I first encountered the idea that the Jews are a “chosen people” from a Hebrew school teacher who explained to me that this is a mistaken, even pernicious belief held by other Jews. I was raised in a classical Reconstructionist congregation, and while our liturgy altered only moderately the traditional language referring to God and Torah, it radically expunged references to Israel as the chosen people. That dramatic change in wording at key ritual moments allowed the prayers to conform more closely to the theology of the movement’s founder, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. It also provided a pedagogical payoff, by highlighting the gap between the tradition’s worldview and our own. That gap gave me the space to appreciate the value of other religious traditions — to see that our Jewish way was one among many paths to holiness.
Ironically, it is my career as a rabbi working in multifaith dialogue and education that has driven me back to questions of chosenness. It has forced me to wrestle with an idea that cannot simply be elided from Judaism, any more than similar particularistic tropes can be ignored in Islam or Christianity. Through interreligious work, I have come to understand that a rich conversation across faith communities occurs when we acknowledge the thick and complex webs of ideas that make up each of our traditions. I’ve found that the best dialogues turn out to be with people who remain self-critically but lovingly engaged with their religion as a whole. Often, my partners in dialogue find the chauvinism or triumphalism in their traditions as problematic as I find these qualities in my own. Sometimes, their reinterpretations are inspiring; sometimes, they fall flat. Yet I am moved by their efforts to be responsible to the breadth of their tradition and their community. Thus, I try to resist the temptation to claim only the Jewish ideas I like and relegate the others to the “mistaken Jews.” In an effort not to disparage those of other faiths, we often find ourselves too harshly disparaging members of our own tribe.
So, for me, chosenness is here to stay. But how to understand it? Clearly, Judaism is not a superior religion and God doesn’t love us Jews more. I don’t think “chosenness” can be turned inside out to become “choosing,” making us the agents in the story. Such a move, consistent with our contemporary American middle class ethos — life as an endless supermarket of options — obscures what may be most important precisely because it is countercultural: We are not our own individuals. As I experience it, chosenness is connected to the less than popular concept of obligation. Understanding my Jewishness as “chosen” (rather than my choice) is one way to disrupt my preoccupation with myself.
The poems of the contemporary American poet Mary Oliver often highlight themes of unlimited choice, of the determination to “save the only life you could save,”(i.e., your own), and of the release from external obligations: “You do not have to be good.” One of Oliver’s favorite metaphors is wild geese: “The world calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting…Tell me,” she writes: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” As if such a choice is really unconstrained! Much as I resonate to Oliver’s joyous paeans to nature and her expansive spirituality, my understanding of chosenness proclaims a call quite different from that of the wild geese.
We are born in debt, not only to the people who came before us, but also to something larger, to life itself. With that debt comes obligation. Some of us capture this intuition by observing traditional mitzvot, even those that are beyond our understanding. Some capture it in other ways, such as working for justice. For me, chosenness is part of the experience of seeing my “one wild and precious life” as already obligated to commitments — in this case, to those who share, in part or wholly, something of my identity. So, for example, engaging with the State of Israel — with all its issues and challenges — is not an optional activity for me. Being chosen as a Jew is not the only way in which I feel called, but it is one way that matters and — I believe — will continue to matter to those who come after me.email print