All my life I’ve heard the Jews referred to as “The Chosen People.” It feels really offensive to think that we are better than non-Jews. Aren’t all men (and women) created equal?
Let’s assume that you work in an office. The boss calls a meeting for all the sales staff to discuss things like quotas and commissions. You show up at that meeting and the boss says, “What are you doing here? This meeting is for sales staff and you’re in accounting!” You reply, “Aren’t all men (and women) created equal?” The boss could then logically respond, “Of course they are. This meeting just has nothing to do with your job!” It’s sort of like that.
Let’s look at the sources of the whole “chosen” thing.
God chose the descendants of Abraham (specifically through Isaac and Jacob) because he was the one who recognized God and reintroduced the idea of monotheism to a world that had fallen into idolatry. In Genesis 17:7, God tells Abraham, “I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and your descendants after you throughout their generations, as an everlasting covenant, to be a God for you and to your descendants after you.”
Accordingly, God gives special attention to Abraham’s descendants, as Moses details in Exodus chapter 4 when referring to the Exodus from Egypt – “Has any god performed miracles to take for himself a nation from the midst of another nation, with trials, signs and wonders, with war and a strong hand, with an outstretched arm and with great awesome deeds, like all that Hashem your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?” (verse 34) – and the revelation from Sinai – “Has a people ever heard God’s voice speaking from the midst of the fire as you have heard and live?” (verse 33).
The idea of chosen-ness is stated explicitly in Deuteronomy 14:2: “You are a holy people to Hashem your God, and Hashem has chosen you to be a treasured people for Him from among all the nations on Earth.” The prophets Isaiah revisits this idea numerous times – so many times, that he’s probably the one who popularized the idea. For example, in chapter 41 of the book that bears his name, Isaiah quotes God as saying, “But you, Israel My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the descendants of Abraham, who loved Me, whom I grasped from the ends of the earth, from its nobles I called you and I said to you, ‘You are My servant.’ I chose you and I did not reject you” (verses 8-9).
So does this mean that some people are better than other? Or that God automatically likes some people better than others? Not at all! There are many other verses like Numbers 27:16, which refers to God as “Hashem, the God of the spirits of all flesh” – meaning the God of all mankind, not just the Jews. Similarly, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 38a) discusses the question of why God created one man, from whom all mankind is descended. One of the answers given is so that no one should be able to claim descent from a superior ancestor.
There’s another relevant Talmudic story, recounted on both Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b. It is recorded in Exodus that the Jews sang a song of praise at the Red Sea to give thanks for their salvation. According to Talmudic exegesis, the angels also wanted to take this opportunity to sing God’s praises but God did not permit them to do so. Rather, He chastised the angels, saying, “My children are drowning in the sea and you want to sing?” From this it is evident that the Egyptians (and other nations) are also God’s children, about whom He also cares.
So if the Jews are indeed chosen, for what are they chosen? Well, for one thing, they were chosen to receive the Torah. Jews have 613 commandments (plus innumerable rabbinic enactments) rather than the seven laws commanded of all mankind. That sounds like we were chosen for responsibility.
Then there’s Amos 3:2, which says, “Only you have I chosen from all the families of the earth, therefore I will punish you for all your sins.” That sounds like the Jews were chosen for accountability.
Of course, Isaiah, who invokes the idea of chosen-ness so many times, also spells things out a little. “Behold My servant, I will support him; My chosen one, whom My soul desires; I have placed My spirit upon him, he will bring justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1). So the Jews are meant to be an example to the other nations, or as Isaiah puts it in verse 6 of this chapter, “a light unto the nations.” This they have certainly done – just consider the religions that have incorporated the Jewish Bible into their own scriptures!
(This idea of “a light unto the nations” is also the reason that Jews, unfair though it may seem, are always held to a higher standard than everybody else. That’s why Israel – a democratic country with women’s rights and freedom of religion – is always accused of human rights violations by oppressive dictatorships.)
So being “chosen” doesn’t mean inherent superiority. It means more responsibility, more accountability and an obligation to set an example. Being chosen means that Abraham’s descendants (through Isaac and Jacob) are drafted for this role. Others can always get in on the action if they want to, through conversion to Judaism. If they do, they will be equally obligated in these duties. So, at the end of the day, “chosen” doesn’t even mean “exclusive.” It’s merely the difference between being drafted and enlisting voluntarily.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent