The idea that the Jews are the “chosen people” and have a special relationship with God is ubiquitous in Jewish sources. However, the nature of this relationship is not without complication and ambiguity.
Origins of the Chosen Concept
The notion of Jews being chosen has its root in several biblical verses. One of the most prominent, Deuteronomy 7:6, says, “For you are a people consecrated to Adonai your God: of all the peoples on earth Adonai your God chose you to be God’s treasured people.” The next two verses provide the reason for this choice. God did not choose the Israelites because of their numbers; rather, God chose the Israelites and freed them from slavery because God loved them and because God had made promises to their ancestors, the biblical patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
This, of course, begs the question: why did God choose the patriarchs?
In the Bible, the choice of Abraham is assumed and no explanation for it is given. In Genesis 12, God appears to Abraham without any introduction, and commands him to leave his father’s home. But a rabbinic source — embraced and embellished by the 12th-century philosopher Maimonides — asserts that it was in fact Abraham who found God. Abraham alone among his contemporaries established the falsehood of idolatry, affirming that there was only one God who ruled the earth. It was only after this that God appeared to Abraham.
Were Jews Actually God’s Last Choice?
The covenant between God and the freed Israelite slaves at Mount Sinai is central to the idea of being chosen. The covenant concretized Jewish chosenness by establishing that the Israelites would abide by the Torah in return for special divine protection. Though God chose the Jews for this purpose, an amazing rabbinic source claims that the Jews were, in fact, God’s last choice.
God first offered the Torah to the children of Esau, the children of Ammon and Moab, and the children of Ishmael, but when they were told about the Torah’s prohibitions against murder, adultery, and robbery, respectively, they turned down the offer. Only after going to every nation in the world did God finally offer the Torah to the Jews.
Are Jews Only Chosen if They Keep the Covenant?
This tradition assumes that chosenness is not an essential characteristic of the Jewish people, but rather a result of the covenantal relationship. Exodus 19:5 captures this view: “Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples.”
Many later thinkers embraced this conditional understanding of chosenness, but there is another strand of thought which maintains that chosenness derives from an inherent quality. Perhaps the most famous proponent of this view was the medieval philosopher Judah HaLevi (1086-1145). According to him, the Jews are endowed with “divine influence.” This trait is passed on genetically, and it includes a capacity for prophecy and the privilege of receiving special divine providence. All the other nations of the world are subject to a more general providence and the whims of the natural world.
Is It Racist to Believe Jews Are Chosen?
Interestingly, though some have seen this position as racist, it was embraced in different forms by some modern liberal thinkers. The Reform leader Abraham Geiger (1810-1874), for example, believed that Jewish chosenness is reflected in a “native talent for religion.” But many modern Jews have been uncomfortable with the idea of being chosen, particularly the genetic variety.
Some thinkers, influenced by egalitarianism and universalism, rejected the notion of Jews as chosen. Foremost among such thinkers is Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. Kaplan was a humanist and a naturalist; he did not believe in a supernatural God that could bestow favor upon one nation, and he believed that it was practically and morally problematic to posit the fundamental superiority of one people.
Still, most forms of contemporary Judaism have not rejected the concept, but have played down its importance or stressed its more benign interpretations.
Pronounced: ah-doe-NYE, Origin: Hebrew, a name for God.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.