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The Centrality of Jewish Chosenness

Contra Chabon, authors see use for Jewish exceptionalism

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Michael Chabon contributes a rollicking, sinuous, but, in the end, unsatisfying op-ed piece to the June 6 New York Times arguing that the world does a disservice to the Jews—the Israeli government’s segment of the Jews, in particular—by holding us to a high moral and intellectual standard. We’re not especially smart and we’re not especially wise.

“Our history,” he writes, “is littered as thickly with the individual and collective acts of blockheads as that of any other nation or people or tribe.” The Jews survived not by virtue of virtue, or wisdom, or moral—or any other kind of—intelligence, he argues, but by dumb luck. In fact, we had better beware of those who rank us high for excellence, since they may soon be sharpening their guillotines when we fall short of the presumptuous standard we ourselves claim.

Chabon works his way to the conclusion that we Jews have been hoist by our own petard. What’s at fault are our exalted standards: “Let us not, henceforward, judge Israel or seek to have it judged for its intelligence, for its prowess, for its righteousness or for its moral authority,” he says, “by any standard other than the pathetic, debased and rickety one that we apply, so inconsistently and self-servingly, to ourselves and to everybody else.”

The idea of the Jews as a chosen people, Chabon maintains, is the fruit of a poisoned tree. Yet what to do with the tree, he doesn’t say. Should it be uprooted? Without it, what remains of Judaism? We think the estimable author of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union underestimates the bizarre idea of chosenness—peculiar, even incredible as it may be. The idea is stranger and richer than he grants, and might indeed, if properly understood, offer a way out of the trap that the present government of Israel has burrowed its way into.

Two years ago, when the two of us first set out to think our way into a book about the concept of chosenness, we felt much as he feels now. We are secular types. Like him, we felt queasy about the exceptionalism that holds one nation—any nation—to be more exalted than others. We thought that divine election was nothing but a dangerous folly that Jews—and Americans, too, whose sense of nationood stems from being “God’s new Israel”—ought to abandon or overcome.

But our reading of history and some of Judaism’s core texts—from the Bible onward—convinced us to think again. The idea of chosenness is more than presumptuous—though it is that. It is also foundational. Who are the Jews in the first place if not a people that believe that their ancestor was singled out—if unaccountably—by God?

According to Genesis, after all, God’s choice of Abraham is at first unmotivated. His first covenant, after all, was with Noah because the man was righteous, and for his sake God would honor “all flesh that is upon the earth.” But His later covenant with Abraham, it is said, will generate a whole particular people to be God’s own. This is mystifying, since it owes nothing to any particular quality of Abraham’s. But eventually God will clarify by delivering divine law to Moses and the Israelites. In a way, the Jewish people have invented the idea of chosenness, but in truth, the idea of chosenness has also invented the Jewish people. Such is Judaism’s wonderfully inverted logic: First comes redemption, only then reasons.

What the Jews get in the bargain is as much ordeal as assurance. Other peoples do not necessarily appreciate the Jews claiming the land. Massacres ensue, and bitter conflicts, and exile. Yet somehow, across the centuries, the Jews doggedly and ingeniously believe themselves to be God’s dearest children, bound by a set of edicts. They remain distinct—they survive as a people. When Chabon credits Jewish survival to blind luck, he ignores the essential significance of the idea of chosenness—that only by believing themselves to be God’s dearest children, and therefore bound to principles that distinguish them from the nations of man, do the Jews manage to retain their distinct identity. Now, as in the days of Abraham, we owe all to this rich and strange idea.

What to do with such an onerous and baffling conviction? The Torah provides little clarification. God tells the Israelites that they are destined to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The exact terms of service are never revealed. In perplexity over the meaning of the fundamental contract of their existence—a contract as obscure as it is formative—the Jews devote themselves to parsing texts. They become a kingdom of critics. Trying to work out the meaning of holiness, figuring out their moral responsibilities to themselves and to others—this is their mission. As Chabon writes, the message is decidedly ambiguous. But this is the Jews’ saving paradox. Rather than place our faith in the divine, we are supposed to figure out our duties for ourselves.

Seen in this light, chosenness is central to the existence of the Jews. It’s an unearthly idea but not an inhuman one. To reclaim it is not a warrant for smugness but a holy obligation. True, the work of reclaiming it runs a sizable risk: That exceptionalism will gather unwarranted praise as well as undue scrutiny. So be it. The Jewish state has received both in generous portions. Now, it must reject both out of hand—in the name of a deep understanding of chosenness. If it is to thrive, it must heed neither the cooing nor the calumny. To be chosen means to spend one’s days trying to ascertain what it means to be chosen, a quest that, if undertaken with an open mind and an honest heart, leads to the growth of the spirit.

It would be unwise to allow sole custody over this volatile idea to zealots of any persuasion. The idea of chosenness is too deeply ingrained in us to be overlooked, patronized, or definitively repealed. Whether or not we believe that the descendants of Abraham were singled out, in perpetuity, by God, and whether or not we find this to be an outlandish, if not offensive, notion—no matter what, we must grapple with it, for it is, behind our backs, grappling with us.

