Different Perspectives on Chosenness[i]
BY: Shlomo Zuckier
In analyzing the issue of Jewish chosenness, it is possible to present the question of the selection of the Jewish People as a problematic: Why would God, who created the entire world and cares about all His creatures, choose only one nation to bear His mantle and have the fullest religious experience? Of course, there are different accounts of this relationship between God, the Jewish people, and the other nations that may limit the difficulty,[ii] but this strong formulation of Jewish chosenness expresses the sharp question of why the Jews were deserving of God’s choice. What is it about the Jews that warrants their possession of this coveted title?
Several answers have been promulgated in medieval Jewish literature to respond to this question. Maimonides, ke-darko ba-kodesh (following his usual style), provides and answer that satisfies the rationalist reader.[iii] He argues that the Jews are chosen because of their own decisions and merit, and not because of any inherent factor. Avraham was the first to (re)discover God, and he spread that idea to the entire world. Because of this great accomplishment and his ensuing relationship with God, Avraham’s descendants merited to be God’s chosen people, receiving a larger portion of laws as they continued Avraham’s goal of spreading knowledge of God to the world. One interesting ramification of this opinion that Rambam presents is that Avraham’s spiritual descendants (i.e. converts) enjoy the same status as his biological ones, as Rambam stresses when communicating with Ovadiah the convert.[iv]
R. Yehudah ha-Levy does not share the Rambam’s perspective of historical factors and ethical merit in his Sefer Ha-Kuzari.[v] R. Yehudah ha-Levy instead presents a biological system of superiority, where the trait of supremacy passes from Adam and down, along paternal lines. He explains how the Jewish people inherited this superior quality, and that, combined with the climatic excellence of the land of Israel, proves Jews superior and allows them to excel, to the point that they are basically considered a distinct species from non-Jews. This preeminence manifests itself in several ways, such as the ability to receive prophecy, and it also explains why the Jews were chosen by God and received the Torah; God wanted a superior people to bear His Torah.
Maharal[vi] presents a perspective distinct from both Rambam’s perspective of Avraham choosing God and the Kuzari’s approach of viewing Jews as inherently superior. This approach does parallel the Kuzari’s idea that Jews have certain inherited qualities, but those features are metaphysical rather than physical. In other words, the Jewish nation, by their metaphysical nature, is connected to its God, while the other nations have inherent connections to other deities or powers. It is not a matter of superiority but of differentiation, that the helek (portion)[vii] of the Jews entails that of God and being chosen. Maharal’s approach explains the nature of Jewish chosenness, but it does not name a distinct cause for that status.
We now turn and explore some opinions that appear centuries later than these medieval and early modern thinkers. The three thinkers that will be explored regarding this issue are R. Aharon Kotler, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and Professor David Novak.
R. Aharon Kotler, who established the Beth Medrash Gavoha in Lakewood and successfully initiated the transplantation of Haredi European yeshivah life to America, authored a several-volume work which transcribes and summarizes the important speeches he gave in yeshivah, Mishnat Rav Aharon. Throughout several articles on relevant topics to Jewish chosenness, including “The Sanctity of Israel,” “You Are Sons to Hashem Your God,” and “You Shall be A Holy Nation,”[viii] a common sermonic thread appears. In each place, he mentions that Jewish chosenness and closeness to God, which sanctify the Jewish people, and both allow for and demand fealty to the divine will. This is to be manifest in intense Torah study (the overriding theme throughout the volumes), observance of religious law, and a self-dignity, but not egotism, that typifies a ben Torah (student of Torah). This is used to explain both the significance of kedushat Yisrael (the holiness of Israel) and what it means to be a son to God. In fact, in his article on being a son to God, R. Kotler mentions that studying Torah with great focus and strong religious commitment can qualify one as a ben sha’ashu’im (favorite son), an interesting twist on the idea of viewing Israel as God’s son. What is most glaring in R. Kotler’s treatment of the issue, however, is what does not appear, which is any differentiation between Jews and non-Jews. Outside of an offhand comment that non-Jews do not have the luxury of learning Torah and coming close to God, they are absent from all these treatments of the special nature of Jewish chosenness.
Moving on to R. Soloveitchik, I would like to focus on his work Fate and Destiny (originally Kol Dodi Dofek).[ix] He proffers a dichotomy between the following two covenants, cut respectively in Egypt and at Sinai: there is the camp of a simple and passive shared fate on the one hand, and a congregation with a shared destiny of following God’s commands on the other. In describing the Covenant of Destiny, R. Soloveitchik says: “It is the unceasing stream of supernal influence that will never dry up as long as the people charts its path in accordance with the divine Law.”[x] In other words, while fate comes without stipulation and it applies equally to animals as men, a precondition for taking part in Jewish destiny is commitment to the law, and this binding legal force is what drives the Jewish people forward in history. This is the covenant that was accepted by Israel at Mount Sinai, along with the acceptance of the law. The continuation of a nontrivial Jewish identity is synonymous with being bound to the covenant.
