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Working on a book about the United States and Israel, we learned to stop worrying and love the idea of divine election

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A detail from “The Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments,” an engraving, c. 1882. (Library of Congress)

Two years ago, when we set out to write a book about Israel, America, and the ways in which the nations saw themselves as having been singled out by God to shine their light on a benighted world, we had little doubt about what kind of book we wanted to write.

Following the great thinkers of the Enlightenment—Kant, Voltaire, Bob Dylan—we thought that the notion of God being on any one particular nation’s side was wild or, worse, dangerous, the sort of Manichean delusion that could only drive people to hatred and violence. As longtime advocates of progressive causes—Todd as president of Students for a Democratic Society in the early 1960s, Liel as an activist in Israel’s peace camp in the 1990s—we preferred the porous and inclusive conceits of universal humanism.

And then we sat down to study.

Reading volume upon volume of Jewish and American history and theology, several things became clear to us. The first, and most stunning, had to do with the notion of chosenness itself. Rather than an inherently arrogant invitation to exceptionalism, we realized, the idea of chosenness is a profound and perplexing mystery; and it has long been understood as such in the Jewish tradition.

At the pinnacle of the biblical drama—as the Israelites gather at Mount Sinai, awaiting their transformation from a gaggle of tribes into a nation—God delivers a cryptic command: “You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

The crowds congregated below are left to wonder just what he means. Why, the chosen people may be forgiven for asking, were we chosen? And what are we to do now that we’ve been singled out? How is a holy nation different from any other nation? Is the covenant with God eternal, or must it be renewed with each generation?

God, of course, doesn’t say. He leaves the Israelites wondering, and not only them: As we read the ancient text, we are invited to wonder anew for ourselves. If we’re honest, the one thing we can say for certain is that chosenness binds those who believe in it—or pride themselves on belonging to a people founded on the principle that they were divinely elected—to wrestle with the immense question of what it means to have been chosen.

This is no vicious circle. Wondering what it means to be chosen, we’ve come to believe, can be a noble if arduous path toward moral clarity. Consider the original chosen one, Abraham. A man of no particular distinction, he is so baffled by the divine attention lavished on him that God has to address him no fewer than five times, each time repeating variants of the same promises and assurances. Abraham struggles mightily with the sheer magnitude of his newfound heavenly favor. Eventually, he rises to the occasion, haggling with God to save the sinning cities of the plain. Rather than assume that God’s graces allowed him the right to behave as he pleased, Abraham labors to be found worthy of his singular good fortune. First he is chosen, and later he proves himself worthy. This is the majestic logic of divine election, and it is a powerful engine of compassion, justice, and human improvement.

While we found similar moments of transcendence shining throughout the course of American and Jewish history, we are not naïve about the many examples to the contrary. For every Lincoln, who urged America to live up to its divine designation, there was a Reagan, who emptily boasted of its might, and for every Maimonides—who argued that the Jews were not the chosen people but the choosing people, the people who elected to accept God and his laws—there were handfuls of militant, messianic zealots who considered the covenant a license to kill. Chosenness, we came to understand, could be interpreted in many ways but not ignored; we must learn to wrestle with it because, behind our backs, it is wrestling with us.

Never has it been more urgent for Jews and Americans to consider what we are called upon to do. Both nations, under fire, would do well to look to their fundamental commitments. The majority of Israelis want neither a territorially obsessed theocracy nor an utterly secular state stripped of its Jewish characteristics, just as the majority of Americans reject both mindless chauvinism and vicious, ignorant assaults. The way out of our predicaments is further in. If both nations grapple long and hard with the idea of divine election—as Abraham did, as Lincoln did—they might find a renewed sense of urgency and an invigorated pride.

It won’t be easy, especially for those who, like us, were brought up to look with jaundiced eyes on what happens when the fire of religion burns into the rational realms of democracy. But we believe—devoutly—that the idea of chosenness can serve us well: not as a divine mandate but as burden and responsibility, not just as our past but as our future as well.

Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz are the authors of The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election. They’ll be speaking at the 92nd St Y on Monday, September 27, with Tablet’s editor-in-chief Alana Newhouse and contributing editor Jeffrey Goldberg.

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A terrific little piece, Mr. Gitlin and Mr. Leibovitz! Thank you.

Chosenness is a mixed blessing, right on cleanliness after hanging a left just south of godliness;)

Most reasonable teachers of Judaism have been teaching chosenness in this way for more than two thousand years. We’re glad you guys came around.

Seems to me the reality of choseness of which you are speaking is best emotionally summarized in
the line of the quintessential Jewish Film, Fiddler on the Roof:

[Addressed to God]
I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?

Whom the Lord loves He disciplines…

Moshe Pesach Geller says:

Reb Shlomo Carlebach said: “What does it mean to be Chosen? To let everyone else know that they are also Chosen.”

Meaning: The only ultimate path to being free of tyranny, is to know that there is One and Only One, Who Created each and everyone. Knowing that Ein Od Milvado – there is nothing other than HaShem, properly applied, frees one from the fear that accompanies unjust expressions and manifestations of power.

It means to understand that haShem Created the world only that He should be known. The fullness of that knowledge – the Shlemut (from the root word of the word Shalom) is the definition of the Coming World.


The notion of the “Chosen” People is one of the most pernicious and hateful ideas with which Judaism is associated. I grew up in an Orthodox home and, I can’t recall how many times I heard one of my Rabbi/teachers in Yeshiva say: “Being chosen does not mean we are superior…It means that we must serve as an example to the rest of the world on how a righteous person would behave (Ohr la’Goyim).”
What gives anyone the audacity even to suggest that we are any more capable than another group of so instructing by example? We are no more ethical, honest, righteous, or in any other way superior to any other people. And to recite platitudes as my Rabbis used to do is hypocritical and arrogant.
In this respect, I am reminded of what the eminent Israeli Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer replied when an interviewer asked him, “What do you have to say when it is pointed out to you that your Scripture contains a command of genocide against the Canaanites (“All their women and children shall ye put to the sword…”)? He replied, “I have to live with the knowledge and the burden that at one point in history, my people pursued genocide as part of their ideology.” No evasion, no fumbling for some explanation, a simple, direct and honest acceptance of the facts. That is what we ought to do with these “Chosen People:” acknowledge that it was a concept which, for many generations was the only way we could deal with the Temple’s destruction and the much hatred we endured, but that it is no longer part of the Jewish tradition in any way, shape, or form.

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