Chosen, but Not Special [NYT]
The Chosen Peoples [Amazon]

Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz are co-authors of the upcoming The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election, published in September by Simon & Schuster.

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Oh come on, Chabon was making a sarcastic point. That being though of as so smart and superior has backfired on the Jews and we are just as dumb as everyone else (present company excepted). Heck, look how many voted for Obama with his anti-semitic past. Can’t be all that bright now can they? On a more serious note, I think you have your theory of chosenness misconstrued. We are chosen to understand God’s law but it does not mean we are not human and failable like everyone else.

The authors seem not to know much about Judaism. Maybe it is their self-identified secularism.

“Abraham, it is said, will generate a whole particular people to be God’s own. This is mystifying, since it owes nothing to any particular quality of Abraham’s.” If you look at the Hebrew Bible and commentaries, you will see Abraham (Avram at the time) is lauded for his challenge to his father’s idolatry and polytheism, and his reasoning which leads him to monotheism. We also have examples of his compassion, hospitality and kindness as reasons for his “chosenness”.

The authors say “First comes redemption, only then reasons.” Actually, the biblical phrase is “Na’aseh V’Nishma” – first comes the willingness to follow the commandments, then an inquiry into the commandments – which is what chosenness is about, being chosen to fulfill commandments, taking this on as an obligation with both negative and positive consequences. Unfortunately, as “secular types” this central aspect of Judaism seems to have escaped the authors.

Jerry Samet says:

The idea of chosenness as presented in the Torah has a further element that makes it at the same time less exotic and more exotic.

In the Torah, the root of chosenness is that God LOVES Abraham–in more familiar terms: God FALLS IN LOVE with him. And here we are on familiar non-exotic ground: falling in love is a choosing of someone ‘above all others’. Of course there are qualities of the person that make us fall in love, but (at our best) we don’t love those qualities–we love the individual. Many of those qualities might change–disease, age, personal transformation–and love strives to prevail. And, at our best, we don’t abandon our beloved as soon as we find another who scores higher on the qualities that first drew us. Falling in love with X does not signal thinking X is inherently superior to everyone else; but it does make X unique.

What IS exotic is the idea that the God of the Torah could fall in love in the first place. But the prevailing Jewish conception of the God of the Torah as a pure SPIRIT or POWER–almost an abstraction–is a much later philosophical ‘purification’ of the original conception of the Israelites about their God and their own understanding of their chosenness.

Ranen says:

The perspective expressed by Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz here do not bode well for their forthcoming book–if one is hoping for nuance and complexity. Somehow they missed the point of Chabon’s entire essay but especially its powerful concluding paragraph. I think that many of us were raised without being very mindful of the “chosenness” tradition and see very little value to it, especially in context with the modern state of Israel, which, when all is said and done, is the focus of Chabon’s argument.

The suggestion that Jews are not unique (Chabon uses Jeffre Goldberg’s terms “seichel” and “kop” here) is not new. Reconstructionists have been struggling to have us abandon the concept for a couple of generations. I’m not sure what good it (avoiding the term, or not) does us. Every people is unique and chosen in various ways, as is every human. We each have different paths in life.

For some, unknown, reason Jews (what I like to call a statistical error in the census of China) have been near the center of “world events” (at least as we gauge them from the ancient Mediterranean and spiraling out) for nearly 3000 years.

Does that make us better? No. Different, in many different ways. Each people (as each individual person) on earth should develop their special/unique/separate (in the sense of קדש) qualities. And, as we say in another context… vive la différence!

The idea that the Jews are “chosen” is both central to Jewish religious thought and also widely misunderstood. According to traditional (i.e. pre-modern) Jewish teaching, Jews are required (“chosen”) to follow all the laws of the Torah. Gentiles are required only to follow the “7 Laws of Noah”–what the Catholic Church calls “natural law.” Thus, if there is a final judgment, Gentiles will be judged by their record of following these 7 laws while Jews will be judged by the (metaphorical) 613 laws of the Torah (but really by all the requirements of an evolving Judaism). Hence “chosenness” means that the Jews will, so to speak, be the last to be redeemed, to get into heaven. Their “final exam” will be more difficult. Chosenness does not mean being favored. It means being given more responsibility to live and act properly.

This is early on applied to the Jewish understanding of biblical exile. No other people is thrown out of its land as punishment for not living properly. Only the Jews have to deserve to live on their land. And yet the covenant is eternal and not based on merit but arbitrarily– “because I loved you” (Deut.) And so every punishment of exile will be followed by a return to the land, to try to get it right this time. As every statement of covenant to the three patriarchs in Genesis includes a reference to the land that God will give them, so is the Land inextricably bound up with Judaism’s notion of religion: the nation, not only it’s individuals, must behave properly. In this sense, American ideology has inherited a biblical (that is, Jewish) sense of covenant/chosenness/exceptionalism. But again, it’s not about being favored; it’s about acting responsibly.