Professor David Novak recently penned an article entitled “Why Are the Jews Chosen,”[xi] where he also discusses the topic at hand.[xii] His claim is that Jews, in order to be accurately considered the chosen people, need to positively affirm their chosenness by actively participating in Jewish ritual. Only by perpetuating God’s manifestation in the world – by their observance of Torah – can they properly claim to be chosen. In fact, this is the purpose of chosenness, according to Novak, as he writes “we [Jews] were chosen to be the trustees of God’s Torah.” His presentation of Israel choosing God is distinct from that of Rambam because the requirement of connecting to God is not the cause of chosenness, as it is for Rambam, but is rather the result thereof, that God’s choice of us demands that we choose Him as well, by following his mitsvot.
I would like to suggest that there is a common denominator between these three American Jewish thinkers of the past century. Though they had disparate educations and functioned in different roles from one another in the American observant community, their theology of Jewish identity seems to hold a common theme. Each seizes upon continued Jewish observance (of different flavors) as part of the very necessary positive affirmation of God’s choice by the Jews, while ignoring the questions of why exactly Israel deserves to be chosen.
It could be that these contemporary theologians were not fully comfortable with the earlier material on the issue. The medieval theories each hold some logical gap for the modern thinker. Kuzari’s theory of superiority smacks of racism and is hard for someone of modern sensibilities to accept. Maharal’s metaphysical theory is kabbalistic and hard to pin down. Rambam’s theory of ascribing chosenness to Avraham’s piety begs the question of why his actions should forever impact his descendents (for better or worse), even those who completely negate his belief system. None of these questions are fatal blows, but they may be enough to drive a modern theologian to focus on different aspects of chosenness. And, thus, each of the three recent thinkers dwells upon the issue of continued observance as integral to the covenant, whether in order to qualify one as a favorite son, to be included in the covenant of destiny, or to reinforce God’s original choice. It would appear that the contemporary account of Jewish identity focuses not upon its cause but upon its effect, analyzing not the question of me-ayin ba (whence did it come?) but rather le-an holekh (where does it go?). This model of focusing on the outcome of Jewish chosenness and not its origin is an attractive one to the modern Jew, as it has implications and directives for how we can live our lives and does not overly try to understand God’s workings. In our own meditations upon our purpose in this world, as well, we can follow this contemporary model and attain a better appreciation for our place in the world.
Shlomo Zuckier is a senior at YC majoring in Philosophy and Jewish Studies and is an Editor-in-Chief for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] In starting this article, I would like to thank R. Shalom Carmy, whose excellent class on the election of Israel was the source of much of the first part of this article.
[ii] Some of these accounts limit the special nature accorded to the Jews, such as formulations that present them as a firstborn son, where there is some special favor accorded to the bekhor but it does not take away from the fact that all people are God’s children. Alternatively, one can present Jewish chosenness as meaning that Jews have a role to spread knowledge of God to the nations, a universalistic approach that blunts the sharpness of their exclusive choice.
[iii] This analysis is based on Hilkhot Avodah Zarah, ch. 1, Teshuvah 293, and the letter to Teiman.
[iv] Teshuvah 293 (to Ovadiah the Proselyte).
[v] This analysis is based on Sefer Ha-Kuzari I:92-103 and II:35-44.
[vi] This analysis is based primarily on Netsah Yisrael, ch. 2.
[vii] Based on Devarim 4:19 and 29:25.
[viii] The full range of topics surveyed is Kedushat Yisrael (Sanctity of Israel, Mishnat Rav Aharon II:156-158), Banim Atem La-Hashem E-lokeichem Lo Titgodedu (You are Sons to Hashem Your God, Do Not Tear, I:157-159), Ve-Atem Tihyu Li Mamlekhet Kohanim Ve-Goy Kadosh (And You Shall Be For Me a Tribe of Priests and a Holy Nation, I: 159-160), and Ki Lo Tishakkah Mi-Pi Zar’o (For it Shall Not Be Forgotten by His Offspring, I:33-34).
[ix] Kol Dodi Dofek: It is the Voice of My Beloved that Knocketh, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Hoboken: Ktav, 2000.
[x] P. 54.
[xi] First Things, April 201, available at: http://www.firstthings.com/RSS/article/2010/03/why-are-the-jews-chosen.
[xii] He has written a book on the classical sources regarding Jewish chosenness, adopting a modified Rambam position, but it appears that this discussion is more contemporaneous, as seen by the 20th century context of the article.