We Are Not That Special
One of the most contentious and least understood Judaic concepts is the notion of ‘chosen-ness’.
Every Friday night, as we recite the kiddush, we proclaim before the Almighty that He “chose us and sanctified us from all other nations.” In addition, whenever an individual ascends to the teyva for the purpose of receiving an aliyah, he recites the blessing which states that the Almighty “chose us from all other nations.”
The notion of ‘chosen-ness’ has been a source of antisemitic resentment on the one hand, and a false sense of innate superiority on the other hand.
To be sure, there is nothing unique about the Jewish concept of ‘chosen-ness’.
Christianity also sees itself as a chosen faith. When a Jewish man known as Paul established Christianity, he declared Christians to be “Israel of the spirit”, to be distinguished from Jews who do not accept the veracity of the Christian messiah, and are hence merely “Israel of the flesh.” This is known in Christianity as “supersessionism” – the notion that Christianity is the new and true word of G-d, and that Judaism and Jews are thus no longer “chosen.” In Islam as well, clearly, you are not considered truly redeemed and chosen by G-d, unless you accept the message of its chief prophet and adhere to it.
Now that we have established that the notion of ‘chosen-ness’ is not unique to Judaism, let us observe the notion of ‘chosen-ness’ in Judaism. Some people falsely assume that the Jewish notion of ‘chosen-ness’ entails some sort of an a-priori status or privilege. This is false. As Jews, we were chosen to serve. To take on the yoke of the mitzvoth, and to lead a life of observance and active religiosity. To be chosen is a burden, and not a privilege. It is about a sacred calling, and not about nationalistic narcissism.
This Shabbat’s haftarah reading highlights this principal very beautifully. In the haftarah, the prophet Amos reminds the Jewish people that from G-d’s perspective, the Jewish people are not different than the African peoples for example, and that just like the Almighty took us out of Egypt, he also delivered numerous other nations, including the Philistines, from remote geographical locations.
This is a very important message. It highlights the humanistic and universalistic streak of our tradition. All of humanity is created in the Divine image, stresses the Torah in its opening chapter. We are not inherently better than others, we are simply called to serve G-d in a different way. Understanding this truth is a sobering humility. Denying it leads to prejudicial ethnocentrism.