Jewish history, as the Bible tells it, began when God singled out Abraham with the command, “Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1) and the subsequent promise to bless Abraham and his descendents. This blessing, reiterated several times throughout the Bible, became the basis for the doctrine of chosenness–the idea that the Jewish people have a relationship with God unlike that of any other nation.
What is strange about the selection of Abraham is the apparently arbitrary nature of God’s choice. The Bible does not explain why Abraham is chosen and does not suggest that Abraham is more deserving of God’s attention than anyone else. The lack of explanation here stands in contrast with the specification, a few chapters earlier, that Noah’s righteousness compelled God to save him alone from the flood that wiped out the rest of humankind.
In the book of Genesis, the arbitrariness of God’s choice recurs in generation after generation. Repeatedly, God rejects an older sibling in favor of a younger one. Thus, the Jewish line passes from Abraham to his younger son, Isaac, and then to Isaac’s younger son, Jacob.
The Israelites Were Nothing Special
The Torah’s most extensive and explicit discussion of chosenness appears in the first few chapters of Deuteronomy. There, Moses repeatedly reminds the people that God’s choice of the Israelites does not indicate any virtue or special quality on their part:
“It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the Lord set His heart on you and chose you–indeed, you are the smallest of peoples; but it was because the Lord favored you and kept the oath He made to your fathers that the Lord freed you with a mighty hand and rescued you from the house of bondage, from the power of Pharaoh, king of Egypt (Deuteronomy 7:6-8).”
The logic here is tautological. God chose the Jews because God favored the Jews. God favored the Jews because God chose Abraham. And, as we have seen, the Torah offers no explanation for the selection of Abraham.
Even more strikingly, two chapters later, Moses specifies that “it is not for any virtue of yours that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people (Deuteronomy 9:6).” The only real justification for the selection of the Israelite people is the suggestion that God’s choice reflects a desire to punish all of the other nations (Deuteronomy 9:5).
With Chosenness Comes Responsibility
While not suggesting any particular virtue on the part of those whom God chooses, the Torah does require that the chosen respond by following God’s commandments. Presumably, Abraham would have forfeited God’s blessing if he had not complied with the commandment to “Go forth.” At Mount Sinai, the people respond to revelation with the words, “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do (Exodus 19:8).” Later, when the people construct and worship a golden calf, God threatens to destroy them and to choose a different people.
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 Midrash 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.
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.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.