Chosen People: Some Modern Views

While some modern Jews have rejected the notion of chosenness altogether, others have reinterpreted it as an ethical mission or a national spirit.

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Reprinted with the permission of Schocken Books, a division of Random House, Inc., from What Do Jews Believe?.

The greatest challenge to chosenness as a central tenet of Judaism came with the opportunity for Jews to inte­grate as individuals within modern societies. It became difficult to reconcile Jewish uniqueness with the case for social and political accep­tance. 

Spreading Morality: A Jewish Mission

Reform Judaism was one of the first modern responses to this challenge.

In the eighteenth century, the founders of the Reform move­ment began to play down the role of the commandments and exalt the ethical dimensions of Judaism. The change in emphasis within Reform Judaism was evident in the renewed attention paid to the role of the Jewish people as "a light of nations" [Heb. le-or goyyim; cf. Isaiah 49:6].

In order to highlight this role, the expression was changed to "a light unto the nations [Heb. or le-goyyim]. " Such a subtle shift stressed that Israel was not only to be a moral exemplar but to see its re­ligion as missionary, with morality as the Jewish mission.

Mission-People Rather than Chosen-People

Early Reform thinkers believed that Judaism is a set of universalistic teachings which have made great contributions to Western civilization. They introduced the "mission‑people" concept as a new twist on the chosen‑people concept. The mission‑people concept places the responsibility on Israel both to live up to the ethical demands of the covenant and to disseminate these ethical teachings to the world. In dropping the ethnic and ritual dimensions of Judaism, the proponents of the mission-people concept sought to turn Judaism into a universal ethical culture.

magnifying glassIsaac Mayer Wise, a leading [nineteenth‑century] American Reform rabbi, thought that Judaism had a real chance to become America's religion of choice if it were recast as the purest form of ethical monotheism, without any ethnic component.

The Reform reinterpretation of the chosen‑people concept as the mission‑people concept has come to mean that the Jews are not chosen by God, but rather choose to embrace a social gospel‑-that Jews have a higher calling to solve the injustices in modern society.

Why Does Judaism Still Need to Exist?

But having spread this social gospel, what is the need, we might ask, for the continued existence of the Jews and Judaism?

Rabbi Leo Baeck, German Reform rabbi and Holocaust survivor, provided one answer: Jews possess a special genius for ethical monotheism which keeps the idea alive even today. Were the Jews and Judaism to disappear, ethical monotheism would lose its irreplaceable advocate and might itself disappear.

Nevertheless, the Reform belief that the Jewish people are missionaries for ethics has not proved sufficient to explain why Judaism and the Jewish people should continue to exist, and it provides no impetus for the transmission of Judaism. Ethical ideas are the intellectual property of all people and of none exclusively […]

The mission‑people concept soon disappeared, but the idea persisted that Jews should hold and be held to a high standard of ethical practice and exert considerable effort on behalf of social justice.

Re-embracing Chosenness

In 1975, Reform Judaism made a decisive break with its own past and restored much of what its predecessors had eliminated, including an emphatic statement about the importance of tradition, peoplehood, and the Hebrew language. Reform Judaism now reaffirmed belief in chosenness, peoplehood, and certain mitzvot, but continued to insist that the exalted station of the Jewish people is a product of its ethical religion. This ideological shift reflected the shift back to traditional beliefs within the Reform movement as well as an increasing recognition of the importance of Israel and peoplehood in modern Jewish life.

The Choosing People, Not the Chosen People

Among the four religious denominations of American Judaism, the more traditional ones‑-Orthodox and Conservative Judaism--continue to advocate a belief in chosenness rooted in the notion of religious obligations, the mitzvot, that define the specifically Jewish way of life. Only the Reconstructionist movement rejects the idea of the chosen people.

This reflects the position of the founder of the movement, Mordecai Kaplan, who vehemently opposed the idea that God chooses one people over another. God, for Kaplan, was the impulse for goodness that resides in human beings, not a transcendent being with a capacity to choose.

Moreover, the belief in the distinctiveness and difference of the Jewish people contradicted Kaplan's sense of American democratic egal­itarianism. Reconstructionism, however, introduced the new notion that Jews are "called to God's service." This means that Jews have a religious responsibility to live and act in the world according to the teachings of Judaism. It is the Jews who are called but it is not necessarily God who is calling.

Thus, the Jewish people is the "choosing people" rather than the "chosen people." […]

National Uniqueness

Some Jewish thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries believed that a revived national definition of the Jewish people could provide a coherent system of meaning for modern Jews.

Ahad Haam ([literally] "One of the People"), the pen name of the Russian Zionist Asher Ginzburg, and other cultural Zionists, such as the Russian Hebrew writer Hayim Nahman Bialik, had tremendous love for the spirit and vitality of the Jewish people even if they had doubts about traditional Jewish belief and practice. They sought to identify the "genius of the Jewish people," which had given rise to a distinctive religious culture.

Ahad Haam believed that the Jewish people possessed a "national spirit" which was characterized by a commitment to the prophetic ideals of absolute righteousness. The Jewish people had survived throughout history by virtue of their national spirit and will to live, which was based on dedication to the fundamental and abiding principle of doing what is uncompromisingly right--not by virtue of belief in God. But over time Judaism had become encrusted with rituals, observances, and a law that threatened to stultify the moral sensibilities of the Jewish people.

His views on ethics and ritual were similar to those of Reform Judaism, although his views on peoplehood differed fundamentally from those of Reform.

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Dr. David S. Ariel

Dr. David S. Ariel is head of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He was previously president of Siegal College of Judaic Studies (formerly the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies). He is author of Spiritual Judaism: Restoring Heart and Soul to Jewish Life and The Mystic Quest: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism.