THE BLOG
09/18/2013 02:45 pm ET | Updated Nov 18, 2013

Jewish Chosenness and American Exceptionalism

I have always felt uneasy with the concept. What does it mean to be "chosen"? Isn't it ethnocentric? Even supremacist?

High Holiday prayer services include the song of "Ata Bechartanu," which describes God choosing and loving the Jewish nation. I have always felt uneasy with the concept. What does it mean to be "chosen"? Isn't it ethnocentric? Even supremacist? Regardless of national origin, race, class or creed all people eat, sleep, love, bleed red and die the same.

Of course concepts of chosenness are not unique to any particular religion or people. Christian chosenness is a belief that those choosing Jesus go to heaven while others are placed in limbo or are damned. Japan considers itself the land where the sun originates ("Land of the Rising Sun"). Americans feel their democratic values are unique and special, giving rise to the concept of American exceptionalism.

Arguing against intervention in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin, writing in the New York Times, attacked President Barack Obama's argument for American exceptionalism. Putin asserted that "[i]t is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional."

Putin is right if exceptionalism is rooted in arrogance and denigration of others instead of humble pride in oneself. It is the difference between "White Pride" in the KKK which is predicated on hatred of others and notions of a superior race versus black pride or Jewish pride which should be based on love of ones people and heritage, not denigration of others.

The following story, of how an Oglala Indian tribal leader encouraged my father to take pride in his Jewish roots, illustrates this distinction between arrogance and healthy pride.

My father, Lyle Federman (1955-1998), grew up with little to no Jewish tradition. No Shabbat. Minimal Passover observance. No Menorah. No Kashrut. He spent much of his life searching for an identity. He eventually discovered and embraced his Jewish heritage at an Oglala tribal meeting on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Growing up he had no interest in Judaism. He strived for a belief system that was all-inclusive. Connected with nature. With a social justice mission. Those values were reinforced by his exposure to the countercultural and environmental movements of the late '60s.

He found those values in the Native American way of life. His began his journey by providing aid for food and clothing on the poverty stricken Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He also volunteered at the sobriety meetings to fight the rampant alcohol and drug abuse. Soon he started practicing Native American rituals like the sweat lodge (or ceremonial sauna) and learning the traditions and history.

Eventually, he was called to a tribal meeting where he would be formally inducted into the Oglala Lakota tribe. At the meeting, the tribal elders asked my father what he had observed on the reservation.

"I observe two kind of Indians," my father explained. "One with short hair, head down, drunk and ashamed of who he is; and one with long hair, head up, sober and proud of his people." The elders nodded in approval.

They asked my father about his ancestry. My father explained that he was Jewish. The tribal leader paused, squinted in thought, and said: "There are two kinds of Jews. One with his head down, ashamed of who he is; and the other with his head up and proud of who he is." He continued, "Be that Jew who is proud of who he is." That was the most transcendental moment in my father's life.

But what does it mean to be proud of your heritage? Is that ethnocentric? Even supremacist? The Torah was given on a small mountain to teach one to be humble toward others. To recognize and value other peoples way of life. If that is so, then why wasn't the Torah given on flatland? Wouldn't that be an even greater metaphor of humility? It was given on a small mountain to teach that one should still have pride, but that pride should be measured and humbled.

Back in 2009, at a NATO summit in Strasbourg, U.S. President Barack Obama was asked by a European reporter whether he believed in the concept of American exceptionalism. Obama said it best: "I believe in American exceptionalism," he replied, "just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world."

The same idea should apply to any sort of belief that one is special or chosen. It is about personal pride, not exclusion or denigration of others.