Friday, September 4, 2009

What does the phrase "Chosen People" mean?

Jewish novelist Chaim Potok's most famoust book - one that has since become a classic in Jewish-American literature - is titled The Chosen. Through an array of colorful characters he explores the trials and tribulations of Jewish life in New York in the early 20th century, focusing on the generational divide and the tradition-vs.-modernity dilemma. One of the questions discussed and argued vociferously in his book is: What does the phrase "Chosen People" mean?

I have serious qualms about this phrase because it smacks of Jewish supremacy. It's a loaded and dangerous phrase that can be used to justify racial superiority. It has been used to excuse violent acts and unconscionable behavior. But the abuses of this concept are an excellent reason to try to find a different meaning, one that can be reconciled with the modern approach to human rights. And this week's parasha, Ki Tavo, prsents us with an opportunity to discuss this idea and find a new explanation.

This week's Torah portion contains two verses that can be used to illustrate one of the most basic principles in the world of Jewish faith regarding the relationship between the people of Israel and God. Here are the two verses:

You have affirmed this day that the Lord is your God, that you will walk in His ways, that you will observe His laws and commandments and rules, and that you will obey Him. And the Lord has affirmed this day that you are, as He promised you, His treasured people who shall observe all His commandments. Deut. 26: 17-18

The verb used in both verses - affirmed - gives us reason to pause. The original Hebrew word - he'emir - is a unique Hebrew verb which appears only one time in the entire Bible - in the above-mentioned verses (for the linguists: it's the hifil conjugation of the root AMR). There are many interpretations of this verb, and because every translation is by definition also an interpretation, it follows there are different ways to translate this verb into English. For example, I have seen this verb translated as follows: "You have recognized this day...". In any case, it is clear that this word says something about the ties between God and the Jewish people, and it seems to suggest that God has chosen or acquired the Jewish people in the sense that a person acquires something precious.

It is noteworthy that this verb appears in both verses, suggesting a reciprocal relationship: You affirmed God today to be your God, and God affirmed you to be His chosen people. Is there a causal tie between these two? Is it because the Israelites chose God to be their God that He chose them as His chosen nation? Or is it the opposite: Because God chose the people of Israel as His chosen people - they have chosen Him as their God? Or are they parallel to one another, without any causal link between the two?

A close examination of the two verses reveals that the connection between them is far more profound: "You have affirmed this day the Lord to be your God" - and how is this choice realized? It is through your obligations to keep His commandments. That is the way we relate to God.

What about the second verse? "The Lord has affirmed this day that . . . you are His treasured people." And how is that manifested? One might expect that just as Israel's choice is expressed in the observance of God's commandments, God's choice of Israel should be expressed in something that God will do for Israel. But that is not what the Scripture says. The Scripture ends this verse by stating: "[you are] His treasured people who shall observe all his commandments." The Torah's message here is that God's choice of Israel is expressed in the same terms as Israel's choice of God - in the fact that Israel observes His commandments.

In other words, there is no privilege or promise associated with God choosing Israel. These two verses are not two parallel matters, nor are they two items where one is the cause of the other. Both verses emphasize one idea: The relationship between God and his nation, and the relationship between the nation and its God, are not two things juxtaposed one against the other; rather, they are two iterations of the same thing. The fact that the people accept God as their God is the very fact that God chooses His people. The aspect of being God's chosen people carries with it no promise or guarantee. Being the "chosen people" gives no claim or right to anything; it merely obligates the people of Israel to follow God's commandments.

This, then, is the meaning of being different than other nations: it is not that the Jew lives longer, it is not that a Jew has title a certain land, it is not that a Jew has more rights than others, it is not that a Jew's fate is, objectively, superior to that of other people; rather, the "chosen people" concept is reflected solely in the requirement to follow God's commandments and abide by all the moral requirements contained in God's instructions to the Jewish people.

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Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Accepting the Yoke of Heaven, Urim Publications, 2002

JPS translation of the Bible (a.k.a. Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary)