The chosen people: Responsibility or racism

It is claimed that the British journalist Norman Ewers authored this one-line poem: “How odd of God to choose the Jews.” The Jewish rejoinder was, “It wasn’t odd; the Jews chose God.”

The view, accepted even by some Christians, that the Jews are the Chosen People is a mainstay of Jewish thinking. Its roots are biblical; the view pervades rabbinic Judaism’s worldview; it has a prominent place in Jewish mysticism, and it has been a bone of contention in Jewish circles, especially in the twentieth century, due to its potential as a racist statement.

Jewish chosenness as responsibility

The most direct statement of the Jews being the chosen people is found in Deuteronomy 7:6, “For you are a people consecrated to the Eternal your God: of all the peoples on earth the Eternal your God chose you to be His treasured people.” On the face of it, this sounds like a claim to Jewish superiority — it minimized the worth of all the other nations of the world. It is clear, however, that being chosen is a coin with two faces. From the biblical standpoint, God’s choice of the Jewish people means that obedience to God’s moral and ritual commands carries with it rewards (Deut. 28: 1-14), but defiance of them brings catastrophe and exile from the Promised Land (Deut. 28:15-68). The chapter ends with this statement: “This is the covenant that the Eternal commanded Moses to conclude with the Israelites in the land Moab in addition to the covenant which He had made with them at Horeb.”

The second covenant was established in Moabite territory on the borders of the Land of Israel in order to impress on the new generation that would enter the land that the covenant was not unconditional. Like all contracts, which is what a covenant is, this contract placed responsibilities on all the parties to it. This was what allowed Abraham and Moses to argue with God when God’s behavior appeared unjust: Contractual promises must be kept even by those signatories to the contract who are in a superior position.

It is this same covenant that continues to condition continued Jewish possession of the Land of Israel on faithful keeping of that covenant. Failure to do so means exile. As we all know, Jews have known exile from the Land of Israel for 2,000 years, and especially in the 20th century, under the horrific conditions described in the Deuteronomy 28, until 1948. And in the traditional liturgy they said why: “Because of our sins have we been exiled from our Land.”

There can be no greater statement of responsibility that creates a goad to human betterment than to say that bad behavior inevitably brings bad consequences, while trying to be good and bring good into the world, if nothing else, brings a sense of satisfaction and freedom from guilt.

Is there a license for racism in the formative texts of Judaism?

It would be nice to believe that the greatest thinkers of the Jewish people subscribed to the views articulated in the first few paragraphs of this essay. Unfortunately, not all of them did. I will hold down the examples of racism found in some of the foundational texts of the Jewish people so as not to provide an abundance of fodder for anti-Semites, many of whom already have discovered these texts and weaponize them against us.

While the TaNaKH, the sacred scriptures of the Jewish people, do not declare other nations to be inherently inferior, they do denigrate as abhorrent many of their accepted practices (Lev 18 and 20). Some are viewed as so corrupt as to be irredeemable — the Amalekites, for example. Nevertheless, the negative assessment of these peoples is based on their willed decision to maintain an unsavory lifestyle, not on their inherent inferiority.

This line of thinking continues into the rabbinic period. Without differentiation, the lifestyles of the pagan nations of antiquity make them suspect of murder and sexual licentiousness along with a host of other negative behaviors (Mishnah Avodah Zarah, 2:1). However, only one of the Sages, Rabbi Eliezer, declared all non-Jews to be inherently wicked and without hope of a place in the world-to-come, the ultimate reward of the righteous. His colleague, Rabbi Joshua, responded to his claim that if some non-Jews were labeled “those who forget God,” by implication others are deemed righteous. Therefore, “There are those who are righteous among the world’s peoples who have a share in the world-to-come” (Tosefta Sanhedrin, 13:2). The observance of the seven Noahide commandments, which are basic to a civil society, is the measure of who is one of the righteous of the nations, which is the normative position of rabbinic Judaism.

“Othering,” while not a positive activity, is not ultimately a claim that the Other is racially inferior.

