Judaism from A to Z—”Chosenness”
The idea of being a chosen people has often been a sticky issue for Jews, and a source of tension with those we live amongst. It can sound arrogant to describe ourselves as ‘a light unto the nations’, or simply fantastical in a context where we have been a community so often trampled by others.
As Progressive Jews we are challenged to ask the hard question: How do we respond to the values of our own religious and ethical traditions? Claims of (absolute) truth, mission and chosenness should make us feel uncomfortable. But they can also prompt us to think deeply about our place in the world: what does being, and doing, Jewish mean in a world as colourful, yet torn, as ours? What is our sense of purpose and mission? Who belongs to our community—who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’? Is it good to turn modestly inwards or better to step boldly outwards? Looking at notions of chosenness and covenant may help us come to some meaningful conclusions.
Chosenness in the Biblical and Rabbinic tradition is not a stand-alone concept designed to affirm our superiority. It is always seen as relational, covenantal and conditional: it requires emotional investment, trust and a sense of self-criticism. We aren’t perfect (nor expected to be) but we have something to share and give. We are called upon to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex. 19:6), even though we are the smallest of peoples (Deut. 7:7) and likewise, we are enjoined not to be self-congratulatory. The prophet Amos reminds us that God’s covenant with Israel does not preclude Divine covenants with other peoples “To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians—declares the Eternal. True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir” (Amos 9:7). This powerful idea of God’s multiple covenants and relationships with all peoples is reflected in the famous teaching that the righteous of all the nations have a share in the world-to-come. Chosenness, then, is not about superiority but about spiritual intimacy, obligation and relationship.
Inspired by the Prophetic teaching to be a light unto the nations (Isaiah 42:6), Progressive Judaism emphasises our calling as Jews: to be the bearers of ethical monotheism in the world, a concept that finds expression in ‘tikkun olam’, repairing the world, as well as affirming choice and pluralism of both Jews and non-Jews. To do away with chosenness would be just as dangerous as to embrace it uncritically. Growth and insight lies in the creative tension where we have to wrestle with the Divine imperative of the Hebrew Bible and the Rabbinic Tradition. This helps us to shape a Progressive Judaism that is both authentic and dynamic. Chosenness provides Jews with a sense of history and future, balances universalism and particularism, —one cannot exist without the other.
(Source: Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz )