Modern Orthodoxy & the Chosen People

The requirements and transcendent possibilities of Jewish law are the bases of Jewish distinctness.

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Samuel Belkin, president of Yeshiva University from 1943 to 1975, put the Orthodox position concisely when he averred that the Torah, as God's law, must be scrupulously obeyed. Its truth and wisdom, the highest possible, are sufficient for all time. No more needs to be said. The authority of the Chooser, the uniqueness of the Chosen, and the content of the chosenness are all affirmed unequivocally. 

Chosen For Unique Obligations

Still, while other Orthodox Jews, less responsive to the gentile world and Jewish doubt, saw no need to justify the doctrine of chosenness, Belkin took pains to defend it.

"Our entire concept of election, of distinctiveness and separation, is based upon the greater degree of responsibility which the Torah places upon each one of us…Those who have, therefore, stricken the 'atah bahartanu'--the avowal of the doctrine of 'chosenness' [recited in the festival Amidah prayer]‑‑from our prayer book, have denied the raison d'être of the Jewish people as revealed in the Torah, and misinterpreted the Torah concept of distinctiveness or 'chosenness' which has nothing to do with superiority of race. It is rather a greater dedication to the moral precepts of the Torah, and the endeavor to live a highly disciplined spiritual life, which is the Jewish essence of kedushah (holiness)." 

modern orthodox jew studying

Photo credit: Benjamin Stern

Belkin's stress on the "moral" and "spiritual"‑-rather than on the ritual enforcement of "distinctiveness and separation"--seems well attuned to the objections to election which his defense sought to meet. While his rhetoric could be Reform, the content varies considerably from Reform's "mission" or Kaplan's "vocation" or the adherence to tradition carefully navigated by the Conservatives. The burden of chosenness is simply and precisely defined: obligation by and to the halakhah [Jewish law] which Jews received at Sinai.

Halakhic Man

One sees this clearly in the first major essay undertaken in America by the intellectual and spiritual guide of modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903‑1992).

The scion of a long line of Lithuanian rabbis known for immense learning and rationalist faith, and himself receptive to an extraordinary degree to the values as well as the challenges of secular science and philosophy, Soloveitchik has sought to "interpret his spiritual perceptions and emotions in modern theologico‑philosophical categories." He is by no means typical of his generation of Orthodoxy, yet he is the acknowledged spiritual leader of that branch of Orthodoxy‑-the "modern"‑‑affiliated with Yeshiva University and the Rabbinical Council of America.

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Dr. Arnold M. Eisen

Arnold M. Eisen, Ph.D. is Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Prior to this appointment, he served as the Koshland Professor of Jewish Culture and Religion and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University. Prior to joining the Stanford faculty in 1986, he taught at Tel Aviv University and Columbia University.