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Chosen people

Chosen people. A designation for the Jewish people, though also used of groups or people in other religions who have a strong sense of election. Despite the Christian claim that the Jews had forfeited the right to be the true Israel, through centuries of persecution the idea of election persisted. The doctrine of chosenness has been caricatured by anti-Semites, who argued that it was the basis of the world conspiracy for Jewish domination. In the 19th and 20th cents., many Jews have become uneasy with the concept, and the Reconstructionists in particular have eliminated all references to it in their liturgy.

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chosen people

chosen people those selected by God for a special relationship with him, especially the people of Israel, the Jews.

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Chosen People

CHOSEN PEOPLE

CHOSEN PEOPLE , a common designation for the people of Israel, expressing the idea that the people of Israel stands in a special and unique relationship to the universal deity. This idea has been a central one throughout the history of Jewish thought: it is deeply rooted in biblical concepts, and has been developed in talmudic, philosophic, mystical, and contemporary Judaism.

Bible

Narrowly viewed, one Hebrew root, bḥr (בחר, "to choose"), expresses with unmistakable intent the nature and manner in which the people of Israel is understood to be the people of God. This term, in addition to its secular meaning (e.g., Gen. 13:11), is used to indicate the choice of persons by God for a particular role or office, such as a priest: "For the Lord your God has chosen him and his descendants to come out of all your tribes, to be in attendance for service in the name of the Lord, forever" (Deut. 18:5, i Sam. 2:28); or a king, as David says to Michal, Saul's daughter, "Before the Lord, who chose me above thy father, and above all his house, to appoint me prince over the people of the Lord, over Israel" (ii Sam. 6:21; Kings 8:16).

This root is also used to indicate the setting aside of a particular place for the site of the sanctuary, "But look only to the site that the Lord your God will choose amidst all your tribes as His habitation… there you are to go" (Deut. 12:5; cf. ibid., 14, 18, 21, 26). Just as in these usages the verb bḥr indicates a role for the persons or place that have been chosen by God, so in the deuteronomic writings it has a particular theological meaning relating to the people of Israel: "For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: of all the peoples on earth the Lord your God chose you to be His treasured people" (Deut. 7:6, cf. 14:2).

The idea of election was already widespread when the Deuteronomist introduced the technical theological term "chosen" to express it. It is the essence of the *covenant, which signifies the fundamental relationship between God and Israel and is referred to throughout the entire Hebrew Bible. However contemporary critical scholarship may define that covenant, and there are a number of competing theories, there is general agreement that the biblical authors viewed such a relationship as essential. Yet the relationship between God and Israel is broader than indicated by the term "to choose." In Amos 3:2, for example, the verb yadaʿ ("to know intimately") in "I have known only you of all the peoples of the earth; therefore I will visit upon you all your iniquities" points to this special relationship. The second half of this verse is one of the classic passages which emphasizes that the doctrine of election does not imply the conferment of special privileges, but imposes extra obligations and responsibility.

The deuteronomic writers offered a further theological interpretation of the covenant, i.e., the status of Israel as the people of God. It was founded upon an act of divine choice motivated by love: "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 loved you…" (Deut. 7:7–8). Thus God, who chose Israel, could have chosen any other nation as well, for the whole earth belongs to Him (cf. Ex. 9:5). The deuteronomic writers and second Isaiah emphasized the universal rule of the God of Israel, and at the same time underscored the choice of Israel.

The covenant relationship defined in this manner carries with it responsibilities, in the same way that chosen individuals are responsible for certain tasks and are required to assume particular roles. Thus, Genesis 18:19, "For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity, to keep the way of the Lord, by doing what is just and right…" is reported in Nehemiah 9:7 as "Thou art the Lord the God, who didst choose (baḥarta) Abram…" with the obligations spelled out in the earlier verse now present by implication in the verb "choose." The divine choice, therefore, calls for reciprocal human response: "Ye are witnesses against yourselves that ye have chosen you the Lord, to serve Him…" (Josh. 24:22). Israel is obligated by this choice to "keep His statutes, and observe His Laws" (Ps. 105:45). Unlike the nonentities that the nations of the world worship, God has predicted both the marvelous victories of Cyrus that have already taken place and the miraculous restoration of Israel (led back from Babylonia to their homeland by a verdant, shady, well-watered path across the desert; etc.) that is soon to follow. Israel will convince the nations of the world that there is only one effective God who can do them any good, and so will be the agents of the planting of the true religion (Isa. 42:3a–4) and hence success and "light" (i.e., happiness) to the ends of the world (Isa. 49:6). The whole discussion in Isaiah 49 of Israel, God's servant, pivots on the idea of the task to which God has appointed her: that of spreading God's salvation (cf. Isa. 49:6). The passage in Isaiah 49:1ff. has been compared to (even, it is suggested, modeled on) Jeremiah 1:4ff. But whereas Jeremiah is to be a "prophet unto the nations" only in the sense that he will announce future events to them (Jer. 1:10), Israel is to be a prophet to the nations in the sense that it will bring them the light of salvation (Isa. 49:6). This idea of election as a task even leads to the doctrine of Israel's vicarious suffering for the nations (Isa. 52:13–53:12).

