It is a favorite tool of Anti-Semites to accuse the Jews of being arrogant and smug because they believe that they are better than everyone else. And, sadly, there are some Jews who actually believe that Judaism does confer upon them some sort of automatic higher status. The Jews are, indeed, referred to in the Bible as a "special" people and God is described several times as having chosen the Children of Israel. The actual term "The Chosen People" is a much later usage, but the idea itself needs to be examined for what it really is.
The Hebrew word "to choose", "livchor", with its root bet-chet-resh (BHR), usually means "to select" or "to make a choice". Choice is usually used as meaning to differentiate one object or a person from others, but not necessarily in a preferential way. Even when it expresses the preference of the chooser it need not convey any notion of the superiority of the chosen. The first time the word is used in the Torah it concerns the exercise of choice in a sexual context. "The 'sons of the judges' took wives from wherever they 'chose'". The sons of the judges (or perhaps the sons of gods) took their women wherever they felt like it, and the implication is that they were being corrupt. They chose, they picked, and probably their choice was the wrong one, or at least motivated by corruption. The preference was not a morally superior one. Similarly Joshua is commanded to "choose" men to fight against Amalek. The choice is to find fighting men as opposed, shall we say, to scholars. Perhaps superior fighters, but not necessarily better people. The same Hebrew word is used about making the right choice in life by following the Divine commandments. "And you should 'choose' life."
Certainly the word implies preference when it is used to by God to select the city or place that He wants to have as His special sanctuary. "Only to the place which YHVH your God will choose from amongst your tribes to place His name there, to His presence you should seek and come there." Six times in this one chapter alone the word is used of God's selection of a place and, incidentally, a tribe in which it will be located. But it need not necessarily convey superiority rather than specification. And even the choice of the location confers no superior status on the tribe amongst whom it is set. Superiority can only be the result of superior human action.
Nevertheless, there is a clear statement of the special relationship God has with the Children of Israel. It is expressed first, in general, through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as a commitment to see their progeny installed in a land of their own, stretching from or somewhere between the river Euphrates and the Mediterranean (even though in practice this was never actually realized).
It was part of the Sinai covenant that God specifically makes this statement, "And if you really listen to my voice and keep my covenant you will be more special to me than any other one of my nations on earth. And you will be My kingdom of priests and My holy nation." The idea of a "Kingdom of Priests" is the really crucial issue. In Biblical Judaism the priest played a very important role as the repository and the teacher of the tradition. Priests had certain benefits in terms of Temple sacrifices and tithes. But nowhere has anyone ever suggested that priests were automatically superior to anyone else. It is not apologetics to emphasize that being given a role as a nation of priests does not confer superiority.
The Sinai covenant which talks about this special relationship was certainly meant to be a two-way agreement, and it was not intended to be an absolute guarantee of any preferential treatment regardless of good behavior. Indeed, after the episode of the Golden Calf God expresses the desire to destroy the people altogether and to start again with Moses. So the notion that "selection" confers automatic and permanent preference regardless of actions, finds no basis in the Torah. Indeed the repetition of curses and threats, particularly at the end of Leviticus, seems to turn the selection into more of a burden and a responsibility than a privilege. "And if you do not listen to Me and do not carry out these commands, and if you reject My statutes and if your souls are sickened by My laws, so that you do not perform My commandments and you break My covenant, I will do this to you. I will visit you with confusion and disease etc." Before Moses dies he reconfirms the covenant in the following terms: "To get you to go through with the covenant of YHVH your God and the (concomitant) curse, which YHVH your God is making with you today." So the good, the deal, comes with a curse as well. And the speech continues, "If there is amongst you any man or woman or family or tribe whose heart turns away from YHVH our God to go and to serve the gods of those nations, if there is amongst you a decayed root or a rotten head, and when he hears the words of this curse he will bless himself inwardly saying, 'Everything will go peacefully with me because I am following my heart', to add pretense to his guilt. YHVH will not willingly forgive him, for His anger and zealousness will burn against such a person and He will invoke all the curses written in this book. And God will blot his name from under the heavens." So any selection, any special relationship, is contingent on obedience, and is reciprocal. It does not convey any automatic benefits. Not only that, but the Torah emphasizes the moral failure of Israel. "And you should know that it is not because of your righteousness that YHVH your God gives this good land as an inheritance, for you are a stiff necked people."
