Thoughts to Ponder, Number 17
30 Tishrei, 5760; 10 October, 1999

The Chosen People? The Art of Moral Irritation

One of the most disturbing claims ever made by any group of people is the one Jews make when, quoting the Bible, they insist upon being called the "Chosen People." For nearly four thousand years, Jews have upheld the belief that they are God's elect, the "apple of His eye," His most beloved and favored nation. This claim sounds like prejudice of the highest order, making the vast majority of mankind into second-class citizens.

Aside from Biblical references, the Jewish tradition emphasizes Jewish particularity wherever possible. Jews are not to marry non-Jews. Judaism does not missionize or go out to win converts; rather it discourages all but the most sincere. Kosher food laws limit social interaction. Even when living amidst their non-Jewish neighbors, Jews have always striven to live on their own, dressing differently, speaking their own language, and abiding by their own unique customs, prayers, and culture. The famous English author, George Bernard Shaw, accused the Jews of arrogance and said that as long as they insisted upon their chosenness they had no right to object to the monstrous way the Germans had killed six million of their people - they had brought it on themselves. H. G. Wells called the Jewish claim "a hindrance to world unity." Protestant theologians spoke about the "haughtiness of Jewish belief."

The Dignity of All Man

With all this said, it may strike us as paradoxical that traditional Judaism has gone out of its way to stress the dignity of the entire human race. In the Creation chapter (long before the Jews come on the scene), the Bible tells us that all men are created in the image of God (Genesis, ch. 1). The prophet's words are clear: "Have we not all one Father; has not one God created us?" (Malachi 2:10). In Talmudic times, Rabbi Meir stated that Adam was created from dust that had been collected from all corners of the earth so that no one nation could claim the distinction of being better or having cradled mankind.

While not encouraging conversion, Judaism does insist that all people can become Jews. Some of the greatest Jews in history were converts or descendants of converts: The great king David comes from the line of Ruth, perhaps the most famous convert in all history (see the Book of Ruth). Rabbi Akiva, Shemayah, and Avtalyon, some of the greatest Sages in the Jewish tradition, all traced themselves to converted forefathers. The famous commentator and sage, Onkelos, who was the Roman Emperor's nephew, converted. Most surprising is the insistence of Jewish tradition to allow members of the nation of the Amalek, the archenemy of the Israelites, to convert once they show a sincere desire to do so.

The Paradox

The contradiction is obvious. Judaism wants to secure the Jewish people's uniqueness and chosenness. But it also wants to uphold the equality of all men, the dignity of all human beings. In fact, it declares that this paradox is the cornerstone upon which all traditional Judaism stands.


Before trying to address this paradox, we must ask an important question: Does historical reality confirm the unique status of the Jewish people? The answer is clear: Yes. The cold historical facts prove that the Jewish people stand out in three matters:

1. They experienced a most miraculous survival.
2. They have made incredible contributions to civilization, totally out of proportion to their numbers.
3. They made a totally unprecedented return to their homeland after nearly two thousand years of exile.

1. The Most Irritating People

Throughout history, Jews were surrounded by enemies who were committed to destroy them. They waged war after war to survive. They were sent into exile after exile. Beaten, killed, tortured, they were expelled from one country to another, only to find another disaster awaiting them. They became the scapegoat for national and social hysteria. Still, they survived. Discriminated against, consistently outlawed, the oldest nation on the planet, the Jews were constantly dying . . . yet never died. Outlasting all their enemies, they violated all the rules of history, and for this reason they became either the most irritating or the most celebrated people of the world.

2. Their Contributions

Jews brought monotheism to the world, the most powerful idea man has ever heard. Since that day the universe has never been the same. The gift of the Bible turned all deeds into moral actions, teaching ethics and justice. Neither Christianity nor Islam would exist without the Jews. The world's legal systems are based on "the Book," no international or American law would be what it is today without them. In later centuries, Jews contributed to science, literature, music, finance, medicine and art - all beyond anyone's expectations of a small, tortured people. They were involved in many social revolutions, often becoming the leaders and thinkers. They have produced great rabbis and sages, and even those who were on the road to assimilation revolutionized the world: Spinoza, Freud, Marx, Einstein.

3. The Return In 1948

Jews managed to free themselves of their nearly two-thousand-year exile to return to the land of their forefathers. Just moments after they had experienced their worst destruction, the Holocaust, in which they lost 6,000,000 of their fellow Jews, they picked up their bags and "went home." At a time when the whole world declared that there was no longer a future for the Jew, the State of Israel appeared - as if from nowhere. The Jews' return to their homeland is totally unprecedented. No nation after such a long, painful exile has successfully returned to its homeland and, violating all principles of conformity, built a modern state.

The First Jew

So Jews are indeed "a nation apart." Their uniqueness is beyond question, but does this have anything to do with the Biblical claim of chosenness? To answer this, we must turn to the Bible itself, in Genesis, chapter 11. The generation of the Tower of Babel represented a low point in human history. Mankind sought to build a tower high enough to reach the heavens and challenge God. For the first time, a whole generation stood up and rebelled against God as a matter of principle. While earlier generations had done much evil, they recognized their actions as such. The Tower's generation, however, brought a new ideology into the world, one of extreme secularism in which God was deliberately ignored and in which evil was admired. This new belief system saw nothing wrong with immorality - it elevated it to the new world order.

One man understood the inherent dangers of an ideology in which God was exiled and where immorality, corruption, and sexual depravity became the norm. He became in the world as "Avraham the Ivri" (the Hebrew). By "crossing" (ivri), and standing on the "other side," he "challenged" the world and became the first Jew in history. An eternal moral protestor who taught his fellow man what they did not want to hear but had to know: It is not what one has which counts but what one is! It is not what man wants to do but what he ought to do, that transforms man into a being of supreme greatness. Assisted by Sara his wife and later by his son Isaac and his grandchildren, Avraham built an empire of spiritual ambassadors whose task it was to revolutionize man's perspective of himself, leading to a better world order. In this way, and not without major stumbling blocks and failures, the "chosen people" came into existence with the specific task to save and uphold the honor of mankind.

The nation that was in the process of being built was to become the guilty conscience of the world. As Jacques Maritain remarked, "The Jews give the world no peace, they bar slumber, they teach the world to be discontented and restless as long as the world has no God." Ethical exclusiveness. To be a force of inspiration requires the need to build a powerhouse of spirituality within oneself. It requires a kind of uncompromising dedication towards a common commitment which is only possible through the acceptance of a special way of life. This is Judaism for Jews. To go one's own way means to reject the way of others. Because Jews live their own lives and because they stay together, they were and are able to offer the world an ideology of ultimate value. There is no need for others to live that life as well. It is the intrinsic plurality of man which offers many faith communities. As long as the ground norms of morality as taught by Avraham are observed, each man or woman has his or her own contribution to make. The exclusiveness of the Jews is therefore of an unusual kind. National exclusiveness is transformed into ethical exclusiveness. And to abandon national exclusiveness is to abandon the ethical message towards all man. Israel is a world-transforming nation. Its task is to bring mankind back to its full moral and religious potential.

In that sense, Jews live in constant spiritual tension. They dream about a chosen mankind which has re-discovered its way to God and righteousness. As such this confronts them with a sublime paradox: They struggle to survive with the hope that one day they will be able to disappear.

Redistribution of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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