A heritage of chosenness
Our Dual Heritage Series
Jewish Family Education with Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer
“This country is a blessed nation. (Its people) are special. The world knows it. In our innermost thoughts, we know it. This is the greatest nation on earth.”
What first came to mind upon reading these statements? America? Perhaps today’s Israel? Or the biblical Kingdom of Israel? Actually, these words by Tony Blair refer to Great Britain.
In response to Blair’s remarks, former Israeli politician and news commentator Yossi Sarid noted wryly, “We Jews are not the only ones who suffer from the ‘chosen people complex.’”
A central idea in Jewish thought, chosenness is both a divine relationship and a worldly mission.
Beginning with Abraham and continuing to Sinai and beyond, the Jewish people were chosen to enter into a covenant with God through which they might bring the world to ethical monotheism.
According to biblical scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann, prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah viewed chosenness — with its emphasis on ethical teaching — as a means to “combat idolatry, curb arrogance, and end violence, greed, and warfare, and thereby usher in a new kind of society.”
“Chosenness,” explains Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, “means being a living example of the kind of people and the kind of communities people admire…(T)hen others are likely to be impressed with the claim that the source of their goodness is the God in whom they believe.”
It’s about being a covenant people, and in the words of Isaiah, “a light unto the nations.”
Unfortunately, the notion of chosenness has often been misconstrued — by Jews and non-Jews alike — as Jewish superiority or Jews being more beloved by God. Yet the Bible is very clear that neither is the case. The Torah itself gives no reason for the choice of Abraham as the first to receive the covenant. This lack of an intrinsic qualification for chosenness becomes more obvious when God threatens to destroy Israel and choose a different people during the golden calf incident at Sinai.
As he retells Israel’s history in his final days, Moses repeatedly reminds the Israelites that chosenness doesn’t indicate any virtue or special quality on their part.
The prophet Amos goes one step further, emphasizing that chosenness doesn’t imply superior status but instead demands greater responsibility: “You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth — that is why I will call you to account for your iniquities.”
Since the Jewish concept of chosenness never contradicted the belief that God has a relationship with other peoples as well, it’s no surprise that America’s biblically-literate early settlers viewed themselves as similarly chosen.
From its very beginnings, America adopted and adapted the biblical notion of chosenness. Aboard the ship to New England, John Winthrop wrote a lay sermon that “reflected the Puritans’ understanding of themselves as a chosen people in covenant with God,” observes Harvard Divinity School’s Dr. Catherine Brekus.
“Winthrop suggested that the Puritans, like the biblical Israelites, had been given a special commission as God’s covenant people. ‘For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill,’ Winthrop preached, ‘the eyes of all people are upon us.’” Like the Israelites, they were to build a successful, God-centered, ethical society as an example for the world.
During the Revolutionary era, the belief in American “chosenness” grew stronger as patriots envisioned themselves replicating the Exodus story from Egypt to Sinai.
America became “God’s New Israel,” a nation in covenant with God, Brekus explains. Its divine destiny was to be a beacon of democracy to the rest of the world.
Even today, she notes, most Americans champion “the nation’s moral, political and economic distinctiveness,” although they’ve adopted the more inclusive language of “American exceptionalism” that deemphasizes the religious dimension.
The notion of chosenness continues to play a vital role in Jewish, Israeli, and American history, conclude Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz, authors of The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.
“The wild idea that the master of the universe played favorites by designating the descendents of Sarah and Abraham as His chosen people is the foundation of Jewish identity as well as the American project. Like it or not, however weird, inspiring, dangerous, mysterious, obnoxious, or historically dubious, it’s at the root of their entire histories,” Gitlin and Leibovitz responded in an interview with Evan Goldstein, editor of The Chronicle Review.
Their well-documented research unexpectedly led Gitlin and Leibovitz to conclude that this chosenness was less a matter of self-identity than an objective reality, according to University of Michigan political science Prof. Andrei Markovits.
“It’s not that Jews and Americans claim to be special, unique and chosen (so do most other nations as well) but that they, through (well-defined) forces of history…were, in a sense, made to be chosen.”
There is no question that Jewish and American claims of chosenness from ancient times to the present have been falsely used to justify bad judgment, unjust decisions, and evil actions, from vengeance to Manifest Destiny to slavery. But perhaps we were chosen, in the words of poet Elizabeth Topper, “not for who we are, but who we might become.”
It is this transcendent notion of “who we might become” that makes chosenness still meaningful today, both as Jews and as Americans. Chosenness means we have an indispensable role to play in realizing the prophetic vision of human perfection, a mission bigger than ourselves to be a blessing to ourselves and to humanity, and a commitment to shoulderering the burden of repairing a broken world.
Chosenness encourages us to persevere, because our task is not yet fulfilled.
Literature to share
The Brave Princess and Me by Kathy Kacer. You’ve likely heard the legend of the Danish king who saved his country’s Jews from the Nazis. But did you ever hear the tale about the deaf princess of Greece who saved a Jewish family during the Holocaust? Written for middle school children with basic Holocaust knowledge, this illustrated nonfiction work emphasizes courage, goodness, caring for others, and how weaknesses don’t need to define the kind of person you become.
Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes: A Tribal Language in a Global World by Jeremy Benstein. Today, nearly half of the Jewish people live their daily lives speaking Hebrew, while the other largely English-speaking half finds Hebrew foreign or at least unfamiliar, perhaps even irrelevant. Yet, according to author Jeremy Benstein, Hebrew is the doorway to values, culture, identity, and all things Jewish. He suggests a learning approach that focuses not on textbook learning or spoken mastery but on exploration of Hebrew’s three-letter roots, the building blocks of the language. Filled with some history and a bit of linguistics, but mostly devoted to the magic of Hebrew roots, this fascinating book offers an approach worth pursuing.