The Chosen People?

May 13th: Kedoshim
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

The “chosen people” idea has been problematic for a long, long time. First spoken by God back in Exodus 19 (leading up to the Ten Commandments), it has been both inspiring and morally difficult almost from its first utterance. On the one hand, it is an amazing proposition: that the Creator of the Universe has chosen our people for a mission of moral example and education to the world. This notion of election and responsibility is one that should fill us with a sense of purpose and a sense of connection to the Divine. On the other hand, it could make us think that we are better than other people, and that does not seem to be what God had in mind.

(On the third hand, the Bible’s teaching that we Jews are the chosen people can inspire non-Jews to hate us and think that we are self-centered, selfish, and unconcerned with all of humanity. An example would the very unflattering way 19th Century French Sociologist Emil Durkheim defined religion—the kind of definition that might have inspired the term self-hating Jew. “Religion is an aspect of totemism for which God becomes an expression of the deification of the group.”)

I have spoken before about the various Rabbinical texts that try to turn our people’s collective ego away from an air of superiority, but the efforts go further back than the Talmud and Midrash. In this week’s Haftarah portion, the Prophet Amos (8th Century BCE) addresses the issue, and he is quite specific:
“To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians—declares the Lord.
True, I brought Israel up from the Land of Egypt,
But also the Philistines from Caphtor
And the Arameans from Kir.”  (Amos 9.7-8)
Lest we think that we are somehow connected and thus insulated from God’s judgment, the prophet reminds us that God’s standards apply to everyone—even the Jewish people!

When I read this Haftarah at my Bar Mitzvah, back in 1966, the message that God loves black people (Ethiopians) just as much as Jews and other white people was important in bolstering the moral and religious position of the Civil Rights Movement. This element of Universalism in the Bible was a message people needed to hear when one part of humanity was being treated as inferior. The message of the Bible is clear: God loves everyone—and no one more than another!

On the other hand, it is possible to misread and misapply the Bible’s Universalism and think that the value of all humanity is the only value—that the cultures and religions of various groups are somehow obstructions to peace, harmony, and respect. In both the Bible and the Rabbinic texts, there is a balance of Universalism and Particularism, a balance in which God loves everyone and also the various groups, nations, ethnic groups, or religions that make up humankind. God’s love for everybody and God’s universal standards of behavior do not conflict with God’s individual relationships with various groups or the roles God assigns to them. Note the way the Amos passage makes it clear that, in addition to whatever purposes God has for Israel, God’s purposes also require the Philistines to play their part and the Arameans to play their part. It is not an insult to one child that a parent loves and has great or different hopes for another child.

In other words, there is nothing wrong with celebrating our special relationship with God and reveling in the religious approach our people has developed for understanding and manifesting God in the world. It does not demean any other group or suggest that they are unimportant or unloved/unguided by God. Indeed, one of the joys of a multicultural perspective is the realization that beauty, wisdom, and spiritual reach can come in many different forms.

It has often been noted—in criticism—that “the most racially segregated hour of the week is Sunday morning,” when blacks and whites go to their own separate churches. To some, this is an indictment of religion’s morality, but I differ. Is there not a beauty to the various styles and nuances of worship one finds in different worship settings? Why should white Baptists not be allowed to pray in their style? Why should black Baptists not be allowed to pray in their style? The same can be said for all of the other denominations and ethnicities in Christianity. Choosing a particular worship ambience and attracting like-minded people is not segregation or discrimination; in this day and age, almost all churches are open to people of different races and ethnicities. The so-called segregation is actually individuals choosing particular kinds of worship—staid or exuberant or traditional or contemporary—and meeting the God Who, we are told in Amos, has a relationship with every people and with different styles of worship.

I believe that we can fully embrace our Jewishness and at the same time appreciate, respect, and work with people of other religions. Particularism and Universalism are not necessarily exclusive. God can speak in many languages and cultures, and God can be approached in many languages and cultures. We can appreciate other religions as well as celebrate our own—and thus follow God’s example.