Parshat Kee Tavo by Rabbi David Mark

“And the Lord has stated this day that you will be to Him a treasured nation…and He will place you above all nations, in name and praise and splendor, and to become a holy nation to the Lord your God, as He has spoken” –Deut. 26:18-19 (translation mine).

Here is the statement of Israel being God’s “chosen people,” a title we Jews have borne for centuries—and not always to our credit or advantage. Not for nothing does Tevye, the hapless hero of Fiddler on the Roof, cry out, “Lord God, if we are Your chosen people, why don’t You choose somebody else, for a change?” In yeshiva, I learned the classic interpretation of chosenness: it meant that, whenever some catastrophe was to afflict the world, it struck the Jews first—no sort of divine favoritism here! By that token, history (or my rabbis’ interpretation thereof) taught that a civilization which treated its Jews well and favorably would flourish and endure; any nation which oppressed, attacked, or expelled its Jewish citizens was doomed to go down to defeat, or simply vanish. Where, indeed, are the vaunted triumphs of Babylon (Iraq) and Spain, and why are Greece and Rome no longer world powers? Could we Jews have had some small effect on their descent?

And yet—and yet. There are those among us who decry the chosen people concept. Rabbi Dr. Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), dean of the Teacher’s Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary and founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, did away with it, because, to him, it implied that only the Jews (to the exclusion of the Greek and Roman philosophers, not to mention Asian theologians) had laid the foundation for modern ethics and philosophy, let alone religion. Additionally, since most modern Jews accept that our faith is fluid in its development (as opposed to what I consider the Orthodox belief of its being “flash-frozen at Sinai”), then the concepts we find in it today were not necessarily present there in the beginning; Judaism has modified and adapted to fit the times in which we live. Moses never conceived of a stem cell or an iPad, but we take them for granted.

The only quibble I have with the Reconstructionist elimination of chosenness is not theological—I agree with Rabbi Kaplan wholeheartedly—but, rather, semantic: it deals with the Torah blessings. In a Reconstructionist temple, when one is called to the Torah, the re-worked prayers take the traditional “who has chosen us from all peoples by giving us the Torah” (which I accept as truth; certainly, no other people was given the Torah), and replaces it with, “who has brought us near to His service,” which is meant to skirt the sensitive issue of chosenness. My objection is simple: if we are being brought near to God’s service, then doesn’t it follow logically that someone else is being left behind? Isn’t that, ipso facto, a form of chosenness?

In the end, I don’t see chosenness as a large issue. Every other faith community in the world, be it Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or “other,” tells its adherents that they are “special,” because they belong to that particular philosophy or belief. Otherwise, why belong to it? No one wants to subscribe to “Brand X, or the Lowly People’s Religion.” The most important thing, in the end, is for those of all faiths—or no faith—to simply co-exist, in peace and understanding.

Enjoyed this archived service or article? Click here to donate $3 to OneShul (care of PunkTorah).

Support OneShul on GoFundMe

Leave a Reply