‘The chosen people’ or ‘a chosen people’?


JuSt hours before the setting of the sun ushered in the Jewish New Year of 5779, the online English edition of  Haaretz, a leading Israeli newspaper, published a major article with a provocative title: “Haaretz Poll: For Rosh Hashanah, A Picture of Israel’s Muddled Jewish Soul.” 

This long piece, replete with all kinds of charts, facts and figures, documents the attitudes of today’s Israeli Jews toward religion – broadly conceived. Included among the wide range of topics explored are belief (and disbelief) in God, Jewish observance – with particular emphasis on Sabbath observance and kashrut – the influence of the Ultra-Orthodox on Jewish life, acceptance or rejection of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and belief (and disbelief) in life after death. 

The poll’s findings on attitudes toward the notion of “chosen people” is of particular significance: 56 percent of those surveyed consider us Jews to be “a” chosen people, while 32 percent reject this idea.

The author of this article, Chemi Shalev, points out that the distinction between “a” chosen people and “the” chosen people is not inconsequential: “Our question in Hebrew was about ‘a’ chosen people rather than ‘the’ chosen people ….” 

I myself find this distinction between “a” chosen people and “the” chosen people to be crucial. Consider, for example, the following words from our Shabbat evening Kiddush: “… ki vanu vacharta v’otanu kidashta mikol ha’amim” – You have chosen us and have sanctified us above all peoples.  

If God has chosen us from among all peoples, it would seem to follow that God prefers us Jews to all others. To put it another way, if we Jews consider ourselves to be “the” chosen people, then we are consciously, or perhaps unconsciously, fostering the dangerous – dare I say racist? – idea that we are somehow superior in God’s eyes to everybody else.

On the other hand, to say that we Jews are “a” chosen people strips away the idea of “being chosen” from anything that might lead us to adopt a supercilious attitude toward other members of our human family. 

Throughout my career I have been greatly enriched by my participation in interfaith dialogue. I could not engage in such dialogue if I believed for a single moment that God in His (or Her) infinite wisdom preferred Jews to Catholics or to Protestants or to Muslims or to Buddhists, or to members of the Bahá’i faith, for that matter.

I would suggest that each religious community has had and continues to have its unique experience with God, that each community has been chosen by God in its special way, and that God calls on each community to remain loyal to its own historical roots. 

Because the Jewish experience of God happens to be somewhat different from both Christian and Muslim experiences of God, it does not follow that the Jewish experience is true and Christian and Muslim experiences are false. It is simply that our communities have taken different paths toward the one God. Therefore, to say that we Jews are “a” chosen people is not to say that we are better than anyone else; what can be said is that we Jews have an obligation to live our lives within the context of our unique, covenantal relationship with God.

Those of us who are parents soon learn that though we may love our children equally, most often we love them differently; this is certainly true of my relationship with my daughter Karen and my son David. Speaking metaphorically, though God loves all peoples equally, God does have a unique relationship with us Jews; in this powerful but limited sense, we are entitled to see ourselves as chosen by God.

What I consider especially disturbing in the Haaretz poll is the response to a related question immediately following the one regarding “a” chosen people: “Do you believe that our right to Israel stems from a divine promise?” 

While 38 percent of Jewish Israelis said no and another 11 percent did not answer the question, 51 percent, a slim majority, “believe that their rights to the Land of Israel derive from God’s divine covenant in the Bible …. Seventy-four percent of right-wingers believe that Israel holds a divine deed to its land, compared to only 8 percent of leftists.”

To which Shalev comments: “This is the ominous subtext of the bitter political debate over territories, peace, and the Palestinians, which is ostensibly focused on issues of security and realpolitik. Under the surface, as the poll results suggest, a religious war is raging.”

Do we Jews consider ourselves to be “the” chosen people or “a” chosen people?  It seems to me that whether we choose the word “the” or the word “a” can mean the difference between war and peace.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.