An irony of the American Jewish experience: Just as America’s Christian leaders donned the Jews’ mantle of “chosenness” to explain and justify the new nation, America’s Jewish leaders shrugged off that cloak to ease Jewish entry into America.
Ministers of the dissident Protestants who settled New England cast their flock as a new “children of Israel” who were fleeing a new pharaoh and carrying a new covenant to the new Promised Land. Although the Puritans were a strange regional sect that dissolved within a few generations in America, their ideas have had a lasting force throughout the history of this nation. Invocations of biblical language (the King James version) and Israelite comparisons persisted beyond the American Revolution, further fueled by evangelical Protestants calling for the (final) arrival of the Messiah. (Note that praise showered the “Israelites of old,” not the Jews of the day.)
American religious and political leaders explicitly or implicitly drew on chosenness rhetoric for generations. Todd Gitlin and Leil Leibovitz’s book, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel and the Ordeals of Divine Election, compiles examples up to the present. George Washington, for instance, referred to “the Divine Arm visibly outstretched for our deliverance,” and Bible skeptic Thomas Jefferson labeled America as “a chosen country” into which our fathers were divinely led “as Israel of old.” Abraham Lincoln hedged by calling Americans the “almost chosen,” but as the Civil War raged on, his religious sensibilities intensified. By his second inaugural, Americans’ chosenness — just like that of the Israelites — also entailed punishment for moral failure: “So, still, it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
Over the generations, though the language of chosenness shifted, the core sensibility remained. The “Manifest Destiny” of the 19th century combined America’s providential selection with a mission to save the heathens; they were to convert or perish like so many Canaanites. Conservatives recently repurposed the 20th-century phrase, “American exceptionalism” — coined by socialists debating America’s seeming immunity to class revolution — into a claim of special, probably divine, election. Television personality Sean Hannity declares that the United States “is the greatest, best country God has ever given man on the face of the earth” — greater, one assumes, than the original Promised Land. Conservatives harassed President Barack Obama, demanding that he declare his faith in this credo, and then, when he did so in a foreign policy address, they mocked his insincerity.
While Americans proudly claimed chosenness in its various forms, most Jews coming to America eagerly shed it. As Arnold Eisen recounts in his classic book, The Chosen People in America: A Study in Jewish Religious Ideology, rabbis outside of Orthodoxy repeatedly attempted to minimize, reinterpret, or explicitly discard the notion of Israel’s divine election. If one doubts a personal God on high as much of the American rabbinate did, how can one claim that anyone chose anyone? One reformulation explained that Jews were “chosen” only in the inverted sense that they chose to “see” a universalistic God, making themselves a “light unto the nations.” The Reform movement, in particular, recast chosenness into liberal do-goodism.
Such distancing from chosenness seems to have succeeded. When I searched surveys commissioned in recent decades by Jewish organizations, I found none that asked the Jewish respondents about chosenness, not even a study titled “Chosen for What?” Today, American Jews are much less likely than are American Protestants to agree with the statement: “God gave Israel to the Jewish people.” Similarly, far more Jews consider “working for justice/equality” to be an “essential part of being Jewish” than consider “observing Jewish law” to be.
Declaring one’s tribe to be God’s “treasure” (as noted in Deuteronomy 7:6) is awkward throughout the post-Haskalah, post-Emancipation, pluralist West; it is particularly problematic for American Jews, who are hesitant to offend their neighbors by being “arrogant” or “clannish.” There are ideological concerns also. In a nation defined from virtually the start as remarkably egalitarian, claiming a special tie to God — even a secularized, sanitized version of that tie — sounds wrong. (Here, the ultra-Orthodox have no problem: Faith trumps modernity; peoplehood trumps democracy.) There are also psychological barriers to claiming chosenness. American culture stresses more than any other that each individual is a freely choosing agent. How can such an agent be truly free if he or she is chosen by God — much less, commanded by God — to demonstrate chosenness through halakhah?
Jews found in America the greatest, freest welcome in millennia of Diaspora, but it entailed many awkward adjustments. They had to hope, as Eisen put it, that “gentile Americans would believe that Jews were just like them but that Jewish children would not be deceived” — that the sense of chosenness would be somehow conveyed discreetly. Ceding the crown of divine election to their hosts has been one of those awkward adjustments.email print