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For Jews and for Americans, what does it mean to be a chosen people?

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(Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; Israeli flag: iStockphoto; U.S. flag: Wikimedia)

The Jewish people and the Founding Fathers of the United States have at least one thing in common: the belief that they were chosen by God. But chosen for what, exactly? That is a question that has vexed Jews, Americans, and everyone else for ages. Tablet Magazine’s Liel Liebovitz and sociologist Todd Gitlin have come up with an answer, and, in their new book, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election, they delve into the moral implications of being chosen, both in the American context and the Jewish one. They joined Sara Ivry on Vox Tablet to talk about the origins and tenacity of the idea of chosenness, how it affects contemporary politics, and how to make good on a concept that has not always served either people well. 

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You know, the very first sentence is simply a falsehood, so what good could flow from the subsequent conversation.

“The Jewish people and the Founding Fathers of the United States have at least one thing in common: the belief that they were chosen by God.”

If you look at what Jews actually believe and what early Zionists actually believed in the main, you would find enormous skepticism about the idea that we were literally “chosen by God.” And if you read the founding fathers similar claims were more rhetorical flourishes than deeply held beliefs.

The more honest fact is that “nobody” in the founding generations of either state really believed that kind of thing, no matter the rhetorical lip service that they may have paid to it.

Later, in both countries, such beliefs became more widespread among the masses. But to attribute them in any simple sense to either nation’s founding generation is delusional. They were all more sophisticated than that… from Ben Franklin to Ben-Gurion.

Bob,

These are interesting points – and are among the many that are addressed in this conversation. Maybe it would be worth it to give a listen after all?

-Julie

Joan Uhlar says:

The claim that a people were ” chosen by God ” is arrogant, delusional and frighteningly dangerous. Just as people rid themselves of the claim that kings had a divine right to rule so should we reject any claim that one group of people were chosen by God over all others.
Joan

Dear Joan,

You wrote: “one group of people were chosen by God over all others” is frightening? Perhaps if you understand it in the Nazi interpretation!

What if it meant something else – what if a group of people were “chosen” to aspire to individually and collectively lives of morality and faith. Now we all know they often (both as individuals and as a collective) fall short of the target – but that is their “job” in this world. Not everyone can be a surgeon, but we need surgeons. Nor can everybody be coal miners, although we might need some of those as well. In the same way, the Jewish Bible seeks to “instruct” the world, not through preaching at it, but by providing an example of how it could be done – by placing the burden of living an exemplary life upon the Jewish People.

If I was a non-Jew, I don’t think there is anything “frightening” in this concept. The opposite might not be said by all Jews.

Wishing you well,
Yoel Ben-Avraham
Shilo, Benyamin, Israel

The Jews were chosen by the Creator to bring the understanding of monotheism into the world. They did.

America was chosen to bring the understanding that Rights come from a Creator, and not a government. They did.

The authors’ discussion on the moral implications of being chosen is both honest and thought-provoking.Their ideas provide a useful foundation for the development of an understanding of the circumstances and guidelines defining our selves and our lifelong goals.

And as an added note, perhaps Abraham Lincoln, in his use of the term “almost chosen people” was suggesting that despite so many similarities betwen the Jewish People and Americans, the latter are “almost chosen” only because they are not Jewish.

Moshe Pesach Geller says:

There is no greater example of the appauling ingnorance about anything substantively Jewish than the ‘inyan’ of Choseness. To put it as simply as Americans can receive it (hopefully) to quote Rabbi Shlomo carlebach: “What does it mean to be chosen? To let everyone else know that they are also chosen.”

It’s about becoming free of tyranny. If I know that ‘Ein Od Milvado’ – there is nothing other than haShem, then I know I have only one Master and can become free of the fear of those seemingly in power.

I can be like Sharansky, a free man in a prison cell in the Gulag in Siberia and be a slave in an a floor through apartment on Fifth Avenue. It all depends on who is my master.

If HaShem is my Master, I am the freest person. If government or my boss of money is my master, then I’m the biggest slave.

As Aldous Huxley wrote in his forward to “Brave New World” in the age of the speed of the advance of technology, inefficiency is the greatest sin. Since totalitarianism is inefficient, the powers need to get the people to love their slavery. He wrote of nuclear power and a drug called ‘soma.’ It actualized in TV, Computers and children lining up to be dosed with ritalin and grownups popping their valium, etc.

Since I know haShem is the real power, ‘they’ have no power over me.

It is the job of the Jewish People to let everyone know there is only One God and all are chosen simply by virtue of the fact that they were created. This is what it means.
Okay? Got it? Anyone want to be free? Anone want to be Chosen?

sharon rosen teig says:

puhleese….if nations continue to base the foundation of their politics and ethics upon a godly chosenness, we, as a world, are indeed doomed..we base our choices on greed, power, and fear..Agree with many of the above comments, why would anyone want to be chosen? again, when the us/them paradym continues, fairness goes out the window.

Carolyn Zutler says:

Thank you Moshe for the succinct and lovely definition of choseness from rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Even those who don’t believe in a creator are not threatened by the “chosen.”

