Chosenness and Its Discontents

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published June 02, 2010, issue of June 11, 2010.

The first line is familiar. I’ve added the rest:

How odd of God to choose the Jews.
But how on earth could we refuse?
Was the choice reciprocal?
Fact eternal or just cyclical?
Was it mystical, statistical, poetical, umbilical?
The consequence let us confess
Is no small measure of distress.
We stand accused, we are confused.
Oh dear, can we please be excused?

We may be forgiven the wish to be excused. There is no more nettlesome minefield in the Jewish domain than the idea that we are “a chosen people.” The idea is not merely politically incorrect (as even those who think it theologically correct must realize); it is embarrassing. “Look, Ma, I’m chosen!” is not a recommended way to win friends and influence people.

But we are stuck with the sobriquet, and so we seek ways to explain it away. The Reconstructionist movement goes so far as to change the word, specifically rejection of our election: where the standard Kiddush praises God for having “chosen us from amongst all the peoples,” mikol ha’amim, the Reconstructionist Kiddush is reworked to read im kol ha’amim, together with all the peoples. The rest of us try to change the subject. Or, when challenged, say we have been elected/selected to set an example of this or that, not because of special merit.

How to deal with the problem?

Start here: We are the tribe that discovered the universal God. Along came Christianity and complained: “Thank you for your discovery. Now why don’t you have the courage of your convictions and become universal yourselves?” To which we replied, “Sorry: You can have our God, but you cannot have us. There’s an urgency to the boundaries, and we are determined to maintain them.”

What does that way of seeing ourselves have to do with chosenness? At Harvard the other evening, the estimable (bordering on the inestimable) Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s chief rabbi (and, since 2009, a member of the House of Lords, where he is “Baron Sacks of Aldgate in the City of London”) spoke directly to the matter, describing it as the most difficult proposition in Judaism — this from an Orthodox rabbi. He’d wrestled with the idea for many years, trying to discern in it an understanding he could intellectually embrace.

Being chosen, he concludes, means precisely insisting on staying a tribe, thereby demonstrating the imperative of particularism. It means serving as an example of how particularism need not lead to a sense of superiority; it comes to affirm what Sacks calls “the dignity of difference.” That is, in fact, the title of a book he published in 2002, just a year after 9/11, in which he urges not merely that we respect human difference but rejoice in it. After all, a world of clones would be a pointless bore.

One can only fulfill the commandment of being gracious to the stranger where there are strangers; only in such a world is there discovery, surprise, humility. Nor is the challenge of diversity merely about learning to make room for the quirks of others; it is about acknowledgment of others and celebration of their sanctity. It is about listening.

Then what of universalism? Here I am not certain that Sacks and I are in accord. But while in his talk, he gave the nod to particularism, I rather doubt he’d take issue with what follows. My own view is that the tension between universalism and particularism is not a tension that cries out for resolution, but rather one we learn to live with, one that vastly enhances the human experience. It is a tension that is inherent in Judaism, within the tribe that discovered the universal God yet stayed a tribe.

Does such a view have relevance to our world today? As well ask whether it matters how Jews, Christians and others see Islam and Muslims, how Arabs see Jews, and how Israel sees Palestinians, how China handles dissidents? Ask whether the issue of what we owe to those who are close in, as compared to what we owe the whole family of humankind, has been permanently resolved. Ask whether we have learned how to speak to each other and how to listen to each other.

The determined universalists caution us: Permit the tribe, they say, and inevitably some will tie a piece of cloth to a twig, call it a flag and march off to conquer other tribes. The particularists answer, with no irony, that good fences make good neighbors.

What is a good fence? It is not a prison wall. It has many gates, and passage from one enclave to another is permitted, and we ensure there are places, city squares and malls and colleges and parliaments, where we come together, all of us, for purposes of wonder, of exchange and conversation. True, the delights of difference come together with the dilemmas and the sometime discord of difference. But return the gift, ask to be excused? That would be an error misanthropical.

J.J. Goldberg is off this week.



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