“To me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians,” declares the Lord. “True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Arameans from Kir.”
— Amos 9:7
The Jewish people’s unique relationship with God — and our inherent holiness — pervades our tradition and history. This particularism does not sit comfortably with modern, liberal Jewish attitudes. That discomfort becomes especially acute when acts of Jewish violence are justified in the name of Jewish superiority.
Amos offers a refreshing perspective on the concept of chosenness. “To me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians.” Each nation has its origin myth and relationship with the divine. God brought the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir. So what makes us so special?
While at first glance the prophet denies Israel’s claim to a unique status above all other peoples, a surprisingly positive side emerges. Amos offers us a vision of universal particularism: Israel is like all of the other nations insofar as all nations possess uniqueness. Every people is chosen for its own unique destiny, as expressed through its peculiar historical narrative and cultural practice. So, the more we cultivate and celebrate our unique culture and narrative, the more we fulfill our unique destiny. The world, then, is enriched by human diversity. By living and embracing our own uniqueness, in humility and devotion, we become holy.
— Dalit Kaplan
Dalit Kaplan’s notion of universal particularism is profound. I spend my time as a rabbi working to engage interfaith families in Jewish life and community. For many of them, Jewish particularism is both unattractive and a barrier. I’m often asked: How can my partner who is not Jewish be part of a unique culture and narrative? Kaplan’s idea that every people is chosen for its own unique destiny — the more each people cultivates its unique culture, the more each fulfills its unique destiny in a world enriched by diversity — would both negate the superiority that often underlies Jewish particularism and support the pluralism that is more aligned with the liberal Jewish values that so many interfaith couples share.
But other challenges remain — particularly the challenge of presenting the unique culture and narrative of the Jewish people in a way that is open and accessible to interfaith couples. We need to promote both radical inclusion and diversity. Ironically, in order to perpetuate a culture that is unique, we need to remove almost all boundaries that define who is permitted to participate.
— Ari Moffic
Optimistic and progressive as it is, Dalit Kaplan’s interpretation of Amos 9:7 should be contextualized. Two verses later, we read, “… I will command, and I will shake/sift the house of Israel among all the nations as one shakes with a sieve, but no pebble shall fall to the ground.” (Amos 9:9) Here, God is scolding the Israelites for transgressing, and by co-mingling the Israelites with the rest of God’s people, they are being made normal.
In other words, God is revoking the Israelites’ uniqueness. Although Kaplan’s reflection produces an enticingly pluralistic view, this verse (9:7) is relatively dismal. God is challenging the nation of Israel, implying that egocentricity and disobedience have infected Israelite society. Furthermore, God is reasserting power and authority over the Israelites; God contends, “To me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians.” In rendering the Israelites no more special than any other nation, God is presenting the Israelites with a threat: “Yes, Israel, I gave you my Torah, but I can just as easily revoke those privileges.”
— Ethan Weg
I agree with Dalit Kaplan’s assertion that “the world… is enriched by human diversity.” The Torah has countenanced diversity since the time of the Tower of Babel; Darwin later affirmed it as one of the key factors in human survival. And yet, Kaplan’s notion that every religious community’s destiny is unique could be taken in a dangerous direction. Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l, taught, “Every religion is a vital organ of the planet. It would be stupid to have a triumphalist view that the whole body should be the liver…” Here is how I interpret this metaphor: Religious communities are like different organs, each performing a unique role. But they are all united in service to the same body. A religion that affirms life, promotes healing, and advances justice benefits the human family and is worthy of celebration. But, when some facets of religious fundamentalism lead to the desecration of human life, we must vociferously challenge those religious predilections. While diversity is a sacred value, pursuing it must never validate hateful behavior offered in the name of God.
— Eric Solomon