The following article is reprinted with permission from Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
Parshat Va’et’hanan contains many important elements including Moses‘ recount of the Decalogue and God’s revelation to the people at Sinai, and the first paragraph of the Shema, which is perhaps the most well known and frequently recited passage of the Torah. Parshat Va’et’hanan also deals with the issue of the choseness and the uniqueness of the Jewish people. This is a difficult topic as it seems to directly contradict many of our values as Americans living in the 21st century. There are two passages where this theme appears in the parsha.
See, I have imparted to you laws and rules, as the Lord my God has commanded me, for you to abide by in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, “Surely that great nation is a wise and discerning people.” For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is the Lord our God whenever we call upon Him? Or what great nation has laws and rules as perfect as all this Teaching that I set before you this day.
For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: of all the peoples on the earth the Lord our God chose you to be His treasured people. It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you–indeed, you are the smallest of peoples; but it was because the Lord favored you and kept the oath He made to your fathers that the Lord freed you with a mighty hand and rescued you from the house of bondage, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
Your Torah Navigator
1. Compare the two passages. Is the nature of the choseness of the Children of Israel different or the same in each passage? How so?
2. Look closely at the language used to describe the choseness of the Jewish people. What images do the descriptions evoke? What does the language used connote about our relationship with God? About our relationships with non-Jews? About non-Jews’ relationship with God?
3. According to Deuteronomy 4:5-8 what makes Jews unique? Do you agree with this assessment? Today, is there something that makes Jews or being Jewish unique?
(Note: The Hebrew word for “Teaching” in verse 8 is “Torah.” Does this affect any of your answers?)
The notion of choseness is difficult to understand, and not always the most comfortable of topics. Does it mean that we are inherently better than non-Jews simply because we are Jewish? Are we capable of having a relationship with God not attainable by everyone?
There are certainly many people throughout history who thought precisely that. Rabbi Yehuda HaLevy, for example, the famed 12th-century poet and philosopher felt that Jews were inherently at a higher spiritual level than non-Jews. In his monumental work, the Kuzari, he explains that Jews are capable of reaching levels of spirituality and closeness to God not available to non-Jews. HaLevy’s attitude does not sit well with many contemporary thinkers. At the same time, however, many of us feel that there is a special set of Jewish values and principles and that Judaism has something unique to offer the world.
More modern Jewish thinkers and/or movements tend to downplay the concept of choseness, and some movements have changed the traditional liturgy to eliminate all references to choseness.
What do you think of the concept of choseness? How do you relate to the issues outlined above?