Michael Chabon contributes a rollicking, sinuous, but, in the end, unsatisfying op-ed piece to the June 6 New York Times arguing that the world does a disservice to the Jews—the Israeli government’s segment of the Jews, in particular—by holding us to a high moral and intellectual standard. We’re not especially smart and we’re not especially wise.
“Our history,” he writes, “is littered as thickly with the individual and collective acts of blockheads as that of any other nation or people or tribe.” The Jews survived not by virtue of virtue, or wisdom, or moral—or any other kind of—intelligence, he argues, but by dumb luck. In fact, we had better beware of those who rank us high for excellence, since they may soon be sharpening their guillotines when we fall short of the presumptuous standard we ourselves claim.
Chabon works his way to the conclusion that we Jews have been hoist by our own petard. What’s at fault are our exalted standards: “Let us not, henceforward, judge Israel or seek to have it judged for its intelligence, for its prowess, for its righteousness or for its moral authority,” he says, “by any standard other than the pathetic, debased and rickety one that we apply, so inconsistently and self-servingly, to ourselves and to everybody else.”
The idea of the Jews as a chosen people, Chabon maintains, is the fruit of a poisoned tree. Yet what to do with the tree, he doesn’t say. Should it be uprooted? Without it, what remains of Judaism? We think the estimable author of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union underestimates the bizarre idea of chosenness—peculiar, even incredible as it may be. The idea is stranger and richer than he grants, and might indeed, if properly understood, offer a way out of the trap that the present government of Israel has burrowed its way into.
Two years ago, when the two of us first set out to think our way into a book about the concept of chosenness, we felt much as he feels now. We are secular types. Like him, we felt queasy about the exceptionalism that holds one nation—any nation—to be more exalted than others. We thought that divine election was nothing but a dangerous folly that Jews—and Americans, too, whose sense of nationood stems from being “God’s new Israel”—ought to abandon or overcome.
But our reading of history and some of Judaism’s core texts—from the Bible onward—convinced us to think again. The idea of chosenness is more than presumptuous—though it is that. It is also foundational. Who are the Jews in the first place if not a people that believe that their ancestor was singled out—if unaccountably—by God?
According to Genesis, after all, God’s choice of Abraham is at first unmotivated. His first covenant, after all, was with Noah because the man was righteous, and for his sake God would honor “all flesh that is upon the earth.” But His later covenant with Abraham, it is said, will generate a whole particular people to be God’s own. This is mystifying, since it owes nothing to any particular quality of Abraham’s. But eventually God will clarify by delivering divine law to Moses and the Israelites. In a way, the Jewish people have invented the idea of chosenness, but in truth, the idea of chosenness has also invented the Jewish people. Such is Judaism’s wonderfully inverted logic: First comes redemption, only then reasons.
What the Jews get in the bargain is as much ordeal as assurance. Other peoples do not necessarily appreciate the Jews claiming the land. Massacres ensue, and bitter conflicts, and exile. Yet somehow, across the centuries, the Jews doggedly and ingeniously believe themselves to be God’s dearest children, bound by a set of edicts. They remain distinct—they survive as a people. When Chabon credits Jewish survival to blind luck, he ignores the essential significance of the idea of chosenness—that only by believing themselves to be God’s dearest children, and therefore bound to principles that distinguish them from the nations of man, do the Jews manage to retain their distinct identity. Now, as in the days of Abraham, we owe all to this rich and strange idea.
What to do with such an onerous and baffling conviction? The Torah provides little clarification. God tells the Israelites that they are destined to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The exact terms of service are never revealed. In perplexity over the meaning of the fundamental contract of their existence—a contract as obscure as it is formative—the Jews devote themselves to parsing texts. They become a kingdom of critics. Trying to work out the meaning of holiness, figuring out their moral responsibilities to themselves and to others—this is their mission. As Chabon writes, the message is decidedly ambiguous. But this is the Jews’ saving paradox. Rather than place our faith in the divine, we are supposed to figure out our duties for ourselves.
Seen in this light, chosenness is central to the existence of the Jews. It’s an unearthly idea but not an inhuman one. To reclaim it is not a warrant for smugness but a holy obligation. True, the work of reclaiming it runs a sizable risk: That exceptionalism will gather unwarranted praise as well as undue scrutiny. So be it. The Jewish state has received both in generous portions. Now, it must reject both out of hand—in the name of a deep understanding of chosenness. If it is to thrive, it must heed neither the cooing nor the calumny. To be chosen means to spend one’s days trying to ascertain what it means to be chosen, a quest that, if undertaken with an open mind and an honest heart, leads to the growth of the spirit.
It would be unwise to allow sole custody over this volatile idea to zealots of any persuasion. The idea of chosenness is too deeply ingrained in us to be overlooked, patronized, or definitively repealed. Whether or not we believe that the descendants of Abraham were singled out, in perpetuity, by God, and whether or not we find this to be an outlandish, if not offensive, notion—no matter what, we must grapple with it, for it is, behind our backs, grappling with us.
Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz are co-authors of the upcoming The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election, published in September by Simon & Schuster.