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.

"The Man of Halakhah" (1944) captures the psychology of Orthodox self‑conscious commitment brilliantly. Soloveitchik distinguishes his archetype from the non‑Jewish "man of religion" as well as the nonreligious "man of knowledge." Unlike the latter, the "man of halakhah" stands before the mystery of God's universe in a wonder only deepened by his knowledge; unlike the former he is commanded to transform his world rather than to escape from it, to pull the ideal world of halakhah down to earth rather than to ascend from the earth to an ideal realm beyond it.

No phenomenon in the natural and social worlds can be strange to the "man of halakhah," for all has been accounted for in the law and becomes known to him in the relation which the law has commanded. Like the "man of knowledge," he must know the world, the better to help God create it with the reason given him for just that purpose. Soloveitchik denounces liberal religion for its distinction between moral and ritual holiness, both orderings of creation commanded by God. He is especially critical of liberal Judaism, which he accuses of banishing God's presence from the house of Israel, "and setting aside a place for it in a palace (Temple)."

He rather holds fast to the traditional paradox that transformation of the world is to take place in the world and yet never leave the confines ("the four ells") of the halakhah.

Chosen To Be Partners In Creation

This religiosity‑cum‑creation distinguishes Judaism from other faiths, and that particularity in turn guarantees the reality and ultimate importance of the finite human individual in the face of arguments that only the eternal, the infinite, and the universal can be real.

Man's special status in the order of creation, the special attention given him by God, and the life awaiting him (and no other creature) after death are all bound to the unique and particular function which man performs on earth as partner to the Creator. Only because he has been singled out from the rest of creation can man hope for eternal life, and only because the Jew has been singled out from the rest of mankind can he (or anyone) know what to do during earthly life.

In fact, the "man of halakhah" clings passionately to this life and does not wish for life eternal, because only in this world can he serve God through performance of the commandments.

If any but the Jew, singled out at Sinai, can join in the partnership of creation, we are not told of it in Soloveitchik's essay. Rather, humanity is free to create only if it stands under the authority of halakhah, where the Jew of course stands alone.

Jewish Law As A Means Toward Perfecting The World

In another essay, Soloveitchik writes that two covenants distinguish Israel from other nations and bind it to God: a covenant of fate and a covenant of destiny. The former consists of shared history, shared suffering, mutual responsibility, and cooperation, all imposed on the Jew by the world. The covenant of destiny and purpose, by contrast, is a way of life voluntarily assumed and directed by halakhah, through which Jews are to realize the full potentiality of their existence.

The occasion for the homily is as traditional as the [process of rabbinic interpretation, or] midrash itself: reflection on human and Jewish suffering. One can remain passive in the face of suffering, seeking to master the evils which befall us by comprehending them. This quest is futile, and does nothing to ease human misery. Or one can act to reduce suffering, through transformation of the world according to divine direction.

Halakhah, then, does not explain why suffering exists, but tells us what we can and must do to reduce it. It transforms humanity from creatures of fate to creatures of destiny‑‑and once again the possibility of that transformation is vouchsafed only to Israel. The suffering to which all nations are subject is likewise represented and indeed multiplied in the unique suffering of the Jews.

Chosenness Assumed

I have dwelt on Soloveitchik's essays at length because they bring out the ways in which Orthodoxy pays obeisance to the tradition's authority through commentary on traditional texts. Soloveitchik does not argue for chosenness, because he does not need to. The coherence of his statement derives in large measure from his conformity to the entirety of a tradition which his non‑Orthodox colleagues could accept only in part.

Indeed, until recently American Orthodoxy refused to acknowledge its status as a movement within American Judaism, claiming rather, because of its embrace of the tradition, to represent the totality of authentic Jewish life in this country. Its institutions were in its eyes not Orthodox, but simply Jewish. Soloveitchik in particular, and modern Orthodoxy in general, were exceptions only to a degree.

Only after the war [World War II] would the American environment begin to impinge on Orthodoxy as it had on the other movements a generation earlier. Even then, chosenness would be a doctrine more assumed than argued, and would thus serve not only to distinguish the movements of American Judaism each from the other, but to separate Orthodoxy, which blessed the doctrine with its silence, from all the rest.

Reprinted with permission from The Chosen People in America, published by Indiana University Press.

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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.