My teacher, Rabbi Martin A. Cohen, has taught that Jews experience God through our history. History produces theology and “chosenness” is a theological category. Our history teaches us that wherever Jews have successfully implemented Torah values (of the universal dignity and sanctity of all human life) we have thrived and wherever we have failed to do this, we have suffered. So it is reasonable to conclude that history has chosen the Jews and the mission we are chosen for is to implement Torah–that is, a just society.

Moshe Pesach Geller says:

@sharon rosen teig: …”we base our choices on greed, power, and fear..”

Maybe you base your choices on greed, power and fear. You say it as if it’s an article of faith (sic). But this is not a rule, just a condition some, indeed many, are stuck in. Everyone is chosen for something. Indeed, every created ‘thing’ is chosen for something.

We can see it clearly in the structure of ecosystems. A tree does what a flower doesn’t, as well as a lion does what an owl doesn’t. Each is chosen to perform a role. One person is ‘chosen’ to be tall and be a center for a basketball team. Another is chosen to be endowed with agile, dextrous hands and is chosen to save lives through surgery.

You say: “us/them paradigm throws out fairness.” There are 7 billion people on the planet. ‘Us/Them’ exists for most of them. Look at Afganizstan, India/Pakistan, Fatah/Hamas, North/South Korea, ad nauseum. Some are religiosly expressed. Some are ethnically expressed. Since none of them will ever know what you exist, let alone what you think, what is your solution on the most practicle level?

Can you make a ‘Tea Party’ person love and cherish illegal immigrants? Can you liberate billions of Christians from thinking that unless you accept ‘him’ your doomed? Can you can get Chavez of Venezuela to change his attitude about you as an American? Can you get China or Russia not to be competative or France to care about anyone other then themselves?

The only way to unite the planet is with the only thing we have in common: The same Creator.

Coming soon to a Yerushalayim near you. Stay tuned. Chag Sameach.

Earl Ganz says:

Sara,

A wonderful discussion. I’m going to get the book. I would love to know
what your Spinoza lady thinks of all this given how much Spinoza disliked
the concept of “choseness”.

Terrific.

Joan Uhlar says:

Dear Joel Ben-Avraham
Thank you for your direct response to me. I appreciate your interesting interpretation but I have to believe that God loves/chose all his creation; even me , a 70 something Catholic. I hope that we all were chosen ”to aspire to individually and collectively lives of morality and faith.” I often fail in striving to see the spark of God in every person – I admit – but I do aspire to live a life of morality and faith.
I do think it is dangerous for one people to state that they were chosen by almighty God to be His people. Where does that leave the rest of us poor humans/ nations? That belief could cause “chosen people” to discount others or make decisions based on their notion that as ‘chosen’ they are always correct.
I value the gifts of Judaism. Locally I have participated in roundtable discussions with Muslims, Jews and Catholics ; an effort to see our shared beliefs. I visited a synagogue at the invitation of the Rabbi. I attend lectures at the large synagogue in neighboring city of Norfolk. But – I cannot accept that the Jews are chosen above all other peoples of this world that we share.
Best wishes to you and all of Israel
Joan Uhlar
Va. Beach, Virginia, USA

JUDAISM IS A RACIST IDEA because one can be an atheist and still be considered a subscriber to Judaism. Make no doubt about it – a Gentile who converts to Judaism is considered a second-class citizen by Jews. And it is the Gentile, the “goy,” with his Christianity, that the Jew in his audacity will label a racist offender.

Is it not time that we tell the Jews that their racist hypocrisy will not gain currency amongst us any longer?

Is it not time that we once again affirm the Christian Church,with Her love for God and love for all mankind,before the Jew whose racist Judaism is the true cancer of the Western world?

ALLEN ROTH says:

The notion of the “Chosen” People is one of the most harmful ideas with which Judaism is associated. I grew up in an Orthodox home and, I can’t recall how many times I heard one of my Rabbi/teachers in Yeshiva say: “Being chosen does not mean we are superior…It means that we must serve as an example to the rest of the world on how a righteous person would behave (Ohr la’Goyim).”
What gives anyone the audacity to even suggest that we are any more capable than another group of so instructing by example? We are no more ethical, honest, righteous, or in any other way superior to any other people. And to recite platitudes as my Rabbis used to do is hypocritical and arrogant.
In this respect, I am reminded of what the eminent Israeli Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer replied when an interviewer asked him, “What do you have to say when it is pointed out to you that your Scripture contains a command of genocide against the Canaanites (“All their women and children shall ye put to the sword…”)? He replied, “I have to live with the knowledge and the burden that at one point in history, my people pursued genocide as part of their ideology.” No evasion, no fumbling for some explanation, a simple, direct and honest acceptance of the facts. That is what we ought to do with these “Chosen People:” acknowledge that it was a concept which, for many generations was the only way we could deal with the Temple’s destruction and the much hatred we endured, but that it is no longer part of the Jewish tradition in any way, shape, or form.

Being the chosen people does not mean being privileged. It simply means that G-d chose the Jews to be a people with a mission. That mission being making G-d’s name great in the world using the Torah as its tool to do so. Judaism is not an elitist religion. As opposed to Christianity and Islam, which believe everyone will be the same religion in the end of days, Jews believe that Non-Jews will be allowed to believe and live in whatever way that is suitable for them, as long as they accept G-d in his oneness.

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