Further, although the people of Israel may not presume that God will always consider them favorably, regardless of their acts (e.g., Hos. 1:9), the thought of absolute rejection appears unimaginable: "Yet even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, annulling my covenant with them: for I the Lord am their God." (Lev. 26:44). Indeed, an important element of prophetic writings is the concern to explain why the formally deserved rejection was not effected. The fundamental motive of the choice, love, is seen as ultimately overriding the legal requirement of rejection, although not that of punishment.

Rabbinic Literature

The relationship between God and Israel described in Scripture remained a focal point of religious contemplation and theological speculation not only for the Pharisaic-rabbinic tradition, but in other movements within the community both in Palestine and the Diaspora (Jub. 2:19; 15:30–31; 16:8; Philo, Abr., 98).

The rabbis themselves, while strongly upholding the doctrine of the Chosen People, insist that the election of Israel is based upon their voluntary acceptance of the Torah at Sinai. This idea, already expressed in Exodus 19:5, "If ye will hearken unto My voice, indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be Mine own treasure from among all the peoples," is developed by the rabbis who state that the Torah was freely offered first to the other nations of the world, but all of them rejected it because of its restrictive ordinances which conflicted with their vicious way of life, and only Israel accepted it (Av. Zar. 2b–3a; Num. R. 14:10; Sif. Deut. 343). They go on to say that even the children of Israel accepted it only when God suspended the mountain over them like a vault, and said, "If you accept the Torah it will be well with you, but if not, here you will find your grave" (Av. Zar., loc. cit.). Much more prominent, however, was the view of the enthusiastic acceptance of the Torah by Israel, even before they acquainted themselves with its contents ("naʿa aseh ve-nishmaʿa"; Ex. 24:7; Shab. 88a), a fact for which the heathens are made to sneer at them as an "unstable people" (Ket. 112a). Moreover the people of Israel, the spiritually "strongest among the nations," alone could observe the "fiery" law (Deut. 33:3; Beẓah 25b).

On the other hand, a special relationship of love exists between the children of Israel and God, which is made the basis of rabbinic allegorical interpretations of the Song of Songs, and is expressed in such sayings as, "How beloved is Israel before the Holy One, blessed be He; for wherever they were exiled the *Shekhinah (Divine Presence) was with them" (Meg. 29a).

Rabbinic literature evinces a concern to explain this election, and special relationship, as something other than arbitrary and to find in the character or behavior of Israel (or of the Patriarchs) some motive for the divine choice, such as exceptional holiness, humility, loyalty, or obedience. The Talmud has it that the qualities of mercy and forgiveness are characteristic of Abraham and his seed, and are a distinguishing mark of the true Jew (Beẓah 32b; Yev. 79a; cf. Maim. Yad, Teshuvah 2:10). Yet "even those rabbis who tried to establish Israel's special claim on their exceptional merits were not altogether unconscious of the insufficiency of the reason of works in this respect, and therefore had also recourse to the love of God, which is not given as a reward, but is offered freely" (S. Schechter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1909), 61).

The Rabbinic conception of the election of Israel finds dogmatic expression in the Orthodox liturgy. "Thou hast chosen us from all peoples; thou hast loved us and taken pleasure in us, and hast exalted us above all tongues; thou hast hallowed us by thy commandments, and brought us near unto thy service" (Festivals Amidah, in Hertz, Siddur, 819; cf. Kiddush for Festivals, ibid., 809; Aleinu prayer, ibid., 209). The connection between the election of Israel and her role as guardian of God's Torah is expressed in the blessing recited on being called up to the reading of the Torah, "Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast chosen us from all peoples, and hast given us Thy Torah" (ibid., 191).

Medieval Thought

With the rise of Christianity, the doctrine of Israel as the Chosen People acquired an added polemical edge against the background of the claim of the Church to be the "true Israel" and God's chosen people. In times of persecution and despair the doctrine, which was axiomatic in Jewish consciousness, was a source of great strength and forebearance. Similarly the talmudic explanation, that the willingness of Israel to accept and obey the Torah was the reason for their election, helped maintain loyalty to tradition and to halakhah, in periods of stress and forced conversion to other religions (cf. J. Katz, Exclusiveness and Tolerance (1961), 13–14).

In medieval Jewish philosophy the notion of the special status of the Jewish people found articulate and radical expression in *Judah Halevi's Kuzari. The entire Jewish people, according to Halevi, was endowed with a special religious faculty, first given to Adam, and then bequeathed, through a line of chosen representatives, to all of Israel (1:95). As a result of the divine influence thus inherited, the Jewish people were uniquely able to enter into communion with God (1:47). Because of this divine influence, Israel's election implies dependence on a special supernatural providence, while the rest of humanity is subject to the workings of the laws of nature (1:109).

