June 22, 2012
Ideas of chosenness
It is as old as any Jewish joke. Facing Hashem, the believer asks, “Is it true we are your Chosen People?”
“Of course,” answers God.
“Then isn’t it time you chose someone else?” retorts the impudent one.
The idea of a “Chosen People” is a source of both jokes and deep theological discussion. It is also a source of something problematic.
Dina Avramson, a writer reflecting on her recent Shavuot study in an online piece for Ynet, sees something sinister in the concept and calls for an end to the assumption of chosenness.
“I would laugh if it wasn’t so sad – the self-conviction that Jews possess all that is pure and noble and maintain a constant connection to divinity and to infinite light, while all other nations of the world are overcome by promiscuity, lust and robbery. We are holy, yet they are filled with darkness and spiritual impurity,” she writes.
Like so much else in every ancient religious text, chosenness is a concept from a particular time and place. If chosenness is an outdated concept, as Avramson posits, then it is up to far more than the Jewish people to address the “problem.”
Is there a religion on earth that does not purport that its adherents are chosen as God’s special children, in one form or another? Our ancient ancestors may have trademarked the term, but when we look at the theology and behavior of other major religions, it is they, as much or more so than Jews, who behave as if they are God’s chosen. In both Islam and Christianity, entrance to heaven is available only to those who adhere to the word of the earthly messengers of the divine. Chosenness, like monotheism, began with Jews but spread like wildfire through Christianity and Islam.
This is understandable enough. A religion that does not offer some special relationship with the deity it purports to represent would have to be some discount-store theology.
Nations, too, are founded on a form of chosenness, a chauvinism that manifests in forms ranging from harmless football rivalries to war. And yet, who gets the guff for being uppity? Oh yeah, this century, like others, it’s still the Jews.
Everyone else might exhibit the same characteristic, but the world notices it most in Jews. The basis of stereotyping is the application to one people of an exaggerated version of a human characteristic. Jews, for a range of reasons including being the only “outsider” in many historical societies, have served as an empty vessel into which others can dump their issues. Jews, it has been said, are like everyone else – only more so. In other words, characteristics that are innately human are perceived by others to be exaggerated in Jews. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the distorted perceptions of chosenness.
At anti-Israel protests in this city, we have heard the chant “No more Chosen People.” In countless online screeds against Israel and against Jews, there is a sneering invocation of the term. Even in mainstream moderate contexts, the idea of chosenness is raised, usually to be left hanging for the observer to decipher.
The theme is obvious in much anti-Israel rhetoric. For all its technological innovation and for creating a world-leading economy out of little more than sand and ideas, Israel is the envy of its neighbors. But this is little to celebrate, since Jews throughout the centuries have known the dangers of envious neighbors.
In some narratives, Israel is explicitly accused of treading on the rights of Palestinians, based on a moral dispensation provided by chosenness. Whatever Israelis do is viewed by some through a lens of chosenness, which wrongly interprets necessary acts as wanton behavior by people who think they can get away with anything because they have God in their corner. In many more narratives, similar precepts of Jewish divine dispensation are more implicit, but just as central.
Jews are indeed different and, as the saying in another context goes, vive la différence! In a society that values diversity, Jewish difference should be celebrated along with all the other permutations of difference.
While most of us accept that we are different, it is a rare Jew indeed who would make the case that our racial or religious identity makes us superior to people who do not belong to our tradition. Yet this is the case against us in much of the popular imagination. The term “chosen” is thrown against us as if we invented it in the current generation. Every Jewish stereotype and perceived sin is put down to the egotistical presumption of superiority inherent in the term “Chosen People.”
Chosenness is not exclusive to Jews; almost everyone claims special relationships with God. Most do it far more blatantly and aggressively than we do. We just get the rap. Funny that.