The Jewish People: Chosen, but Not Exclusively

No religion can claim it holds the absolute truth for all - which isn’t to say that the Jewish mission isn't special.

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With Passover beginning this Friday night, the frenetic preparations for the holiday are at their peak. Traditionally, we refer to Passover as the Festival of Matzot or the Festival of the Time of our Freedom. I’d like to suggest another descriptor, the Festival of our Chosenness, as a means to focus our attention on what that often controversial term means for our identity and mission as individual Jews and as a people.

The concept of the Chosen People has its root in the Book of Exodus. G-d hears the cries of the Hebrews in Egypt, designates Moses as leader, and demonstrates to Pharaoh, the Egyptians and the world that He and He alone is causing the devastation of the ten plagues. He takes His people out of Egypt to worship Him in the desert, brings them to Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah, and then delivers them to the Land of Israel.

However, the Chosen People is not a universally held belief across all denominations. One alternative view, the concept of Jewish Peoplehood, was developed by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, a 20th century thinker and founder of the Reconstructionist movement. In his work, "Judaism as a Civilization," he rejects chosenness as a historical phenomenon, linked to a response to persecution. Defining Judaism as an “evolving religious civilization” allowed Kaplan to establish the centrality of the Jewish people, in place of Judaism, the religion.

I grew up in a home that affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement. At my Bar Mitzvah, the traditional blessing recalling chosenness – “Blessed are You, Lord Who chose us from all the peoples and gave us His Torah” – was replaced with “Blessed are You, LordWho drew us close to His service.” While I no longer identify as Reconstructionist and find great meaning in the traditional wording of the Torah blessing, Kaplan’s principles of unity in diversity and continuity in change still have much resonance for me.

G-d’s chosen relationship with the Jewish people is special and unique, but not exclusive. The practical implication is that other people, nations, and religions can also have special and unique relationships with G-d.

Former Chief Rabbi of England Jonathan Sacks was confronted with the threat of cherem, excommunication, from a segment of the British ultra-Orthodox community, when in 2002, he wrote in his book, "The Dignity of Difference," that “God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to the Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims . . . God is the God of all humanity, but no single faith is or should be the faith of all humanity.” To the dismay of many, myself included, Rabbi Sacks chose to revise the book, restating the offending passages in less problematic language, instead of continuing to counter the position held by his critics that G-d’s relationship with the Jewish people is exclusive.

When we shape our beliefs to the demands of fundamentalists, we diminish G-d. Who are we, whether Christian, Muslim or Jew to believe that, while our truth may be absolute for us, we hold the absolute truth for all? Are we so arrogant to believe that G-d only finds favor with us to the exclusion of all others?

There is much to be learned from a more universal perspective of chosenness, where G-d can have unique relationships with all peoples, with none singled out as exclusive. Isn’t this the model for parenthood, where all children are appreciated and none is the favorite?

The Haggadah's fifth son

On Seder night, we address the individual needs of the four children described in the Haggadah. In addition to the ones mentioned – the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who doesn’t know how to ask – there is a fifth child, as posited by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, among others. This is the child who is so disconnected that he/she doesn’t make an appearance at the Seder. In a time of rampant assimilation and intermarriage, our collective responsibility is to reach out and draw close these children, to help them understand why being Jewish is meaningful, in language that speaks to our chosenness as a privilege and an opportunity. To do so, parents first need to be able to articulate what inspires them about Judaism. That, unfortunately, is usually not something we spend enough time thinking about or speaking about with our children.

The Jewish people’s chosenness has its root in the mission received at Sinai – to bring the world to know our G-d of compassionate righteousness, and be a light unto the nations. That mission is renewed on Seder night with the retelling of our story.

The journey from slavery to freedom is part of the Jewish cultural DNA. We know what it means to be the ultimate outsider. For this reason our faith has to be more expansive, more inclusive; G-d commands us 36 times in the Torah to love the stranger.

May all of us, as we sit around our Seder tables, with all of our children, and our children’s children looking to us for inspiration, be able to tell the story of the Exodus as our story, to explain why it’s a privilege to be G-d’s chosen people, not as an exclusive right, but as an opportunity to serve our unique communal purpose, among other great communal purposes, and to bring Judaism’s gifts to the world.

Dedicated to my dear mother-in-law, Shirley Gottlieb, of blessed memory.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations. The opinions expressed are personal and not representative of any organization with which he is associated.