Mosheh Lichtenstein

Bechirat Yisrael, the unique kedushah bestowed upon Am Yisrael by Hakadosh Baruch Hu, is not only an important theological issue worthy of our attention, but, more importantly, it is also a central motif in our religious experience that runs like a thread throughout our life cycle. Every morning as we approach Hakadosh Baruch Hu in prayer, we praise and thank Him in two central parts of the tefillah (Birkat HaTorah and Birkat Keriyat Shema) for His choosing us from amongst the nations; every Shabbat we take note of our uniqueness in His eyes, and every Yom Tov, as the holiday begins, we sanctify it with the ringing proclamation of “Atah bechartanu mikol hamim,” (“You chose us from all the nations”). What is the meaning of this bechirah (election)? Is it compatible with our deeply held belief that the Ribbono shel Olam concerns and involves Himself with the needs of all humankind, and how do we reconcile it with our abhorrence of a racist ideology? To phrase the question in a softer manner, what is the relationship between particularism and universalism in Judaism? Can the two ideals coexist, or must we choose sides?

Any serious attempt to relate to these issues must proceed along a dual path: A. An analysis of the man-God relationship and B. Interpretation of the sources in Tanach that relate to the topic of bechirat Yisrael. However, the medium of a popular magazine article and the amount of space allocated to us preclude a lengthy discussion and the presentation of a close textual reading. Therefore we shall attempt to provide the basics of an approach in the hope that the reader will be able to return to the primary sources and apply the theory outlined here to them, within the broader context of the religious experience.

The imageries employed by Tanach to express the concept of bechirat Yisrael are often drawn from the area of family relationships. The famous statement that Hakadosh Baruch Hu made to Moshe Rabbeinu in the beginning of Shemot (4:22) defines us as His chosen child—“beni bechori Yisrael” (My firstborn son is Israel). Many such verses appear throughout Tanach, each emphasizing our status as God’s children. An additional metaphor—employed often by Yeshayahu and other prophets, and that according to many interpretations, is the entire point of Shir Hashirim—utilizes the marital relationship to express our connection with God. He is the lover, we are the beloved; He is the groom, we are the bride; He is our husband, we are His wife. Although, there are basic differences between these relationships, for our purpose, the crucial point is what they have in common, namely that the metaphor of a marital relationship expresses the concept of bechirat Yisrael as a relationship. The ramifications of this are crucial for our topic, but to better understand them, let us begin with an analysis of the metaphor itself before applying it to the subject of bechirat Yisrael.

We all do our best to relate to others with dignity, respect and empathy; we try to help others when they are in need, to understand and support them in times of crisis and to rejoice with them in times of happiness and achievement. Nevertheless, for family we reserve special treatment. The relationship we have with family—our sense of identification with and our willingness to help them—is qualitatively different than that which we have with strangers.

Were someone to accuse us of having a discriminatory attitude towards non-family members, we would reply that we are not discriminating against strangers by denying them their proper due as human beings, rather it is our relatives who are being singled out for extraordinary treatment because of our intimacy with them. It is not that we are doing less for others, it is that we are doing more for mishpachah (family).

The reason for this is that our connection to family is rooted in an I-Thou relationship—as the very use of the word “relatives” to designate family implies—that exists between us as persons rooted in a common existential and social situation and not in a logical formula or moral imperative. Chazal’s dictum to treat others as we would like them to treat us, (“Mai desani elech lechavercha lo ta’avod”), the obligation to act fairly and honestly in our dealings with fellow human beings and other ethical standards that we abide by are rooted in the realm of reason and obligation. As such, they are universal codes of behavior that must be observed towards all, without exception—friend and foe, neighbor and stranger, Jew and non-Jew. Our relationships with our friends and family, though, are due to an interpersonal connection that reflects an emotional bond. It is not the rule of the mind but the affinity of the heart that is the focal point of these relationships.

