“A truly rational and universal God, it is maintained, could not do anything so arbitrary as to ‘choose’ one particular group out of mankind as a whole…. God is the God of all alike, and, therefore, cannot make distinctions between nations and peoples.”1
Contrary to the widespread popular assumption that Jews can only be universalists who care about others by transcending our religious particularities, biblical evidence suggests otherwise: Many of the oldest expressions of Jewish universalism arose in tandem with a deepening understanding of the meaning of Jewish chosenness. Some of the most universalistic statements found in the Tanakh are embedded in contexts that emphasized Israel’s special election. Israel’s sense of being specially chosen by God — an idea repeated again and again in texts such as Isaiah 40-66 — may well have given rise to the growing universalism that suffuses these same passages. Note the close linkage in Isaiah 43:10 between Israel’s unique status and the notion that Israel’s God is indeed the only God of all the world: “You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am He. Before Me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after Me.”
Another example of the way in which Israel’s deep sense of her chosenness feeds rather than impedes Jewish universalism can be found in what may be the fountainhead of biblical universalism, the passage about all humans being created “b’tzelem Elokim,” “in the image of God.” Genesis 1 is attributed to the source that scholars call P or the Priestly School. This is the same biblical thread that regularly calls on all Israelites to maintain a higher level of holiness than other nations. P also maintains that even in Israel there are hierarchies of holiness with certain duties and privileges reserved for Priests and Levites. Rather than seeing P as incoherent in maintaining both that God created all humans in his image and that God chose to elevate Israel from among all the nations of the world, it seems more probable that P understood Israel’s uniqueness as complementary to the claim that humans are unique among God’s creations.
Chosenness is often viewed as a retrograde notion, unfitting within a liberal, pluralistic Western context because it is assumed to be an ethnocentric claim that the chosen are morally superior to others. But within texts such as Deuteronomy, a book penned by the D source and the only book in the Torah that makes explicit use of the vocabulary of God choosing Israel, one finds — surprisingly — the opposite emphasis. Rather than telling the Israelites they were chosen because they were morally worthy, we learn that they have been stiff-necked and rebellious ever since God began his relationship with them. God chose the Israelites, but they have not yet responded appropriately. While they are indeed chosen, they have not earned this status.
In the Bible, election often carries with it a responsibility toward those not chosen. Many would see Abraham’s arguments to save Sodom as a manifestation of this responsibility. While some today might reject this impulse as patronizing, it is worth recognizing that the loss of this idea has often resulted in a culture of personal entitlement based on the questionable belief that we are the creators of our own fortunes. Hence, Deuteronomy 8:17’s caution against claiming, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” Again we see that election, properly understood, is rooted in an act of divine grace that rightly calls forth a sense of responsibility toward others, even toward others who stand outside the chosen community.
As the opening quotation in this short essay indicates, contemporary critics of chosenness often note, somewhat correctly to my mind, that this idea implies that God is inherently unfair and arbitrary. But they fail to see that these exact traits are central components of the attribute of mercy — which is, by definition, somewhat unfair and arbitrary, as justice requires punishment of the guilty, not their being forgiven. It is exactly this unfairness that the book of Jonah underlines, and, hence, we read this book on Yom Kippur when we pray that we will not be treated as we might deserve.
In truth, the Bible’s central theological affirmations concerning God and God’s character are tightly interlinked with the claim that Israel is God’s chosen people. Thus, the concept of Jewish chosenness reveals how Israel came to understand the complex relationships between universalism and particularism, between divine grace and human initiative, between mercy and justice, and, of course, between Israel and the other nations of the world. For millennia, Jews have lived their lives in relationship to a merciful, personal God whose attributes are revealed through the Jewish Bible. In short, Jews (and, the truth is, Christians as well) worship not some generic universal abstraction, but rather the God of Israel, who is revealed to be the God of all the world.
1 Will Herberg, “The Chosenness of Israel and the Jew of Today,” pages 270-283 in Arthur Cohen, ed., Arguments and Doctrines: A Reader of Jewish Thinking in the Aftermath of the Holocaust (New York: Harper & Row, 1970)