כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה לַֽיהוָֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּךָ בָּחַר יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה מִכֹּל הָֽעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר עַל־פְּנֵי הָֽאֲדָמָֽה
Ki am kadosh atah l’YHVH Elohekha; b’kha bakhar YHVH Elohekha lih’yot lo l’am s’gulah mikol ha’amim asher al p’nei ha’adamah.
For you are a people consecrated to YHVH your God; YHVH your God chose you as a treasured people from among all the peoples of the earth (Deuteronomy 7:6).
The portion of Va’et’khanan contains some of the best-known and important passages in the Torah. Moses recounts for the Children of Israel the events of almost 40 years earlier, when they stood at Mount Sinai, and repeats The Ten Commandments for them. Next, Moses proclaims, שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָֹה אֶחָֽד: Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ekhad! — “Hear, O Israel, YHVH is our God, YHVH is One!” and tells the Children of Israel to love YHVH with all of their heart, soul and might.
In addition, Moses reminds the Children of Israel of another central assertion of the Torah: God has chosen them from among all the nations to be God’s especially treasured people.
For many modern Jews, the idea of our “chosen-ness” is problematic at best and abhorrent at worst. This is a specifically modern dilemma; only in very recent times have we begun to conceptualize ourselves as belonging to a global human family. But prior to this modern idea taking hold, all peoples understood themselves to be in a special and central relationship with the cosmos, and with their deity or deities. Just to give one example, the Navajo call themselves the Diné, meaning simply “The People” or “Children of the Holy People.” This self-understanding did not necessarily lead to the conclusion that other peoples were “sub-human,” but it did mean that only the People themselves were the central actors in maintaining the cosmic order. The ancient Jews were no different in this regard. In the Middle Ages, however, Christians claimed that the Jewish People’s chosen status had been superseded by their own selection by God, and the Jews’ claim of chosen-ness was used as a cudgel against them. Jews responded by defending their chosen status as a badge of pride and a source of comfort in their debased circumstances.
But for progressive Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, the concept that a Creator God would choose one people to treasure out of all the cultures and peoples of the world became unpalatable and out of step with the emerging idea of us being one human family. The emerging scientific worldview that defines the modern era called into question the very idea of a willful supernatural deity who directed human affairs and could choose one people over another. If Jews desired to fit in to this modern world, despite all the forces arrayed against us, a claim to be specially chosen looked like a claim of superiority to others. It was an uncomfortable and dissonant legacy to carry into the modern world. Many Jews distanced themselves from this claim and apologized for it.
What to do? Some proposed that “chosen-ness” could be reinterpreted to fit modern sensibilities. There is support for varying interpretations in the Torah itself. In the book of Exodus, as the Children of Israel gather at the base of Mount Sinai, God makes clear that their special status is contingent on their behavior:
If you obey Me faithfully and keep my covenant, then you shall be my treasured possession among all the peoples (Exodus 19:5).
In this passage, the Torah makes clear that there is nothing inherently superior about us as a people. We have, rather, been chosen to fulfill a covenant — a sacred relationship with the Creator. We have been chosen to fulfill a mission, and a very exalted and demanding one at that. As Isaiah famously expresses it:
I, YHVH, have called you in righteousness and taken you by the hand. I created you and gave you my covenant: to be a light to the nations, to open eyes that are blind, to bring the prisoner out of confinement, to bring out of the dungeon those who sit in darkness (Isaiah 42:6–7).
This concept of having a special mission could be adapted into a modern context. Firstly, it is conditional on our behavior: We must act as a light to the nations, or we have failed at the task for which God chose us. Secondly, it does not claim superiority: There is nothing inherently superior about the Jews, but we have been chosen for a unique mission. Thirdly, it is a universal mission: to serve all of humanity by demonstrating through our behavior the truth of the moral law that underpins the cosmos. The Reform movement embraced this idea and called it “ethical monotheism.”
