With all my heart I believe God chooses specific individuals for specific tasks. I believe God chose Abraham to begin the journey that created the Jewish people. I believe God chose Moses to lead us out of Egypt. I believe God chose William Harvey to teach humanity about the circulation of blood, and I believe God chose the Wright brothers to inaugurate the era of aviation. I believe God chose Abraham Lincoln to end slavery in this country, and I believe God chose Martin Luther King to make the dream of racial equality more of a reality in our society.
If individuals can have destinies, why not peoples as a whole?
Just as God chooses individuals for certain tasks, so too does God choose peoples for certain tasks. As I look at history, I agree with an essay written by the late Professor of Labor Relations at Cornell, Milton R. Konvitz called, “Many are Called And Many are Chosen.” He noted that God chose the ancient Greeks to bring the world an unprecedented sense of beauty, and God chose the Romans to teach the world new ideas about order.
God chose us Jews too. God chose us, as Thomas Cahill teaches in his best selling book Gifts of the Jews, to give the world a sense of the sanctity of time. Before we came along, Cahill notes, people perceived life as a series of repeating cyclical events.
“The Jews were the first people to break out of this circle, to find a new way of thinking and experiencing, a new way of understanding and feeling the world…” Cahill’s book is nothing more—and nothing less—than a defense of the concept of chosenness. It is a book that can give Jew pride in the role our people play in history. It also is good that a gentile wrote the book because it might seem too prideful if one of us had.
Nearly three thousand years ago the Prophet Amos taught that we are not better than others, but that we have particular responsibilities. Amos wrote: “I have known you uniquely among the peoples of the earth. Therefore I will hold you accountable for every one of your transgressions.” (Amos 3:2)
No, to be chosen does not mean we consider ourselves better than anyone else. Still, many Jews, both famous and ordinary, shy away from the concept of chosenness because they fear anti-Semitic reactions.
Do we really think we will mollify anti-Semites by disavowing our destiny as a people?
We shall not. Anti-Semitism is the responsibility of anti Semites, not the responsibility of us Jews.
Abandoning the idea that God has chosen us for the task of bringing the ideals based on Torah to the world will not stop either anti-Semites or anti-Semitism.
Jews do not hold exclusive rights to acts of goodness. God revealed Torah to us, the Midrash teaches, in the desert, so we would know that its ideals are open to everyone who wishes to embrace them. They are not the exclusive property of any one faith or people.
It is well and good that other peoples have adopted those ideals. Let them pursue them in their own ways, and let us acknowledge that often those ways inspire those who follow them to remarkable acts of caring and compassion that we do well to emulate.
Still, Judaism has done so much to civilize this world. It is no accident that Jews who represent less than ½ of one per cent of the worlds’ population have won more than 30% of the world’s Nobel Prizes.
No it is not an accident.
It is the product of a religious and cultural system that has stressed learning and literacy as ways of serving God.
It is the product of a religious and cultural system, which teaches us, Lo Toochal liheetalaym. You must not remain indifferent to the suffering of another even if the other is our enemy (Deuteronomy 22:3). It is the product of a religious system that calls on us to be “L’or Goyim, a light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6).
Look at the values and culture of the world around us. Look at the violence that stalks our schools, our cities and our towns. Look at the hatred which threatens to rip apart the very fabric of civilization.
Is it really time for us to turn away from a way of life that has done so much for humanity over the centuries? Can we really afford to be less particular in our Jewish practices and studies? Should we trade Jewish worship and practice for a generalized civil religion, which says, “just be a good person?”
No, let us cherish the belief that God singled us out to bring the ideas of Torah to the whole world.
Chosenness does not mean privilege, and choseness does not mean exclusiveness.
Still, there are people who want no part of it. We have often been the targets of enemies, and many have looked at our history and our suffering and said with Tevye the Dairyman, “God if this is what it means to be chosen, please, choose someone else.”
And yet, we continue to persist and exist, and with God’s help we shall continue to do so.
Chosenness is a choice, a challenge and an achievement.
The choice to be chosen is ours to make or reject. Choosing to be chosen, I believe, is to believe that God cares deeply about the choices we make–not only as individuals but as a people whom God chose to bring the ideals of Torah to the constant attention of the world.