Traditional Views of Jewish Chosenness

The Bible implies that God's choice of the Jews was random; later traditions made the Jews seem deserving of this privilege.

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In the section of Deuteronomy discussed above, Moses repeatedly warns the people that disobedience of the commandments will lead to the revocation of God's blessing. Still, while the covenantal relationship requires that the chosen respond to God's call, only God can initiate this relationship. God's choice of when and with whom to initiate this relationship is, as far as the Torah tells us, almost entirely random.

Making the Patriarchs Pious

The rabbis of the Talmud and the Midrashim were troubled by this random presentation of choice and respond by ascribing unusual righteousness to those whom God chose. Thus, in rabbinic literature, God chooses Abraham only after Abraham has chosen God.

In one well-known midrash, Abraham smashes his father's idols in order to prove the fallacy of idol worship. In another midrash, Abraham reasons that a greater, invisible power must control the sun, the moon and the stars. The choice of Abraham, according to these traditions, is a response to Abraham's piety--and not a unilateral and arbitrary choice on the part of God.  Similarly, the rabbis transform Isaac and Jacob into models of virtue, and Ishmael and Esau into villains. The biblical text does not support such a clear distinction between the moral characters of those chosen and those not chosen. In both cases, however, the rabbis offered some rationale for the decision to reject the older brother in favor of the younger one.

Most troubling for the rabbis is the biblical suggestion that the Israelites did nothing to merit receiving the Torah at Sinai. One midrash responds to this problem by describing God offering the Torah to all of the other nations of the world before approaching the Jewish people who, alone agree to accept the Torah unconditionally (Avodah Zarah 2b). Elsewhere, the talmudic suggestion that God forced the people to accept Torah by holding a mountain over their heads is immediately countered by a tradition that the people later voluntarily accepted the Torah during the time of Esther (Shabbat 88a).

This rabbinic presentation of the distinction between Jews and non-Jews stands in sharp contrast with the explicit statements in Deuteronomy that the Jews are not chosen on the basis of their virtue.

Chosen For Future Salvation

In the medieval period, the question of the chosenness of the Jewish people ceased to be simply academic. Christian theologians pointed to the political domination of the Holy Roman Empire as proof that the Christians, and not the Jews, were God's chosen people. Jews, for their part, responded by understanding the Christian political dominance of the time as confirming, and not challenging, the identification of the Jews as the chosen people.

For medieval Jews, the doctrine of chosenness meant that the Jews would be chosen for the messianic redemption. The extreme suffering of the Jews only proved that redemption was close at hand. Jewish writers expended much energy defining the Christian empire within the parameters of biblical descriptions of the end of days.

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.