Therefore, we do not relate to mere acquaintances as we do to close associates and relatives; and neither do our acquaintances expect us to relate to them as if they were the latter groups. Fairness and respect of all humankind as beings created in His image is our universal obligation, but the special relationship that exists between kin—and that is often expressed in preferential treatment—is not required of us towards strangers.1

It is this same duality that governs our relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu. God is Master of the Universe, the transcendental Prime Mover who towers above man and the world. His supremacy and rule demand total allegiance and obedience from humankind, who is subordinate to Him. This relationship, defined by Chazal as avodah miyirah (worship of awe), is the experience that the Torah focused upon when it distilled the basic religious experience expected of man into a concise formulation of obedience: “Now Israel, what does Hakadosh Baruch Hu, your God, demand of you? Only to fear Hakadosh Baruch Hu, your God, and to observe His mitzvot.” Regarding Jews, man’s subordination to the Almighty is established through the system of the 613 mitzvot, while the obligation of non-Jews towards Hakadosh Baruch Hu is expressed in a more general commitment of ethical and moral behavior, accompanied by a recognition of Hakadosh Baruch Hu that is formulated in the Seven Noahide Laws. Nevertheless, all are obligated by a commitment to act as God imposes upon man.

Fairness and respect of all humankind as beings created in His image is our universal obligation….

This, though, is only part of the story, since the man-God relationship is represented in Tanach not only as a Master and servant, but also as a husband-wife/groom-bride metaphor, as an intimate I-Thou experience. From this perspective, God is not distant and transcendental, to be perceived from the infinite distance of eternity, but rather close to man who is lodged in His bosom.

Thus, we have a dialectical relationship with the Ribbono shel Olam that is rooted both in the numinous awe of middat hayirah and the intimate love of middat ha’ahavah (the attribute of love). There is, though, a basic difference between the two. The former is a universal claim that the Lord of the Universe imposes upon all of mankind, since it is rooted in a condition that is common to both Jew and non-Jew. From the transcendental perspective, all humans are a drop in the bucket and are totally subordinate to the Master, regardless of race, creed or gender. However, this is not so regarding the latter; it is an existential relationship that is not rooted in a universal claim based upon the objective status of man but is a subjective relationship between two entities that retains the particular nature unique to such contact. Therefore, from the vantage point of relationships and their legitimate particularism, disparity between different groups is possible. It is this effect that enables the concept of bechirat Yisrael to be valid while remaing consistent with God’s mercy and justice vis-a-vis humankind.

The metaphor of groom and bride as an expression of man’s involvement with the Almighty was understood by Rambam as the quest of the individual soul that longs for contact with God. Presumably, this is a universal state that applies to all of humankind. Rashi, though, interprets Shir Hashirim as representing Am Yisrael’s unique bond with Hakadosh Baruch Hu. As a nation, the idea of a special relationship with the Ribbono shel Olam is what lies at the root of our status as a chosen people.

The upshot of this in relation to bechirat Yisrael is that we must draw a distinction between these two realms of religious experience when attempting to understand the meaning of Am Yisrael’s election. Regarding the perspective of reason and awe, the difference between Jew and non-Jew is essentially quantitative, as both groups are subsumed under the category of humanity. The controlling metaphor of Tanach in this regard is that of the Master and servant. However, it is also expressed in the parent-child relationship, since there is an element of obedience and subordination in the child’s obligation to his parents that accompanies the love and care between them. The use of the image of the bechor regarding Am Yisrael’s status is very instructive, since the bechor is the eldest son who is first among equals, i.e., all are considered members of a common family despite the differences in rank (see Yeshayahu 19:24-5 and commentators ad loc.), but there is an added value to the bechor that is due to a deeper relationship and to his existential status as representative of the father.

On the other hand, the bride-groom relationship between man and God is unique to Am Yisrael. There can be many family members, but there can only be a single mate, so that an unbridgeable qualitative gap is posited.

