Covenant and Chosenness

According to some interpreters, the Jews chose to be chosen.

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The implication for our purposes, therefore, is simply this. Ha‑Levi's theory means that one cannot argue that God chose Abraham and his progeny. Rather, because only Abraham, and subsequently the Jewish people, were already endowed with the biological capacity to receive divine communication, God could reveal the Torah to them. This is not to say that the Jews first chose God. It means that God could choose only them to receive the Torah because they alone had the prior capacity to receive it. The Jews did not choose God, but it was the Jews who made God's choice possible.

Abraham Initiated Chosenness

The approach taken by [12th-century philosopher] Rambam (Maimonides) in the Guide of the Perplexed I:63 differs fundamentally from that of Judah Ha‑Levi. Nevertheless, we have here an even clearer case for the initiative of the Jews, specifically their ancestor Abraham, who, Rambam suggests, arrived at a rational understanding of God through "speculation and reasoning" (Arabic: nazar wa‑istadal, Hebrew: 'iyyun u‑mofet):

"At those times, everyone who claimed to be listened to either claimed, like Abraham, that speculation and reasoning had come to him indicating to him that the world as a whole has a deity, or else he claimed that the spirit of a star or an angel or something similar had descended upon him. Yet that an individual should make a claim to prophecy on the ground that God has spoken to him and sent him on a mission was a thing never heard of prior to Moses."

In his earlier code [the Mishneh Torah], Rambam described Abraham as weaning himself from the prevailing idolatry and contemplating the cosmos, without the benefit of any teacher, until, at the age of forty, "he attained the way of truth and apprehended the right line by his correct reason (tevunah), and he knew that there is one God who governs the sphere and created everything, and that in all existence there is no God besides Him."

Whereas Judah Ha‑Levi had argued that the philosophical concept of the impersonal "God of Aristotle" is intellectually inferior to, and less existentially compelling than, the biblical concept of the personal "God of Abraham," Rambam in effect is arguing that the God of Abraham is the God of Aristotle.

Returning now to the question of chosenness, whether or not we find Rambam's portrait of Abraham as a philosopher or protophilosopher persuasive, the interesting thing is that the initiative is entirely Abraham's. God did not choose Abraham, rather, Abraham discovered God.

The Establishment of the Covenant

The issue of chosenness is further complicated by a certain ambivalence in Jewish tradition regarding Israel's willingness to become God's covenantal partner. There are two opposing trends in Jewish tradition regarding how the Jews received the Torah.

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Dr. Raphael Jospe

Dr. Raphael Jospe is Senior Lecturer in Jewish Philosophy at the Open University of Israel in Jerusalem and Hebrew University, School of Overseas Students.