The Torah does however emphasize the special position of Israel as being a unique people in the sense that their remarkable system of law sets them apart. "And you should keep and perform (the Torah) for it is this which makes you wise and clever in the eyes of the nations. Who, when they hear about all these laws will say, 'This can only be a wise and clever great nation.' For which (other) great nation has God so close to it like YHVH our God (who is there when) we call upon Him. And which (other) great nation has laws and statutes that are righteous like those of this Torah which I give you today."
It is obvious that the selection of the Children of Israel was an opportunity and an obligation to set an example and to usher in a better moral order, rather than some automatic preference. Not only this, but failure to live up to the very standards would lead to even greater punishment than otherwise might have been the case. It would be more appropriate to talk about an "Obliged Nation" rather than a "Chosen" one.
Ba'alam is a pagan magician who is invited by the king of Moab to stem the advance of the invading Children of Israel by unconventional means rather than by force. In Ba'alam's speech about the Children of Israel, he points to some unusual features about the nation he is supposed to curse. "A nation that dwells alone" does imply a certain difference that sets the people apart but it does not necessarily imply any superiority. He does indeed praise "the tents of Jacob" and say that this people has God with it. There is something remarkable about his prescience in describing the Jewish people as one which is set apart, alienated from other peoples and unlike any other. It is virtually an accurate prediction of the next three thousand years of Jewish history. Yet again, this cannot mean that they are automatically superior. Certainly history attests to Jewish "otherness", but this seems to have been as much due to other people's reaction to Jews than to Jewish adherence to its religious principles.
The Talmud develops the theme of Israel having a special relationship with God. "Rav Nachman Bar Yitzchak said to Rav Chiya Bar Abin, 'These Tefillin that the Master of the Universe wears, what is written in them?' He replied, 'Who is like Your people Israel, a unique nation on earth.' (First Chronicles 17). And can The Holy One Blessed Be He really praise Israel? Yes, because it is written, 'You have spoken for God this day,' and it is written, 'God has spoken for you this day' (Deuteronomy 26 17&18). God says to Israel, 'You have made Me unique in this world. I will make you unique in this world. You have made Me unique as it says, 'Hear Israel YHVH is our God YHVH is One' and I have made you unique in this world for it says, 'Who is like Your people Israel, one nation on earth'."
There is a reciprocal relationship. When Israel behaves according to the Divine wish, then the relationship with God is good. Otherwise it is not. This is stated clearly in the Mishna's account of two miracles in the bible. "And when Moses raised his hands Israel won (Exodus 17.11). And can Moses's hands make war or can Moses's hands break a war? But it teaches you that for as long as Israel look upwards and submit their hearts to their Father in Heaven, then they were able to overcome and if not they would fall. Similarly when it says, 'Make a model of a snake and put it on a banner and whoever is bitten sees it and lives' (Numbers 21.8). And can a (model of a) snake kill or bring back to life? But it teaches you that for as long as Israel look upwards and submit their hearts to their Father in Heaven, then they can be cured and if not they will be destroyed." So, explicitly, the Mishna asserts that only the correct behavior and the dedicated relationship with God can help. There is no automatic or fail safe formula that automatically protects. What applies to the group might also be said to apply to the individual. But there does appear to be some mystical connection between the people of Israel that transcends the individual Jew.
