Does Chosen Mean Superior?
Rabbi Reuven Mann
A fundamental principle of Judaism which disturbs many Jews and gentiles alike is that we are a Chosen Nation. Hashem singled out the Jews from all the people of the earth and gave them His Torah. This idea is not just hinted at, but openly proclaimed in the Books of Shemot and Devarim (and numerous other places in Tanach).
The idea that the Jews have been selected by G-d has been a source of misunderstanding and grief throughout history. It is a major cause of the pernicious disorder of Anti-Semitism which afflicts the world to this day. Indeed, both major world religions acknowledge that, “originally”, G-d chose the Jews. However, they maintain, He subsequently rejected them and now they (the Christians or Muslim) have taken our place. (It is not difficult to detect the psychological motivations behind this theological manipulation).
However, the doctrine of chosenness poses a potential pitfall for the self-image of the Jews themselves. For it is almost inevitable that many will take it to imply that the one’s whom G-d has chosen for an exalted mission must be on a higher plane than all others.
It is not only non-Jews that have a problem with the notion of Jewish racial (or any other) superiority. The entire world (but most specifically the Children of Abraham) has endured extreme suffering at the hands of those who regarded themselves as the Master Race. So that the very notion of such a phenomenon is abhorrent to most people who will condemn any group that puts forth such a claim.
Yet, it seems to me, that many Jews, while they will not say so out loud, do feel on some level that it is because the Jews are in some way better that they have been selected by the Creator to be His People. Is this the correct understanding of this complicated concept?
Moshe Rabbenu addresses himself to this issue in Parshat Eikev. He warns the people not even to imagine that Hashem will drive out the inhabitants of Canaan before the Jews because of their superior stature:
Do not say in your heart, when Hashem pushes them away from before you, saying, “Because of my righteousness did Hashem bring me to possess this Land and because of the wickedness of these nations did Hashem drive them away from before you.” Not because of your righteousness and the uprightness of your heart are you coming to possess their Land but because of the wickedness of these nations does Hashem, your G-d, drive them away from before you, and in order to establish the word that Hashem swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. And you should know that it is not because of your righteousness that Hashem gives you this Land to possess it, for you are a stiff-necked People.
It seems clear from this that Moshe sought to disabuse the Jews of the erroneous understanding that they possessed some sort of moral elevation which entitled them to certain divinely ordained advantages. He is not disputing that Hashem has chosen the Jews but is making it clear that it is not because they are on a higher spiritual plane. In fact, he actually criticizes them because of a certain type of stubbornness that he had detected in them.
It is absolutely imperative that both Jews and gentiles realize the implications of Moshe’s declaration. The Jews must make it clear that they do not hold themselves above anyone else and the rest of mankind should not accuse them of the sin of arrogance.
(It must be mentioned here that everyone acknowledges that the intellectual achievements of Jews and their vast contributions to mankind which are way out of proportion to their numbers do indicate that this People has some kind of “edge”. I would say that this does not stem from some innate superiority but is testament to the great benefits of living according to the dictates and ideals of the Torah. In my opinion any other group that adopted the Torah as their governing constitution and assiduously fulfilled its intellectual and moral demands would attain similar results.)
However the question persists, how should we understand and relate to the reality that the Creator has chosen us to be a “Kingdom of Priests and Holy Nation?” After providing a list of the numerous transgressions of the Jews which bolsters his assertion that they are stiff-necked, Moshe explains, “Only your forefathers did Hashem cherish to love them, and He chose their offspring after them—you from all the Peolples, as this day. And you shall circumcise the foreskin of your heart and should no longer stiffen your neck.”
Our forefathers achieved the highest level of human existence and were worthy to be chosen by Hashem to sire the People who would be His. We, their descendants, were chosen because we are their children and most likely to mold our personalities after their teachings and example. So if we are to be proud it should be because we recognize the great nobility from which we are descended. And we should strive to raise ourselves to their level so we become personally deserving of our great distinction.
The concept of “Chosen People” cannot be dismissed or ignored for it is a vital component of our national identity and constitutes our collective mission and reason for being. But what are the practical consequences of accepting upon ourselves this designation?
I believe that it should impel us to achieve the highest level of behavior as outlined in the Torah. Of course, we must proclaim the divine origin of Torah and its commandments. We must guard them, study them and perform them. We must live by them.
But the way we understand the Mitzvot and the philosophy of life we derive from them is crucially important. Regarding this the verse states; “You shall guard them and perform them, for it is your wisdom and in the eyes of the nations, who shall hear all these statutes and will say, ‘Surely a wise and discerning nation is this great People!”
The goal of the Chosen People is to sanctify Hashem’s Name in the world by demonstrating through their wisdom and behavior the special and unique character of Torah. We must understand and expound the Mitzvot in such a meaningful and compelling manner that intelligent people will take notice and express their admiration. This is our national mission and goal which we must be conscious of and motivated to attain.
The way to move forward is to acknowledge our flaws especially the “barriers” of irrationality that separate us from a genuine and truthful perception of what Hashem is instructing us to do in His Torah. We must remove the moral blinders that cause us to have a distorted understanding of reality so that Hashem’s truth can shine through and enlighten our lives. May we merit to achieve this.