Reprinted with permission from “The Concept of the Chosen People: An Interpretation,” in Judaism (Spring 1994).
According to a famous ditty: “How odd of God / To choose the Jews.” To which the response is: “It’s not so odd / The Jews chose God!”
A Reciprocal Relationship
Chosenness is mutual; the chosen people is also the choosing people. There are those who argue that, logically and chronologically, God must have initiated the choice, and that the alternative is to preempt the divine initiative and to force God’s hand, as it were. Even then, God’s choice of Abraham and his descendants would have been meaningless had it not been reciprocated. David Novak proposes such a view in a forthcoming study:
“The election of Israel involves not only the free act of God but, also, the free act of Israel. The fact of election designated by the word ‘covenant’ (berit) is not a bilateral pact mutually initiated by God and Israel. It is, rather, an historic reality created by God. Nevertheless, this historical reality would have no human meaning without Israel’s free acceptance of it and participation in it.”
“The covenant could not function in the human world if Israel had not, does not, and will not respond to God’s election of her. However, the response is an acceptance of the prior event of God’s choice. When Israel does not respond–which is all too frequent‑-God reiterates the choice again and again and again. The covenant is always initiated by God not by Israel, even when Israel’s reiteration of it comes centuries after the initial covenantal event.”
Novak’s position is well reasoned and certainly is in harmony with many of the traditional sources. However, as might be expected, other views may be found in the literature. Let me touch on two radically differing medieval views, both of which reverse the logic and chronology of election.
Judah Ha‑Levi [1086-1145] developed a theory that the Jews possess a divine biological faculty enabling them to communicate prophetically with God. Just as animals have faculties of sensation and voluntary locomotion lacking in the vegetable kingdom, and as only the human species, among the entire animal kingdom, possesses the faculty of reason, so there is one nation endowed with this “divine power” (Arabic: amr ilahi; Hebrew: ‘inyan ‘elohi).