Given the Greek and the Roman belief in their very special status, it is hardly surprising that the rabbis gave Israel some automatic preferences. If the political powers of the time could glory in their physical prowess and, indeed, in their cultural superiority, all that was left for the Jews to defend themselves with was spiritual superiority. If they were a small humiliated nation, they could find comfort in their "higher" calling. There is, after all, the famous Mishna in Sanhedrin, "All Israel has a part of the World To Come as it says, 'And your people are all righteous, they will inherit the earth for ever, the growth of My plant, the work of My Hands, to be glorified' (Isaiah 60.21).'" So here is an explicit statement that every Jew has a place in the Next World. And yet, the Mishna itself goes on to give a whole list of exclusions. Polemically, these exclusions deal with the heresies that were current at the time. The Sadducees were opposed to the Oral Law; the Christians claimed that the Old Testament had been superseded, and other sectarians cast aspersions on many of the theological positions that they claimed were later additions to the tradition of Moses. "And these are those who do not have a place in the Next World, 'One who says that resurrection is not mentioned in the Torah, that the Torah did not come from Heaven, and an Epicurean.' Rabbi Akiva said, 'Someone who reads external books (either the apocrypha or heretical interpretations of the Torah or, some suggest, Greek philosophical works). Someone who mutters over a wound, 'All the diseases I put on the Egyptians I will not place upon you for I am God who heals you.'' (Rabbi Akiva suggests this is only if one spits as a magic spell before saying this phrase; others suggest it is treating God in a disrespectful way over trivial matters.) Abba Shaul says also someone who utters God's Name by letters." The list of exclusions goes on to name Jeroboam, Ahab and Menashe as kings who corrupted Israel, Bala'am, Doeg (the Edomite who betrayed the priests of Nob to Saul), Achitophel (King David's advisor), and Geychazi (Elisha's servant who tried to take advantage of his position). In addition, the text includes the generation of the Flood, the generation of the Tower of Babel, the Men of Sodom, the Spies, the Generation of the Wilderness, Korach and his supporters, the Ten Tribes, men of cities that have gone over to idolatry. Of course, on each of these the Gemara has a debate and discussion as to what exactly they did wrong and why their crimes were so remarkable that they were set apart. But the range shows several interesting things. Firstly, that the general exclusion applies to people who are supposed to have abandoned the Torah as the way of God or who behaved in a morally corrupt way. Secondly, the list includes both Jews and non-Jews, implying that everyone has the capability of getting to Heaven and everyone has the capability of behaving in such a way as to get excluded. Once again, the supposed preferential exclusivity of Israel does not stand up to scrutiny.
A parallel list of people excluded occurs in the Mishna. "Rabbi Elazar HaModai says, 'He who desecrates holy things and scorns the special days of the calendar and embarrasses his friend in public and who tries to undo the covenant with Abraham (disguise circumcision) and who interprets the Torah in conflict with Halacha, has no portion of the World To Come.'" The combination of these two lists of exclusion leaves very few Jews left within! So automatic preference seems confined to a very small select group of good individuals rather than to a whole nation. It is a person's own behavior that counts.
The special status of the Jews is not an exclusive one. This is further emphasized by the attitude of the rabbis to the righteous of other nations. "The pious of the nations of the world have a place in the World to come." Or, "The good of the nations of the world are the priests of God." Surprisingly, given the attitude of most surrounding cultures and in particular the Graeco-Christian tradition of absolutes, the rabbis did not claim absolute, universal truth for everyone. They did accept that others, outside Judaism, could both be good human beings and have a connection with God. Their opposition was primarily directed against pagans who had no code of morality.
There is a well-known idea that was given great prominence in the mystical tradition, that there are 36 Jewish good people for whom or because of whom the world is kept going by God. "Abaye said, 'The world will not be destroyed because there are at least thirty-six good people who enter the Divine presence.'" There is also a version which has forty-six good people and a debate as to how many of these are in Israel and how many in exile. But there is a further expansion of this idea. "Rabbi Yehuda says, 'There are thirty pious non-Jews on whom the non-Jewish world depends.'" Once again one sees how the rabbis were eager not to be exclusive. They wanted to emphasize the universality of mankind despite the cultural differences. They did not want to fall into the trap of claiming that only Jews were "saved", unlike other competing religious systems.
In the Jerusalem Talmud there is a debate between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azai. "Rabbi Akiva said, ''And you should love your neighbor as yourself.' This is the important principle of the Torah.' Ben Azai said, 'This is the book of the generations of mankind.'" This appears to be an argument about whether loving one's neighbor is too restrictive. Perhaps it only applies to one's neighbor and not to all mankind. Whereas Ben Azai wants a more universal principle that all of mankind is to be loved, not just one's neighbor. Ironically, it is Rabbi Akiva in the Mishna who says, "Man is specially dear because he was created in the Image. He was made aware of this special love because he was made in the Image. As it says, 'Because in the Image of God He made man.'" Here Rabbi Akiva is emphasizing the universal principle, that all of humanity is close to God, in the same way that Ben Azai does. They agree on the basic universality. Rabbi Akiva in this context then goes on to talk about the special relationship with Israel and the importance of Torah. It is only by following the spiritual tracks to a relationship with God that one can sustain the special relationship, either as a human or as a Jew.
In other words, piety is not restricted to Jews. And more importantly, a person's actions are what define a person as good or not and as being close to God or far. The accident of birth imposes obligations but not automatic superiority.
