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The Real Myth -- and Gift -- of Jewish Chosenness

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Michael Chabon wrote a curious op-ed in The New York Times this weekend decrying the Jewish people's "chosenness" and alleged superior intelligence that left many Jews scratching their heads, thinking either "why is he writing this now?" or "duh, we knew that already!" Either way, many were saying to themselves (and their friends), "please don't publicize this to the rest of the world."

The Yiddish Policeman's Union author uses the occasion of the Flotilla fiasco to puncture the Jewish belief that they are chosen -- and smarter -- than other peoples.

"Jews are stupid in roughly the same proportion as all the world's people -- but simply because from an early age we have been trained, implicitly and explicitly, to ignore them. A stupid Jew is like a hole in the pocket of your pants, there every time you put them on, always forgotten until the instant your quarters run clattering across the floor."

Forget, for a moment, the flotillas; forget that Chabon lumps together Israeli and American Jews, peoples with as different psyches as the British and the Americans. What Chabon doesn't get is how Jews came to see themselves as chosen and what it means today.

Already in Genesis God commands Abraham to leave his homeland for Israel, which God will bequeath to him and his descendants forever. "And I will make you a great nation," God tells Abraham (More later on the fact that the word here for nation is "goy.") God repeats and expands his promises throughout Genesis, and by the time Moses comes into the picture, God says that if the people of Israel follow his commandments he will make them a "treasured" or "special" nation -- which has been translated many time as "chosen." in prayers like the Friday night blessing over the wine: "Because it is us You have chosen and blessed above all the other nations."

But did God really choose the Israelites? The simple story -- the one we Orthodox kids heard as bedtime stories probably before we could read and write -- is that God went to the Jews (above all other nations!) and offered them the Torah. "We will do it, and we will listen," the Jews said, which rabbis later interpreted to mean that the Jews were so obedient, such willing followers of God that they said yes even before they knew it would entail missing Saturday morning cartoons...forever.

But all the simple biblical stories we learned as kids were more nuanced. Religious eduction/indoctrination ensures that our teachings are age-appropriate. Thus, Eve's apple might have been a pomegranate (grade 4); King David had a man murdered so he take the wife for himself (grade 7); and each "day" of the world's creation might have actually been a million years, allowing the bible and 9th-grade biology to coexist, uneasily.

So too with the story at Mount Sinai. Some rabbis suggest that God actually went to each nation and offered them the Torah and be his one and only. But they all said no - this one nation liked murder, another liked their cheeseburgers. Then God went to Israel -- hence the phrase, "Save the best for last" -- and made his offer to them. One commentator suggests, though, that God lifted and held Mount Sinai over the Jews' heads if they would not accept the Torah. He coerced them to into becoming Jews. Now that sounds more like the God I know from the Old Testament.

Whatever story you believe -- if you believe any of it at all - there's no way that the moral takeaway should be that the Jews are "chosen" -- as in "exhalted" or "superior." Jews might be "chosen" like a fat kid is "chosen" last for the baseball team, like one "chooses" to eat an apple. "Chosen" in the case of the Jews simply means selected, singled out -- not superior, just picked.

Now isn't that the brilliance of the Jewish people? Jews turned the simple act of being selected into a concept of being chosen. It's one of the first of many Jewish public relations coups. Throughout history we told ourselves that everyone hated us because they were jealous of us. We weren't different -- we were unique. How else could we survive all these years of persecution?

Not that most Jews really believe we are chosen or smarter or better, not deep down. (Just look at Woody Allen and Larry David - is that the look of a secure person?). But we don't mind if other people believe it. And boy, do they. Consider the word "goy" -- a gentile, or a non-Jew. What other group has everyone defining themselves by what they aren't? Is someone non-Christian, non-white, non-Asian? But they are non-Jewish. Non-Chosen. Non-God's people.

If there's one thing we Jews are good at, it's public relations. We are the masters of rhetoric. We've practically copyrighted the word Holocaust ©, making other countries covet the title. How's that for PR?

What people like Michael Chabon and Peter Beinart (who wrote "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment" in The New York Review of Books) fail to understand is that the Jews may or may not be more intellectual than other people, superior, smarter, richer, or have cabals that rule the world. But Jews are best at P.R., at promoting themselves endlessly, whether it be from the Last Nation Standing to become the Chosen People, or whenever anything bad happens to any Jew anywhere in the world: the old Jewish guard believes it's a Jew's job to spin it.

That's why all this arguing is pointless. "Why The Gaza Flotilla Attack Proves That I Am Right About Israel / Palestine" blogger Wayne Myers writes semi-seriously, showing how both sides are so entrenched in their positions that they vilify the other. Maybe these days everyone has become entrenched in their position and all political arguing has become pointless, but it's been this way for the Jews since the beginning.

Jews pride themselves as being the only religion that encourages questioning, dialectical reasoning -- the Talmud, after all, is a series of books created just for this purpose -- but this "questioning" is deceptive. The answer in the end, as I discovered when so many of my early question went unanswered, will always be to make God, the bible, the Jews look good. Taiku, the Talmud sometimes says when something doesn't make sense, meaning: We'll know the answer when the Messiah comes. In other words, "whatever."

That's why anyone's desire to tell "the truth" about the Jews, to the Jews, will fall on deaf ears.

Many simply aren't interested in "truth" or "facts" or differing opinions. They are only interested in spin. That is the Jewish legacy.

Amy Klein was the religion editor The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. She is working on a memoir about her former religious life.