While the notion of Israel as a Chosen People occupies a central position in Halevi's thought, it plays only an incidental role in the writings of other Jewish philosophers. *Saadiah mentions God's promise that the Jewish nation will exist as long as the heavens and the earth (Book of Beliefs and Opinions, 3:7), and holds that only Israel is assured of redemption, and will be included in the resurrection of the dead (ibid., 7:3). Abraham *Ibn Daud echoes Halevi's notion that Israel alone is privileged to receive prophecy, while Halevi's theory of a special, supernatural providence which is exercised on behalf of Israel alone is repeated by Ḥasdai *Crescas and Isaac *Abrabanel. Though in the view of *Maimonides, Judaism is the one true revealed religion which will never be superseded by another revelation (Guide, 2:39), the doctrine of Jewish election does not play a very central role.

It would seem that the more extreme, and exclusive, interpretations of the doctrine of election, among Jewish thinkers, were partly the result of reaction to oppression by the non-Jewish world. The more the Jew was forced to close in on himself, to withdraw into the imposed confines of the ghetto, the more he tended to emphasize Israel's difference from the cruel gentile without. Only thus did his suffering become intelligible and bearable. This type of interpretation reaches its height in the Kabbalistic idea that while the souls of Israel stem ultimately from God, the souls of the gentiles are merely of base material (kelippot, "shells"). When the Jew was eventually allowed to find his place in a gentile world, the less exclusivist aspect of the doctrine reasserted itself.

Modern Views

The Enlightenment of the 18th century, and the gradual political emancipation of the Jews of Western Europe, challenged and undermined the notion of Jewish uniqueness both directly and indirectly. The earliest of the "modern" Jews, Moses *Mendelssohn, considered the intellectual content of Judaism to be identical with the "religion of reason," whose teachings coincide with philosophy. In reply to the question, "Why should one remain a Jew?" he stated that the Jews had been singled out in history by the revelation at Sinai, and thus had the obligation to remain the bearers of that revelation (cf. Leo Baeck, Von Moses Mendelssohn zu Franz Rosenzweig, p. 23). To a large extent this position, variously interpreted, has remained the implicit or explicit stance of a major portion of the Jewish community. Moreover, the concept was developed of the Jewish mission (especially by Reform circles). This stressed the role of the Jews as having received the special message of God which they would in turn pass on to the nations of the world – and in this mission was their chosenness.

Such a position has, however, been the object of criticism, misinterpretation, and attack from within and without. The antisemite has seized upon it as an unveiled claim to Jewish superiority, and caricatured it by maintaining that it is the basis of a program of Jewish world domination. It is this calumny which helped to give such virulently anti-Jewish documents as the notorious forgery "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" a semblance of credibility. The misunderstanding, and nonplussed reaction, of certain sections of the non-Jewish world with regard to the Jews' conception of themselves as the Chosen People is summed up in Hilaire Belloc's jingle "How odd of God to choose the Jews" (to which the retort was penned "It was not odd – the Jews chose God").

Even certain intellectuals have been unable to view the Jewish doctrine of election sympathetically. Arnold Toynbee wrote, "The most notorious historical example of idolization of an ephemeral self is the error of the Jews… they persuaded themselves that Israel's discovery of the One True God had revealed Israel itself to be God's Chosen People" (A Study of History, 4 (1961), 262). The Hebrew writer J.Ḥ. Brenner declared, "… I would blot out from the prayer book of the Jew of our day the 'Thou hast chosen us' in every shape and form" (quoted in S. Speigel, Hebrew Reborn (1930), 375–89), and this has been effected in the prayer book of the *Reconstructionist movement which states: "Modern-minded Jews can no longer believe… that the Jews constitute a divinely chosen people" (Sabbath Prayer Book, The Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation (1945), xxiv). The Church early maintained that by their rejection of Jesus the Jews had forfeited their favored position which had been inherited by the Church. Certain modern liberal Christian theologians have however denied the annulment of the election of Israel. An eloquent contemporary attempt to come to terms with the criticism while maintaining the concept of election is found in Leo *Baeck's book This People Israel (1964), which says, in its concluding paragraphs: "Every people can be chosen for a history, for a share in the history of humanity…. But more history has been assigned to this people than other people" (p. 402). Moreover, Judaism has always been open to the *proselyte who – by accepting it – becomes part of the Chosen People. This fact is often cited to refute charges of a "racial" exclusiveness.

The criticism of the concept of election derives in the main from universality and humanist tendencies: Jews are men among men, and Israel is a nation among the others. The defense of the traditional concept is ultimately a theological task, defining the meaning of chosenness as distinct from "unique" or "different," let alone "superior." Modern Jewish thought is still grappling with the problem of redefining the traditional concept, in a way that does justice both to the universalist values of Judaism on the one hand, and to the specific character of Jewish historical and spiritual experience on the other.

bibliography:

Guttman, Philosophies, 125ff. and passim; Husik, Philosophy, 152ff. and passim; K. Kohler, Jewish Theology (1968); W.G. Plaut, The Case for the Chosen People (1966); H.H. Rowley, The Biblical Doctrine of Election (1950); S. Schechter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1936), 57–64; M.M. Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization (1934, 19572), index.

[Lou H. Silberman]

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