It seems, often, that others deem us the Chosen People far more readily than we do, ourselves. And not necessarily in a positive way.
This is a crime.
In Jewish liturgy and text, chosenness and love are inextricably intertwined. The Jewish people is called God’s “firstborn.” We are chosen with love. Chosen for what, though? The shame, I believe, comes from a deep misunderstanding of the answer to that question, and I believe the answer people harbor in their hearts comes in various varieties.
1. We’re not chosen. Jews are like everyone else. We shouldn’t be different from everyone else. It’s what makes us hated. The more similar we will be, the more “normal” – the better. Who are we to think we’re better than anyone?
2. We’re chosen, yeah, but we shouldn’t really advertise it. I mean, just between us, Jews are smart, ambitious, driven, bent on education and family values. We’ve won all these Nobel Prizes and we’re barely a blip demographically. These ideas feel like a superiority complex, so better not to discuss it too much, but just read Start-up Nation and Mark Twain and what-have-you. It’s undeniable.
3. Jews are chosen for greater responsibility – to be a light unto the nations (see Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s concise and brilliant If You Were God – a book that changed my life). That means we have more obligations in Judaism (613 instead of the 7 that non-Jews have) and a request from God to be a good example wherever we go. This is how I see things.
One time, my husband and I were at the Geauga County Fair. For those of you that don’t live in Ohio, firstly you’ll never ever know if I misspelled Geauga, and secondly let’s just say that we were the only members of an ethnic or religious minority there. There was a wagon that was transporting the visitors from the parking area to the fair, and we were (surprise) toting a stroller. As we attempted to maneuver the stroller onto the wagon, a man jumped off the wagon to help us and after we all settled in, said conspiratorially, to our utter shock, “You guys are the Chosen People. It’s an honor to help you. And Israel? I don’t know why everyone doesn’t understand that it’s your promised land.”
And with that we rolled along on our merry way as I tried to find my tongue.
Whatever you might say about evangelical Christians and Israel, one thing is clear: I’ve been reminded often by non-Jews, sometimes in a positive way and sometimes in a negative way, that the Jews are unique and different and will never really blend in.
What startles me is how uncomfortable many Jews are with this concept. Sort of like not wanting to be teacher’s pet. Maybe this is one reason Jews rarely invoke God’s name socially or publicly (as a good friend of mine put it, “we were raised to never say God’s name, except in vain”), whereas non-Jews seem wildly cool with it.
Truthfully, although Jewish literature is replete with references to the Chosen People notion, it’s hardly exclusionary. Judaism both tells us not to push our religion on others and to accept them if they truly want to convert. Judaism also teaches that any good person, Jew or non-Jew, has a share in the Jewish version of the afterlife. In other words, while Jews are chosen by God, anyone can choose to be chosen just like we did. We chose to be chosen nationally (Abraham our forefather discovered God on his own and any of his children who followed his monotheistic path became Jewish) and anyone can choose to be chosen too.
Having done a completely non-scientific study, my research seems to indicate that Jews who have grown up in remote communities, where they were among a very small number of Jews (and they always know exactly what that number was), are convinced that Jews are different and special – indeed a member of the “Chosen People” – and don’t have a problem with the concept, whereas perhaps ironically (since many Jewish parents choose this next option purposefully to aid in their kids’ Jewish “identity”) Jews who grow up in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods, go to public school with Jewish kids and attend summer camp with Jews, tend to struggle mightily with it and fight it.
To respond to William Norman Ewer’s famous witticism:
I like this anonymously penned rejoinder:
It’s not so odd
the Jews chose God