Is it really true that God chose Abraham? The Torah narrative tells a story wherein God plucked Abraham from the midst of an idolatrous environment and said, “Lech lecha,” “Go forth to a new place, a new way of life, a new way of thinking about the world.”
But our midrashic tradition tells a different version of the story. It paints a picture of a young Abraham who discovered God, who was the first to postulate a single divine force. This Abraham was a bold, lone voice who rallied against paganism and dared to defy his own father when he destroyed the idols in his father’s workshop.
Our tradition insists that it was not God who chose Abraham, but rather Abraham who chose God.
Bechira chofshit, free choice, is a value that permeates Jewish life and philosophy. Maimonides insists that free choice is the cornerstone of a belief in reward and punishment. There is no coercion to follow God’s will. Even if we do take the Torah text at face value and assume that God chose us — chose Abraham, and later the entire nation at Sinai — still, each of us decides, every day, whether or not we will choose God back.
Throughout history, Jews have tried to keep Jews Jewish, to adhere to religious precepts. In talmudic and medieval times, the community could exercise power by excluding Jews who did not adhere to the communal strictures — such as observing synagogue rituals — through any number of punishments, such as refusing to drink a certain person’s wine or, at its most extreme, through excommunication.
In our postmodern world, these communal strictures do not hold the same sway. We may still bow to what Alexander de Tocqueville called “the tyranny of the majority,” the coercion of social pressure, and, sometimes, Jewish guilt. But, for the most part, pressure and guilt do not produce reliable results. Jewish choice is just that: choice. Although a Jew is born into the covenant with God, each individual decides whether or not to embody that covenant. And the relationship to Judaism is not simply bidirectional, a revolving door leading in or out. There are many points of departure and entry; Jews enter religious life through a range of portals — culture, halakhic observance, familial connections, and spirituality.
If Jews are the chosen people, they are also the choosing people. Our communal leaders know that they must offer a range of experiences without any sense of coercion, so that people can engage with the community seamlessly, without force. They must encourage Jews to choose Judaism by showing that this choice embodies the biblical injunction to choose life and, therefore, Judaism: “Uvacharta Vachayim.” (Deuteronomy 30:19) Today, most Jewish professionals feel inspired and compelled by the same burning question: how to ensure that future generations continue to choose Judaism.
The midrashim tell us that Abraham converted the masses to his way of thinking. In modern parlance, he was surrounded by “Jews-by-choice,” as we now refer to converts. Perhaps, these days, all engaged Jews walk in the path of Abraham and his followers. If we are living as Jews, then we are Jews by choice.email print