim that Jews are the “chosen” people without implying Jewish superiority. Such a claim flies in the face of the fundamental democratic affirmation of the equality and intrinsic worth of every human being. In addressing those who express some qualms about the concept of chosenness but refuse to remove it from the Jewish lexicon, Kaplan states:

“By no kind of dialectics is it possible to remove the odium of comparison from any reinterpretation of an idea which makes invidious distinctions between one people and another. … No one can question the fact that the belief of being divinely elect has long been associated in the Jewish mind with consecration and responsibility. However, we cannot ignore the other implications of that belief, especially those which are often sharply stressed, as in the Alenu and the Havdalah prayers. In the latter, the invidiousness of the distinction between Israel and the nations is emphasized by being compared with the distinction between light and darkness. It is that invidiousness which is highly objectionable and should be eliminated from our religion.” (p. 217f, emphasis in original).

It is impossible to honestly make the claim that Jews are the “chosen” people without implying Jewish superiority.

The second element is Kaplan’s rejection of the concept of chosenness as necessary for Jewish continuity:

“Jewish survival depends entirely upon our achieving a moral realism which, on the one hand, will wean us away from the futile compensatory mechanism of imagined superiority, and, on the other, will enable us to find the basis for intrinsic worth of Jewish life in the daily round of contemporary living” (p. 228).

Kaplan’s new “basis” for Jewish life is the idea of “vocation.” “Vocation” implies that the Jewish people have a distinct and unique task in the achievement of human salvation, while affirming that other peoples have such a calling as well. This is what we emphasize in the Reconstructionist version of the Aleinu when we replace the negation of other peoples’ destinies with gratitude for having been given a “Torah of truth,” our particular path to universal truth.

The doctrine of vocation, according to Kaplan, is not only ethically superior to the doctrine of election, but functionally so as well:

“If we Jews would accept [the program for the ‘reconstruction’ of Jewish life] or some similar program, as our vocation, we would not need to have our morale bolstered up by such a spiritual anachronism as extolling God for ‘not having made us like the other nations.’ Instead, we would find our calling as a people so absorbing, so satisfying and so thrilling that we would have every reason in the world to thank God for having manifested [God’s] love to us … and for having rendered us worthy to be identified with [God’s] great and holy name.” (p. 230).

Kaplan’s arguments against chosenness still ring true. He articulated his stance before the founding of the State of Israel, and I can only imagine his horror at the ascension of an Israeli political party dedicated to Jewish supremacy. But sadly, it is not only Itamar Ben-Gvir and his ilk who embrace the superiority of the Jewish people over others. When every Jewish life lost is experienced as a national tragedy, while the deaths of innocent Palestinians are treated as unfortunate (or even necessary) “collateral damage” in pursuit of Jewish security, Kaplan’s warning of the “invidiousness of the distinction between Israel and the nations” echoes loudly.  When white Christian nationalists in the United States point to Israel as their model of an ethnocracy to be emulated, we who are Kaplan’s heirs should shiver. When those dedicated to undermining democracy around the globe rely on “invidious distinctions” between ethnic groups or religions to bolster authoritarianism, we need to understand how far-seeing Kaplan was in his adamant rejection of the very notion of “chosenness.”

When every Jewish life lost is experienced as a national tragedy while the deaths of innocent Palestinians are treated as unfortunate (or even necessary) “collateral damage” in pursuit of Jewish security, Kaplan’s warning of the “invidiousness of the distinction between Israel and the nations” echoes loudly.

We are still engaged in the holy vocation of shaping a Judaism that is “satisfying and thrilling.” We are blessed to be building spiritual and ethical pathways that bring meaning to individuals and promise transformation on a larger scale. We would do well to heed Kaplan’s call to replace the notion of chosenness with a commitment to articulating the “intrinsic worth of Jewish life.” Let us put all traces of “invidious comparison” behind us and instead bless the Source of Life that has “brought us close to Its service,” in all the ways that we are privileged to serve.

Based on an essay in “RRA Connection,” Spring 2023

2 Responses

  1. Dear Rabbi Spitzer,
    Thank you for articulating the Reconstructionist position re: this tricky belief/theory. Your words make so much sense to me. I have found it especially painful when Jewish people focus only on Jewish losses in the awful Gaza war, as if other peoples are inconsequential. As a result, I read your essay with much relief.
    Ellen Todras

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