Chosenness as a license for racism in Jewish mystical literature

Unfortunately, many texts of medieval Jewish mysticism are racist. They uniformly posit different souls for Jews and non-Jews, with Jews having divine souls breathed into them by God and non-Jews having souls whose source is the “impure side” (Zohar, Genesis, 47a), or in one of its worst formulations, “The souls of the idolatrous nations come from the impure shells (of a failed Creation) in which there is no good whatsoever” (based on Eitz Ha-Chayim 49:3). No Jewish thinker whose work is based on the classical texts of Jewish mysticism has veered from this position.

Recent iterations of this racist position were published in Israel in a work called “Torat Ha-Melekh,” which also claimed that normative Jewish law permitted killing noncombatant non-Jewish women and children in a war situation, and not merely as collateral damage. And if we think these sentiments are expressed only by Israeli settler-rabbi fanatics, an American rabbi who is considered a major halakhic decisor in centrist Orthodox circles has used a Yiddish racial slur equivalent to the “N-word” in recent years without having his career ended. He also has opined in publicly available lectures that Jews and non-Jews have essentially different souls, with Jews, of course, having the superior one. Indeed, I have had to deal with my children’s reportage about such statements made by teachers in their day school and yeshiva high school.

Chosenness and our choices

It is a staple of Jewish thought that Creation is neutral and that its use for good or evil is dependent on human decisions. For example, wine is used widely in Jewish celebrations of Shabbat, Havdalah, and the four cups of the seder. In these cases, wine is a vehicle for holiness and joy—all good. But a reading of the Torah portion called Parashat Shemini indicates that wine can befuddle good judgment, and at its worst turn a person into a slovenly drunk.

Religion is no different than any other component of Creation. It has been the fountainhead of much good. It has engendered morality, altruism, compassion, hope, and endurance rooted in faith in the face of incredible tribulations. We also know that religion has fostered hate, ignorance, intolerance, war, and bloodshed beyond measure in the name of God. Like wine, religion holds within itself the seeds of good and evil.

Chosenness as an aspect of Jewish religious thinking is, like religion itself, open to use for the good and abuse that leads to evil. Our tradition contains both, and some of our people consider one or the other as the sacred word and will of God. The truth, however, is that ascribing holiness to one voice of the tradition rather than to another is a matter of choice.

Therefore, we have the choice of being on the side of Rabbi Akiba, who said, “Beloved is humanity because it was created in God’s Image….” (Mishnah, Avot 3:14), or on the side of those who hold that the souls of non-Jews come from “the side of impurity in which there is no good.”

To those who hold the latter position, I would point out that there is a rabbinic statement that says, “Those who delegitimate others do so based on their own flaws” (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 70b). That is, those who deny that others possess pure souls lack pure souls themselves, and their racism only returns others’ racism back on them. As the sage Eddie Stone said, “What goes around comes around.”

There is no question that given the present racial climate in the United States, writing about Jewish chosenness is fraught with the danger of being misunderstood and misinterpreted. But Jews can choose a vision of Jewish chosenness that makes us responsible for excising racism from our hearts and behaviors, thereby exhibiting what Jewish chosenness really means. My concern is that some of my fellow tribe members are simply too tribal to take up that challenge.

My concern also extends to Israel, my second homeland, where expressions of racism extend not only to Arabs—indeed, an anti-Arab racist party ran in the most recent elections and won six Knesset seats—but to fellow Jews. Ethiopian Jews are, as a colleague of mine has said, “At the bottom of the heap.” Many Mizrahi Jews, emigres from Arab lands, still are not equal to the more or less completely Ashkenazi elite that runs the country. The Russians are “goyim” to segments of Israeli society, and this view is not limited to Jews who describe themselves as ultra-Orthodox.

All this makes it clear to me that we have a way to go before “Ephraim will not be jealous of Judah, and Judah will not torment Ephraim” (Isaiah 11:13), and even further until “My House will be called a House of Prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).

As we count the days of Sefirah, re-enacting our way to being chosen at Sinai when we accepted our obligations to listen, understand, and obey, let us commit to being the morally responsible and obligated agents God chose us to be. Let us do what is just and good in the eyes of God (Deut. 6:18).

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Chernick holds a doctorate in rabbinic literature and semikhah from Yeshiva University, and he is the chair of the executive committee of Ruach Hiddush (Rabbis and Cantors for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel).He served as professor of rabbinic literature at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for forty years.He is an oleh hadash with continuing close ties to the United States. Rabbi Chernck regards himself as "a Jew for all Jews."
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