Although the phrase Am Hanivchar, the Chosen People, says an enormous amount about the relationship between God and the Jewish people, it leaves even more unsaid about the nature of that relationship. We can easily list some of the known facts—who, when, even why. (According to the Gemara it is because our forefathers were willing to accept the Torah without reservation, in contrast to the other nations who had reservations.) What is less clear, however, is the nature of the chosenness of the Jewish people. While intuitively chosenness implies something special, what that is remains unclear.
To try to understand the chosenness of the Jewish people, there is a basic question that must be addressed: Are we, the Jewish people, chosen because we are special, or are we special because we are chosen? The Biblical trail of chosenness, beginning with Avraham and his seed, can be read in a way that suggests that the Jewish nation is chosen because traits unique to this people are inherited from the Avot. Indeed, Yehudah HaLevi says explicitly in Sefer HaKuzari that the Jewish nation is special. The position of Sefer HaKuzari is often cited as evidence that Jews have a national character that is distinct from all the other nations.
Are the Jewish people chosen because we are special, or are we special because we are chosen?
There are a number of problems with this view, which is essentially a racial theory of chosenness. Certainly, when interpreting Yehudah Halevi’s views as expressed in The Kuzari one must remember that The Kuzari is not just a philosophical book, but is a polemical work and an apologia. But the racial approach—that Jews are chosen because we are special—is beset by bigger problems than the polemical intent of its main advocate. From the Biblical record we observe that on the one hand, the offspring of both Avraham and Yitzchak were not universally included under the rubric of chosenness despite their familial or genetic linkage; on the other hand, we see from Ephraim and Menashe, the sons of Yosef and an Egyptian wife, that racial and genetic purity was not an essential component in the formation of Knesset Yisrael. Furthermore, the acceptance of gerim (converts) as Jews essentially equivalent to born Jews is inconsistent with the racial view of chosenness. Rambam’s ruling that converts may recite “Elokeinu VeElokei Avoteinu” (our God and the God of our Forefathers) is a major statement about the nature of the conversion process. The convert is so completely accepted and assimilated into the nation that he may claim the Forefathers as his own, despite a divergent national or racial origin. Finally, modern scientific data has not shown that Jews have any biological or genetic advantages over any other ethnic or racial group.
Thus we must reject the racial hypothesis of chosenness, that Jews are chosen because we are special. For some, this is no chiddush—indeed a 1966 survey of Jewish thinkers by the journal Commentary revealed a unanimous view among the Orthodox thinkers, numerous luminaries among them, that the concept of chosenness cannot be used to identify a racial superiority of the Jewish people. Yet nearly forty years later, despite the logical flaws, one still finds this interpretation of chosenness offered, with Sefer HaKuzari cited as the major source. More problematic, one still finds this notion underlying sentiments of racial superiority within the Orthodox community, which seems to generate a kind of religious chest banging that easily degenerates into spiritual arrogance and cultural ignorance.
The alternative understanding of chosenness, that the Jewish people are special because they have been chosen, appears to be a far more likely interpretation. The Gemara’s contention, mentioned earlier, that the Jewish people were chosen because of a national act, the acceptance of the Torah, is consistent with this understanding, yet adds little to how we understand what chosenness means now. While Yeshayahu’s concept of “or lagoyim”—that is, that the Jewish people are chosen to serve as an example to the world, to bear witness to God—is frequently presented as the ultimate purpose of chosenness, in my view, this says nothing about the nature of chosenness. Rather, the nature of chosenness can best be learned from its most basic Biblical source: In parashat Yitro, God tells the Jewish people that they will be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The acceptance of God’s proposal by the Jewish people is immediately followed by a Revelation that unfolds on a national level with the giving of the Torah. Chosenness is thus tightly linked to covenant, and covenant, our covenant, involves our acceptance of the Torah and the mitzvot contained therein. Indeed, the liturgical focus on chosenness relates it exclusively to Torah and mitzvot: In Birkat HaTorah we say “asher bachar banu mikol ha’amim venatan lanu et Torato,” (“Who selected us from all the peoples and gave us His Torah”); in the Kiddush for Yom Tov we say “asher bachar banu mikol am veromemanu mikol lashon, vekideshanu bemitzvotav,” (“Who has chosen us from every people, exalted us above every tongue and sanctified us with His commandments”) and in the Birkat Keriyat Shema of Shacharit, after a tribute to the Torah, we say “uvanu vacharta mikol am velashon” (“You have chosen us from among every people and tongue”). It was the acceptance of the Torah and mitzvot that created the status of chosenness for the Jewish people.
Our chosenness is a direct consequence of our contract with God, a consequence of our forefathers’ acceptance of the Torah in a binding, enduring and non-negotiable manner.
Our chosenness is, in effect, a direct consequence of our contract with God, a consequence of our forefathers’ acceptance of the Torah in a binding, enduring and non-negotiable manner; in Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s words from the 1966 symposium, the result of “active submission to a divinely ordered discipline.” Indeed the prophets’ view of the relationship between God and the Jewish people is commonly formulated in terms of a marriage, a relationship in which mutual obligations and responsibilities are defined by a contract. However, our contract is distinct from a marriage contract in that it is exclusive and eternal. Our failure to uphold our end of the deal neither nullifies the contract nor alters our obligation, though it may have other consequences: “You alone I have known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will visit upon you all of your inequities” (Amos 3:2). More critical for our understanding of chosenness, neither does non-adherence on our part alter God’s obligations to the Jewish people. Just as the prophet Hoshea was obligated to take back his wayward wife, God remains, waiting for the Jewish people despite our straying. This then is the nature of chosenness—the eternal, mutual relationship between the Jewish people and God, who cannot shirk His obligation to us to redeem us when we fulfill our obligations to Him. May that happen speedily in our days.
Dr. Fiorino, M.D., Ph. D., directs biotechnology investments at Sands Point Partners, a health care hedge fund. He attended MIT and received his medical and graduate degrees from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He maintains active interests in medical halachah and ethics and in the philosophy of science.