This duality expresses itself both in our expectations from non-Jews and in our relationships with them. It is our expectation that non-Jews recognize Hakadosh Baruch Hu, worship Him and obey the dictates that relate to them (be it the Noahide laws or natural law and morality), and it is our obligation to treat them with respect, dignity and honor for their rank in the universe as creatures created in the Divine image and subordinates to Hakadosh Baruch Hu. What we cannot grant them is the status of having Am Yisrael’s intimate relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu. This is a special relationship that is limited to members of Am Yisrael alone.

The idea of a special relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu is what lies at the root of our status as a chosen people.

Therefore, it is evident from this analysis that there are absolutely no grounds for discriminating against non-Jews as human beings but there is legitimacy to deny their participation in our special relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Our obligations towards them should be analogous to our obligations towards a stranger who must be treated with respect and fairness but need not receive the special treatment that we reserve for family.

Practically, this means that anything inherent to the human condition that is not a function of our special relationship applies to non-Jews and should be recognized as such. Therefore, denying non-Jews the legitimacy of their humanity (for example, the need to grieve, laugh, play, work, worship, et cetera2) is a racist position and is counter to the Torah’s values. Moreover, there is a recognition on our part of a common human condition vis-a-vis God, even if manifested in varying degrees of obligation. This is what enables us to benefit from the insights of non-Jewish thinkers and writers who reflect upon the human condition and the universal religious experience. However, values and mitzvot that are a function of the unique Jewish fraternity need not be extended to non-Jews. Thus, the halachot that the Torah imposed upon us as a supra-moral obligation to assist fellow Jews as members of a common brotherhood (for example, ribbit, charging interest for a loan; hashavat aveidah, returning lost items; et cetera) do not apply to non-Jews, while the prohibitions that are rooted in their rights as human beings relate to them as well (for example, theft, murder, et cetera). In a similar manner, we exclude non-Jews from experiences that are a function of our special relationship, such as engaging in Torah Shebe’al Peh, while granting recognition to universal expressions of man’s position in the world, such as tefillah and korbanot (sacrifices) that apply to all of humankind.

Ironically, the position presented here is not too far from that expressed by Rabbi Yehudah Halevi in his classic work, Sefer HaKuzari. Although indeed the thinker who created the widest possible chasm between Jew and non-Jew by advocating a philosophy that denied non-Jews the ability to approach Hakadosh Baruch Hu through the religious medium that we use in our relationship with Him, the popular perception that he did so by denigrating the status of non-Jews is incorrect. A careful reading of The Kuzari will illustrate that all of the spiritual life inherent within natural religion, which is dictated by reason or experience, is expected of all humanity and incumbent upon them. Only the special relationship between man and God, which he termed hainyan haEloki, i.e., the capacity to communicate with Hakadosh Baruch Hu through a non-rational spiritual experience, is limited to Jews. In other words, he draws a distinction between universal, natural religion and a relationship that is unique to His people. Since Rabbi Yehudah Halevi believed that the realm of reason was limited and could not provide the necessary religious fulfillment, his position denying non-Jews a basic religious experience is problematic and not easy to defend. However, the idea implicit in his model, viz, that bechirat Yisrael is not less but more and that natural religion, be it rational or mystic, is universal while relationships alone are particular to us, is a paradigm that we can readily adopt.


  1. The ideal that Chazal posited for us is that we develop the necessary sensitivity to regard all fellow Jews as our brethren and bestow upon them the special relationship that we reserve for family. This is the meaning of the famous statement that all Jews are brothers to each other.
  2. To American ears, the need to emphasize the legitimacy of a non-Jew’s right to such basic elements of the human condition must seem bizarre. But unfortunately, such a denial of legitimacy, either implicit or explicit, is not uncommon among certain religious circles in Eretz Yisrael. The justification for such a position on a theological level, or the understanding exhibited towards such attitudes due to the political circumstances of conflict, do not prevent the chillul Hakadosh Baruch Hu (desecration of God’s name) engendered by such a position.

Rabbi Lichtenstein teaches at Yeshivat Har Etzion.


This article was featured in the Fall 2004 issue of Jewish Action.