Serving on New York’s City Council in 1986, I was the floor manager for a civil rights bill to protect gays and lesbians in employment, housing, and public accommodations. The hearing was not progressing well when a young police officer named Charlie Cochran stood up (by prearrangement) and announced to the entire room that he was gay.
Those of us who supported this legislation — particularly straight people — weren’t taking any significant risks. But Officer Charlie Cochran’s public declaration in the 1980s was heroic. And it helped to pass the bill. Cochran’s choice to be vulnerable and visible, at a time when it would have been far safer to remain hidden, is at the core of my understanding of chosenness in the modern world.
For me, chosenness is not about superiority or triumphalism. It’s about carrying, internalizing, and claiming difference; it’s about being willing to stand up for what matters. It involves figuring out how to negotiate the dynamics of being different in the modern world, and advocating for those who are perceived as different, vulnerable, or on the margins, even when — especially when — the act of doing so renders us vulnerable, too.
My choice to stand up for the vulnerable reflects a dynamic, reflexive relationship between being chosen and the act of choosing. Jews may be God’s “chosen people,” but we also make choices. We choose how and to what degree we shape our lives with Jewish values and Jewish tradition. In some contexts, we decide to amplify our Jewish identities and, in other contexts, we decide to mute them. Ultimately, we determine the impact our Jewishness has on our own lives, our communities, and the broader world.
Rabbi David Wolpe writes about “the bias of the near.” He explains: “Things close to us seem of more importance than things far away.” People who live next door seem more real than those across the sea. The Bible acknowledges — perhaps, even attempts to correct — this bias when it says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The Bible also seeks to make the stranger as close as one’s neighbor, and to make the far-off future vividly present to us.
Wolpe instructs, “A moral life cannot only be lived with a focus on those next door. Someone starving across the world is as real as someone living beneath the bridge near our own homes. Bias toward the near in people and in time is important and helpful: our family and our lives today are naturally our imminent priorities. To be fully human, however, we must…[have] hope for the future and care for all who suffer, wherever they may be.”
Much of my work at American Jewish World Service is about bridging the near and the far. We seek to close this gap for the sake of humanity and for the sake of ourselves as Jews in the world. But we can only do this well when we listen to the stories and struggles of others — when we pay attention to how they describe their needs. This task involves a choice to be humble and present, generous and engaged.
Embracing chosenness means accepting a moral mandate to speak for and with those whose dignity has been denied. Choosing to do this through a Jewish lens means rooting our lives in ethical obligations, speaking out in the face of injustice, and fighting for a better world. At times, like Officer Cochran, we are the ones who must make ourselves seen. At other times, we must act for the sake of others. We are presented with opportunities to choose and embrace being chosen, to activate our most deeply held values and manifest our truest selves.email print