Chosen People: Some Modern Views

While some modern Jews have rejected the notion of chosenness altogether, others have reinterpreted it as an ethical mission or a national spirit.

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Reprinted with the permission of Schocken Books, a division of Random House, Inc., from What Do Jews Believe?.

The greatest challenge to chosenness as a central tenet of Judaism came with the opportunity for Jews to inte­grate as individuals within modern societies. It became difficult to reconcile Jewish uniqueness with the case for social and political accep­tance. 

Spreading Morality: A Jewish Mission

Reform Judaism was one of the first modern responses to this challenge.

In the eighteenth century, the founders of the Reform move­ment began to play down the role of the commandments and exalt the ethical dimensions of Judaism. The change in emphasis within Reform Judaism was evident in the renewed attention paid to the role of the Jewish people as "a light of nations" [Heb. le-or goyyim; cf. Isaiah 49:6].

In order to highlight this role, the expression was changed to "a light unto the nations [Heb. or le-goyyim]. " Such a subtle shift stressed that Israel was not only to be a moral exemplar but to see its re­ligion as missionary, with morality as the Jewish mission.

Mission-People Rather than Chosen-People

Early Reform thinkers believed that Judaism is a set of universalistic teachings which have made great contributions to Western civilization. They introduced the "mission‑people" concept as a new twist on the chosen‑people concept. The mission‑people concept places the responsibility on Israel both to live up to the ethical demands of the covenant and to disseminate these ethical teachings to the world. In dropping the ethnic and ritual dimensions of Judaism, the proponents of the mission-people concept sought to turn Judaism into a universal ethical culture.

magnifying glassIsaac Mayer Wise, a leading [nineteenth‑century] American Reform rabbi, thought that Judaism had a real chance to become America's religion of choice if it were recast as the purest form of ethical monotheism, without any ethnic component.

The Reform reinterpretation of the chosen‑people concept as the mission‑people concept has come to mean that the Jews are not chosen by God, but rather choose to embrace a social gospel‑-that Jews have a higher calling to solve the injustices in modern society.

Why Does Judaism Still Need to Exist?

But having spread this social gospel, what is the need, we might ask, for the continued existence of the Jews and Judaism?

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Dr. David S. Ariel

Dr. David S. Ariel is head of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He was previously president of Siegal College of Judaic Studies (formerly the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies). He is author of Spiritual Judaism: Restoring Heart and Soul to Jewish Life and The Mystic Quest: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism.