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.

Print this page Print this page

Two Medieval Approaches

The tension between the contrasting biblical and talmudic understandings of chosenness resurfaces in the writings of Judah Halevi and Moses Maimonides, two prominent philosophers of this period. Halevi adopts and expands upon the biblical portrayal of the Jews as the passive chosen people, while Maimonides develops the talmudic description of the Jews as active choosers.

For Halevi, the Jews are inherently different from others people. In his most famous work, the Kuzari, he introduces the idea that, at the time of the creation of human beings, God instilled in Adam a certain divine quality, which then passed to Adam's son Seth and then, through Seth's line, to the entire Jewish people (1:95). This divine essence, according to Halevi, is unlinked to any human behavior. A Jew who rejects Torah law cannot lose this essence, and a non-Jew who observes the commandments cannot acquire it.

In contrast, Maimonides, in accordance with the rabbinic understanding of chosenness as the result of human action, describes Abraham as a philosopher who is "chosen" only because he discovers God. Similarly, the Jewish people are "chosen" insofar as their acceptance of the Torah grants them a special relationship with God. Thus, according to Maimonides, anyone "who sets oneself apart to stand before, to serve, to worship, and to know God…is consecrated to the Holy of Holies, and his portion and inheritance shall be in God forever." (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Shemita v'Yovel 13:13) With his emphasis on human agency, Maimonides leaves open the possibility that Jews may become "unchosen," or that non-Jews may be chosen.

Early discussions of chosenness, then, follow two different--and opposite--paths. According to the traditional framework, the Jews are the chosen people either as a result of a unilateral--and seemingly arbitrary--divine decision, or as the result of an active decision on their part to initiate a relationship with God.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.