Modern Orthodoxy & the Chosen People

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

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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.