So one is bound to wonder why it is that there are Jews, and not particularly religious ones, who make a great deal of this "Chosen People" business. On one level the Jewish people has indeed been remarkable. Firstly, the very fact of its survival after two thousand years of pretty horrific persecution is remarkable. The unique re-establishment of a Jewish state after two thousand years of exile is also unprecedented in human history. The very high percentage of Jewish Nobel Prize winners, the very high representation of Jews in Medicine, Law, Commerce, and Entertainment throughout the Western world all point to something unusual.
What makes the Jews so special? Well, several peoples who have been exiled have done well. East African Asians exiled by Idi Amin from Uganda soon rose in Britain to business and professional success beyond their numbers. Koreans and other Asians in America have recently leapfrogged other minorities in establishing prosperity and a reputation for academic excellence. The dynamism that migration fosters often helps motivate people, particularly if a culture has a tradition of literacy. Jews, like the Chinese, have established commercial traditions that have often depended on the family connections spread out across different countries and continents.
My first position as a rabbi was in Glasgow, Scotland. At the turn of the twentieth century large numbers of Jews arrived mainly from Lithuania. They soon established themselves in the city and in the local schools the Jewish children dominated academically. By the end of the century the Jews had become a comfortable, established community. They had moved into the more comfortable suburbs of the city and their children were, according to the heads of the schools in the city, just average in the schooling system. But the new Asian immigrants were winning most of the prizes. This does tend to support the idea that the need to establish oneself, the insecurity of being an outsider, is a powerful factor. One sees similar trends in the USA with new waves of upwardly mobile immigrants coming with a strong sense of identity, culture and cohesion. Within the Jewish communities around the world today, the newcomers are often the ones who try harder and work longer hours, desperate to succeed and establish themselves. There is a combination of factors that help keep Jews on their mettle, not least the insecurity, obvious or sublimated, that Anti-Semitism generates even in America.
Yet Jews continue to assimilate in vast numbers. As they assimilate, their specific or peculiar culture is lost and so are their recognizable differences. The epithet "The Chosen People" then comes to apply only to those who choose to stay. Who will survive? Certainly, it was the Jewish religious traditions that kept the Jews identified and different throughout the exile. Within most Jewish communities, it is religious commitment that seems to differentiate those who belong from those who do not. Of course, there are those whose commitment is more cultural than religious, but numerically they are not as significant.
Israel brings another dimension to the modern Jewish world. There, too, the Kulturkampf for survival pitches the religious against the secular. There are many strongly committed Jews who are not religious but this is not the same as a positive movement. It would be wonderful if secular Judaism could find a dynamic expression that could retain the vast numbers of disaffected Jews. Alas there is no such evidence either in Israel or the Diaspora of a serious alternative emerging. Expatriate secular Jews tend in the first generation to mix almost exclusively with other Israeli expatriates. If their children choose to marry into a Jewish Diaspora they tend to become absorbed into the local Jewish communities. But as often as not they marry out and have contact only with their Israeli family when they return to visit. Nationalism without some active religious or cultural component is not an effective guarantee of continuity.
It is the combination of Jewish traditions and external factors that make the Jewish community so productive. But if it were to abandon its traditions there is every reason to think that it would sink into mediocre anonymity. "When Israel performs the will of God, no people or nation has any power over them." Clearly we have been failing.
There remains the charge of racism. If Judaism is a Chosen Religion then this sets it apart from all others. The fact is that every religion is a sort of club that has its own criteria for entry. Every country has its nationalization rules that have to be gone through if someone wants to become a citizen. You can only level the charge of racism if a group excludes another group on the basis of race. Race is something a person can never change. But Judaism allows anyone from any race to convert. The conversion process is a form of application for citizenship. It is true that anyone born of a Jewish mother is automatically a Jew, but there is absolutely no racial condition or limitation whatsoever attached to conversion, only that the convert should be genuine.
The title "Chosen", when applied to the Jewish people, clearly means burdened with an obligation and a responsibility. It is true that we believe that being Jewish brings with it spiritual benefits as well. Perhaps one would rather talk about a blessed people were it not for the fact that historically, given the fate of the Jews, this sounds rather strange. Yet, indeed, throughout our history we have considered ourselves privileged to have been party to a covenant with God that enables us, in theory, to have a special relationship with Him. But it certainly does not make a Jew a better person automatically and anyone who thinks that it does would be guilty both of misunderstanding the concept and of thinking in a way that goes against the whole spirit of Jewish teaching on humanity and God.