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  • The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election
  • Saul Lerner
The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election, by Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010. 250 pp. $26.00.

In their book, The Chosen Peoples, Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz have provided an insightful and interesting account of chosenness by their analyses of the ways in which belief in divine election has impacted both Israel and America. The authors argue that throughout history, only these “two nations stand out for the fundamental, continuous, and enduring quality of their convictions and the intense seriousness” (p. xiv) of their belief in their divine election. Their interesting book begins with the question of the meaning and development of chosenness among the ancient Jews which, according to the authors, “is a story of covenants with God that made them simultaneously a people, a nation, and a religion” (p. 2). The result of this complication has been that Jews have ever since had to deal with the meaning of “chosenness” and which, or all, of the foci on peoplehood, nationhood, or religion to emphasize. Throughout Jewish history, each of these alternatives has, at one time or another, been propounded. Moreover, Zionism, as a significant element in modern Judaism, added the dimension of the importance of return to the land which, for many, eventuated in a messianic commitment.

The Gitlin/Leibowitz analysis of Israel’s ancient covenants is thoughtful and interesting, as the reader is shown how the development of the idea of chosenness grew and evolved. The ultimate result “is not a magical moment of redemption but a process dependent on the people’s ability to live up to their potential” (p. 23). In Judaism, the Messiah does not redeem the people, for only when the people are fulfilling “their potential” will the Messiah come. “The emphasis is on human responsibility and obedience to the laws of the Torah” (p. 23). Only a society based on decency and justice would bring the Messiah, and so Jews are obliged to wait, obey, and serve. Theirs was a commitment [End Page 161] to a just society, and the obligation to create a just society transcended physical location. Neither the Diaspora nor persecution set aside their obligation to create a just society. Throughout their many years of longing for the return to Jerusalem, Jews were required to undergo a process of perfectibility, for the hope of “next year in Jerusalem” was the hope for the completion of a spiritual process.

In the modern world, Jews were confronted with a new orientation: Zionism. A Jewish homeland would offer security from antisemitism, but it would also bring with it Jewish nationhood, along with the opportunity for a commitment to social justice (p. 33). The secularism of many Zionists generated much hostility during the early history of the movement. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and other religious leaders had great difficulty in reconciling the nationhood of Zionism with the idea of holiness that lay at the heart of the traditional view of chosenness. With the founding of Israel, Kook’s son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, added belief in the sanctity of the land to the idea of Zionism. For the younger Kook, Zionism involved “the holy trinity of land, people, and faith,” and the unification of these ideas became the basis, following the 1967 War, of Orthodox insistence on settlement of the West Bank (p. 39).

For Gitlin and Leibovitz there have emerged two contrasting and conflicting Jewish views of chosenness: (1) belief in human holiness and the effort to establish a society based on social justice and (2) the belief in the sacredness of the land as the environment in which holiness may be practiced. Both views reflect ideas of election or chosenness and messianism that inheres in Judaism. Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora remain divided on these differing views of election and on efforts at settlement of the conflict with Palestinian Arabs over the West Bank. In the words of the authors, “These are the afflictions of chosenness; we bear them still” (p. 64).

While the Gitlin/Leibovitz treatment of chosenness among Jews is clearly...


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pp. 161-164
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