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10 Can the Jews Be the Chosen People of God? Nancy Fuchs Kreimer Can the Jews be the chosen people of God? The honest answer to that question is simple. As my teacher Father Gerard Sloyan taught, “in the strict theological sense, God alone knows.”1 So it is with some trepidation and a good dose of humility that I enter this conversation. Having established that I am in no position to answer the question of Truth, I propose to investigate some questions upon which I can shed some light. What has chosenness meant to Jews over time? What has it meant in my own life? What is gained or lost by different formulations of this idea? What are the challenges facing the (perhaps) “chosen people” at this moment in history? Although the contemporary Jewish philosopher David Novak has written an entire book on what he calls the “classical biblical-rabbinic doctrine of the election of Israel,”2 my own training has taught me to eschew words like doctrine or tenet and replace them with ones such as myth, story, and tradition. I have learned to see the ancestors’ testimony as information about their experience, in this case of being part of the Jewish people. Over the centuries, the narrative of election has meant different things to different Jews. It has been experienced as both obligation and privilege, burden and blessing, sometimes both at once. At key moments in the liturgy—when a Jew ushers in the Sabbath over wine or blesses its departure, upon rising to read from the Torah, at the close of every prayer service—the distinction between Jews and others is iterated and reiterated. As Gerard Sloyan notes in general and, I would argue, correctly, certainly for Jews, “Religious peoplehood is close to the heart of religious reality.”3 Or as Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, “For us Jews, there can be no fellowship with God without fellowship with [the people] Israel. . . . Judaism is 203 . . . primarily the living in the spiritual order of the Jewish people. . . . Our share of holiness we acquire by living in the Jewish community.”4 The other side of that claim is that the Jewish community itself partakes of holiness. This is not the contemporary, secular version of Jewish chosenness, often confused with the idea under discussion. Some Jews (and non-Jews) believe, rightly or wrongly, that Jews are simply smarter, more moral, or in some other way better than other people—divinity (should it exist) having nothing to do with it. This idea is known affectionately as “counting Nobel Prize winners.”5 As I understand it, chosenness was never a claim about the merits of people who happen to be Jewish, although it is sometimes misunderstood that way. It is about a quality that permeates the life of Jews in the aggregate. As a group, they are connected to the transcendent. In Heschel’s words, “[The people] Israel is a spiritual order in which the human and the ultimate, the natural and the holy, enter a covenant.”6 It is tempting to dodge the problem of the universal and the particular at the outset by saying that the Jews are holy as a community, but so is everybody else. Contemporary apologists like to say that the idea of chosenness does not trail in its wake any politically incorrect notions—no value judgment about others, no need to define our own boundaries with care, no claim to specialness. “Being chosen does not preclude anyone else from being chosen.” Such a maneuver misses the point. A quick look at the traditional prayers should suffice. At the Havdalah service at the close of the Sabbath, we praise God for the act of separating. We thank God for distinguishing “the holy from the profane, light from dark, Israel from the nations, the seventh day from the six workdays.” Whether or not Jews say those words—and many Jews do not participate in a Havdalah service at all—they carry their message into Jewish communal life in the twenty-first century. Whether the issue is the survival of the state of Israel, the uniqueness of the Nazi Holocaust, the attitude toward intermarriage, our sense of our people as “set apart, a holy nation” continues to resonate. Whatever else it has meant, the idea of the chosen people suggests that while every group is different, Jews are different in a special way, in a way that makes it matter who is in and who is out, that...


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