- The Jews as a Chosen People: Tradition and Transformation
S. Leyla Gürkan’s The Jews as a Chosen People: Tradition and Transformation is a bold attempt to trace the concept of the election of Israel from its Biblical and early Rabbinic development to the early modern and post-holocaust periods. Written as the history of an idea, the common thread tying the work together is the account and analysis of how this single, sometimes thorny, question of “chosenness” has animated Jewish conceptions of identity throughout its history. The author’s focus on this idea serves as the motivation of the work to describe how “the idea of chosenness . . . is the raison d’être of the Jewish religion as well as the Jewish people” (p. 1).
The author describes the question of “what makes Judaism what it is” as a matter of “self-definition in every period” despite the transformation of the idea of chosenness (p. 3). Gürkan organizes her book as an account of three different movements of self-defining: “chosenness” or “election” transitions from ‘holiness’ to ‘mission’ and then to ‘survival.’ These three ‘thematic’ moments are then correlated to the following historical periods: antiquity, the early modern, and post-holocaust. As an “overlap of historical and thematic perspectives” the book seeks to elaborate the “idea” of election in these different historical contexts (ibid.). Gürkan offers a concise account of one of the most intriguing concepts in the study of Judaism.
Gürkan’s narrative begins with her account of the idea of chosenness in its Biblical and Rabbinic development, but also provides extra-canonical context. Philo and the Qumran texts are juxtaposed with the Biblical and Rabbinic texts as an attempt to situate the distinctive “particularism” of the idea of a chosen people alongside its implicit counterparts, whether Hellenistic, Stoic, or Christian. She also surveys [End Page 139] early Midrashic parallels to draw the conclusion from this early period that “idea of a cosmic election, which takes Israel’s creation, and therefore its holiness and distinctiveness, to a time prior to the creation of the world, suggests in this way an eternal and therefore unconditional form of chosenness” (p. 38). The “eternality” of election, according to the author, becomes the core idea of the rabbis.
Gürkan describes this “cosmic election,” a theological and speculative theory of Rabbinic texts, as a historical origin of the idea of election. The first theme of “election as holiness” becomes the historical condition of the later themes of election—as “mission” and “survival.” For Gürkan, the continuity of the idea of election is that it always has a “distinctiveness” and “eternality.” “Holiness” is therefore the source of the historical development of this idea and serves as a lynchpin for subsequent considerations. That is, the idea of holiness is described in a non-theological way and associated with the ideas of elevation, particularism, and distinctness. This distinctness, between Israel and the nations, stems from a textual tradition that declared a particular relationship between Israel and God that was sanctified by the rabbis themselves. Consequently, Gürkan assumes “holiness” and “election” are interchangeable self-descriptions of the “particularity” of the Jewish people.
From the Rabbinic period, the author draws the conclusion that Rabbinic Judaism created a distinct tradition of preservation, where the “holiness” of “election” becomes the “overruling principle on which a new Jewish identity is built in the absence of a national- political independence” (p. 43). In the absence of political independence, the “self-definition” of “holiness” preserves what Gürkan considers the preservation of a political distinction. It is this political distinction that explains the author’s turn directly to modernity in the ensuing sections, precisely, I believe, because of this thematic conception of “identity.”
The author represents the early modern period with Spinoza and Mendelssohn. Distinctively philosophical exponents of what they identify as “tradition,” both thinkers provide an account of chosenness no longer as particularity. It is now an idea that concerns the polity: a Jewish...