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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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.

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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.