The uniqueness of Jews in world history makes it impossible to completely dismiss the concept of “choseness.” Do Jews screw up? You betcha! Just reading the Bible you see dysfunctional social, political and religious plotlines that later re-appear in on popular television shows from “Desperate Housewives” to “The Sopranos.”

Choseness is not about perfection. Choseness is about purpose. The Jews have struggled with defining what that purpose is and how to go about living our lives towards it like Jacob wrestling with the angel. The Jews may have been chosen by God because we are so stiff-necked that we would never give up this struggle. Perhaps that’s the only reason that we’re still around today.

Dr. Milton Convitz at Cornell argued this point–that every people is “chosen” for a unique mission: the Greeks for theater and architecture, the Romans for government organization, the Persians for… I disagree. The Jewish idea of chosenness is unique because it is about morality, not art or government or music or food. And it is NOT exceptional or parochial because anyone can choose to become part of the Jewish people and thus also be “chosen.” The idea of chosenness does not exclude anyone. Further, since “the righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come,” one needn’t become Jewish in order to be redeemed. One need only live ethically.

C . M. Fletcher says:

Reason for choosing Abraham. See Genesis 18-19:
כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו, לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה, לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט–לְמַעַן, הָבִיא יְהוָה עַל-אַבְרָהָם, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר, עָלָיו
What Jews are supposed to do: in a word, מצוות.

Maybe you’d like to consider putting off writing a book on this subject until you find an observant, knowledgeable, practising Jew to explain these basic issues to you. On the other hand, who but a Jew would write a book about something he knows nothing about?
Wishing you every success in your search. If you want, I could suggest where to look, but there are plenty of ideas on the Internet. Do try to find authentic answers, not plastic imitations. How will you know? If it doesn’t stir you intellectually, it’s not genuine.
C. Fletcher

A couple of years ago, I addressed some of this — Jews regarded by non-Jews as “chosen” or at least different — in a piece on “allosemitism.” Coined by a Polish-Jewish literary critic named Artur Sandauer, the term describes the idea of Jews as the perpetual “other.”

Allosemitism can embrace both positive and negative feelings toward Jews – everything, as the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman put it, “from love and respect to outright condemnation and genocidal hatred.”

At root is the idea that, good or bad, Jews are different from the non-Jewish mainstream and thus unable to be dealt with in the same way or measured by the same yardstick.


Yale Gancherov says:

Yes, perhaps held by G-d to a special standard. But Noachism does not justify other nations doing so. If we choose to accept a mission from G-d, that is between us and H-m. Other people are not relieved from THEIR responsibility to be fair. To assume G-d’s stance in judging us is blasphemous and profane!

nooneinparticular says:

Hmm … the story my rabbi told was that G-d was looking around for someone to understand Him and be his people .. he asked several other groups who all declined because it sounded too hard .. the Jews said, “sure, what’s not to like? and if we don’t like, we’ll let you know in twenty different ways” I have a lapel pin that says, “the more you complain, the longer G-d lets you live” and some lived to be 700 … L’chaim … ;-)

Gena Shapiro says:

Independent Patriot – your comment that Obama has an antisemitic past is just dead wrong. You must be drinking the Glenn Beck kool-aid. Your point would be taken more seriously if you stuck to the issue of Michael Chabon’s article.

Randall Laraway says:

The last time I considered the biblical story of creation, we are all created in God’s image. God doesn’t make junk. But as for our mutual human nature within all of us, we are far from perfect. Problems arise when one race thinks itself superior to another. And quite frankly, I’m taken aback that some Jews think themselves smarter than other peoples. What’s the matter with you, are you so short-sighted that you have forgotten the holocost? You know, the fiendish thinking of Hitler who thot blond hair and blue eyes are superior to everyone else? So be careful what you indicate by speaking such a false-hood as Jews being smarter than other races.

ChiefTecumseh says:

I’m sure the Palestinians will be happy to know their oppressors have been chosen.

Joe America says:

Chosen people, master race. Believe your own hype and the pride goeth before the fall. Hopefally the fall of the Zionist occupation will happen soon. I believe it will be within my lifetime.

This was disappointing:

“According to Genesis, after all, God’s choice of Abraham is at first unmotivated. His first covenant, after all, was with Noah because the man was righteous, and for his sake God would honor “all flesh that is upon the earth.” But His later covenant with Abraham, it is said, will generate a whole particular people to be God’s own. This is mystifying, since it owes nothing to any particular quality of Abraham’s.”

We do know something about Abraham before he is “chosen” – specifically, we learn about his marriage to his orphaned, barren niece. This might seem to be a stretch – but for the fact that Abraham’s entire story centers around his relationship with said niece, from beginning to end. So it’s kind of hard to imagine that the personal qualities Abraham exhibits in following through with such a marriage and maintaining it despite his wife’s barrenness has nothing to do with his being chosen…


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The Centrality of Jewish Chosenness

Contra Chabon, authors see use for Jewish exceptionalism

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