But for other modern religious thinkers, most famously Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, the very idea of chosen-ness was obsolete. Kaplan, in framing his approach to Judaism that he termed “Reconstructionism,” rejected the concept of a supernatural deity. For Kaplan, God was an impersonal force, an infinite creative process that imbued us humans with a sense of purpose and reverence for life. For Kaplan, the idea of a deity who singles out and chooses certain human beings over others was patently absurd. Kaplan held that Judaism — and all cultures and religions — are human products, the striving of human beings to discern and articulate their sense of purpose and place in the universe. Thus, even the Torah is a record of our searching for God, not a Divine document but an inspired human effort. Kaplan insisted that it was our duty to “reconstruct” our traditions and concepts to make them meaningful and relevant to our evolving understanding of the universe.
Kaplan, therefore, rejected outright the notion that we needed to perpetuate our claim to be the Chosen People. For both practical and theological reasons, Kaplan held that chosen-ness had no place in the modern world. We could still retain our sense of having a special calling without having to claim a unique or superior status relative to other peoples and cultures. Kaplan’s radical position on this question caused an uproar in the Jewish world — so much of our identity as Jews was (and perhaps still is) wrapped up in thinking of ourselves as “special” — yet his logic, if you accept the premises of modern scientific thought, is hard to refute.
In Mordecai Kaplan’s America of the mid-20th century, there was still much to bind the Jewish community together, even in the absence of a supernatural Divine calling. We were a largely immigrant community, most of us still connected by customs and language and memories of the old country. Anti-Semitism was an external force that pushed us together, and kept us reliant on one another and on the Jewish community at large. The project of Zionism galvanized us, giving a new, nationalist sense of mission to our collective efforts. Maybe we no longer needed to be “The Chosen People” as the organizing principle of our shared peoplehood. There was so much else that bound us together.
Now, however, in the 21st century, much of this connective tissue of Jewish life has weakened dramatically: the immigrant ties that bound our parents and grandparents have dissipated; the oppressive force of anti-Semitism is muted enough here in the United States that it does not force us into a sense of shared necessity to stick together; even Zionism no longer inspires our fervent solidarity and sense of common cause.
Thus, progressive Jewish communities are left scrambling for a principle that would bind us together. For so many of us, considering ourselves “chosen” no longer compels allegiance and participation in Jewish life. What then might today serve as a principle or center of gravity that might continue to draw us to Jewish community?
I propose that our center of gravity can be Judaism itself. Judaism provides an ancient and grounding path in a fragmented and ungrounded world. Judaism is a moral beacon cutting through the fog of modern life. Judaism trains us to perceive the sacredness of existence beneath the profane commodification of the earth. Judaism honors ancestors and links us to future generations. Judaism brings us together with other seekers of the good and the true.
For those of us who no longer believe in a supernatural God who chose us, I propose that it is now time for us to be not the Chosen People, but the Choosing People. We choose to walk the path of Judaism. Not because Judaism is more special than other cultural and spiritual paths, but because the particular gifts of the Jewish path enrich us and enrich the world. We choose Judaism to honor those who went through fire and water to keep our heritage alive. We choose Judaism out of love and not compulsion. We choose Judaism because it continuously reminds us to identify with the stranger and the powerless, and to practice compassion and kindness. We choose Judaism because it is a path of heart, acknowledging life’s complexity while still choosing and celebrating life.
We choose Judaism because Judaism elevates the concepts of Justice and Mercy to positions of cosmic importance. We choose Judaism because it teaches that every individual matters. And much, much more — I trust that many readers are thinking of their own reasons that bring them to cherish Judaism and cherish being a Jew. And we choose to share the Jewish path with all who are drawn to it. We welcome them, even if they are not of Jewish heritage. We hold that anyone who chooses to walk this Jewish path with us has every right to become one of the “Choosing People.”
As Moses will tell us later in Deuteronomy, this choice is not in heaven nor across the sea, but in our own mouths and hearts. The choice is ours.