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Michele Somerville Headshot

Many Are 'Chosen People' -- And a Few Even Know What It Means

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The following verse from the New Testament, which I heard at mass this past Sunday, got me thinking, again, about the phrase "the chosen people":

And if you belong to Christ,

then you are Abraham's descendant,

heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:29)

My sense is that for Jews, there are nearly as many interpretations of "the chosen people" as there are Jews. My sense as a Christian is that Christians misconstrue the phrase and wind up feeling alienated by it. Catholic theologians go hog-wild as they parse, scrutinize and unravel Judaic elements in Catholic texts and practice. My understanding as a mere Catholic in the pews is that what we call the "new" covenant neither supplants nor nullifies the original covenant. In other words, we Catholics do not throw the baby of the bulrushes out with the baptismal water. I never viewed "the chosen" as exclusionary because I grew up believing I was one.

Jews have been in the news lately. I'm thinking of the Mavi Marmara incident and the Helen Thomas soundbite. Even coverage of non-Jew Al Pacino as he prepares to play Shylock in the Public Theater's New York City production of The Merchant of Venice feels like Jewish news. In Jewish sports news, a rabbinical student fought on a light middleweight card in Yankee Stadium on June 3 and lost. Even the Pope's visit to Turkey had a Jewish angle; I thought the papal synod's claim that Christians living in the Middle East are persecuted as a result of "Christian fundamentalist theologies" that "use sacred scripture to justify Israel's occupation of Palestine" reeked ever so faintly of the well-worn Catholic bigots' refrain: "blame the Jews." In New York City local news, a conflict between the Catholic League and the owner of the Empire State Building over whether to illuminate the skyscraper in Mother Teresa's blue and white colors on the occasion of what would be her hundredth birthday seemed poised to erupt into a Battle Royale between the Saint of Calcutta and a Jewish millionaire developer. On June 10, the New York Times reported that scientists have proven that Jews from disparate regions of the world share inherited genetic material. Three days later, Michael Chabon's fascinating piece, "How Jews See Themselves," appeared in on the June 4 Op Ed page in the Sunday New York Times.

On that Sunday afternoon, I logged on to my Facebook page, where I saw that a "friend" -- someone I don't know but whose writing on Jewish religion and politics I like -- had posted a link to Chabon's piece. I scrolled down to find a lone, unchallenged comment: "plus, we're smarter." (The "we" referred to Jews.) My first thought was to write: "Oh, I guess this must be the okay kind of bigotry."

I thought again, and decided the "friend" of the "friend" was just being a clown. However as the day wore on, I felt hectored from within by an urge to protest. I couldn't shake feeling offended.

Our family had started that weekend as we begin most weekends -- with Shabbos dinner, which I usually prepare. My husband is an agnostic Jew who doesn't like organized religion, so I have been the one to spearhead our domestic campaign to step up our Jewish knowledge. Though I started to drag our family kicking and screaming into Shabbos observance about two years ago, we all like it now, and our children know the Hebrew blessings. My husband may or may not know there are mezuzot on our doors, but the children do. They see me stop to touch, with fingertips and a kiss, the oblong vessels nailed to our doorposts, and have a sense of what that means. I've begun to introduce Torah. I've started to learn Hebrew in a fervent, though slow, pace, and I hope they will soon learn some, too.

As we passed the challah on Friday night two weeks ago, I posed the following question: "So, are you guys Jews?"

"We're half."

"Well, actually, we [parents] kind of think you're Jewish. Not half."

"But you're Catholic! We're 50%!" said the youngest.

Factually accuracy in this, I tried to explain, is not the same as truth.

Our children are fast grasping that "Jewish" refers to both ethnicity and religion. They know that many Jewish teachers and leaders do not consider children born of non-Jewish mothers to be Jewish. Though I pray for another team, I, the unofficial rabbi of our home and hearth, have a good track record when it comes to challenging tyrannical orthodoxy. These lessons in "discernment" translate across the creeds. Our children have learned from their father that there are many ways to be a Jew, and from their mother, whom they describe as "religious," they have learned the importance of knowing when to worship outside the doctrinal box.

"What is President Obama's race?" I asked.

One child answered, "Black." Another, cruising for a fight, answered: "He's half black."

"Hmmm. Half black?" I grumbled. "That's what the right-wingers, who hate the idea of a black president, say."

She was "on the ropes," but the whip-smart 11-year old polemicist was determined to go the distance -- as far as her sophistry would take her. I reminded her that for most of American history, a man like Obama lacked the choice to be biracial. A world outside him would have decided he was black. Our president is the father of black daughters, husband to a black woman. He has, in a sense, "thrown down" with being black.

Our children have grown up hearing that Hitler would have viewed them as Jews, which is not to say that their father and I exhort them to allow the monster to define their degree of "Jewishness" -- but they have an obligation to be open to what wisdom the atrocity the Holocaust delivers.

"It's possible you might even be a little more than 50%." I chimed. "By some estimates, a quarter of all Spaniards have some Jewish DNA, and there's Spanish DNA in mine." Eye-rolling ensued. I found myself accused of being a Jewish "wannabe."

Explaining fully my desire to guide my children towards Jewish tradition, prayer and identification would require too many syllables for here. I came to marriage to a Jew with a pre-existing admiration for Jewish faith and tradition. My belief in God plays a role. The knowledge that my own church so diligently dedicated itself, for so much of its history, to purging the world of Jews, helps to fan the flames of this ardor. I've prayed in mosques, Buddhist temples, Jewish synagogues and yoga studios. I believe there are many paths, and I want my children -- and even my agnostic mate -- to know how to travel them.

While I am comfortable traveling, when I do, on the Jewish path, I neither link nor find it difficult to refrain from linking my Jewish and Christian observance. Were I a Jew engaging in Christian worship, such reconciliation would be impossible to achieve, but I'm not, and Catholic worship contains, for better or worse, Jewish worship. I grew up praying the Psalms and being shaped by Torah. Yet the line between the two traditions is not, for me, perforated. As firmly as I believe anything, I believe that co-opting Jewish ritual or observance as an enhancement to Christian worship is a sin. A "Christian Seder" in my house? Over my dead body.

I continued to be vexed and offended that Sunday afternoon, by "we're smarter." Why? Maybe because I've "thrown down" with both Jewish life and a more expansive way of looking at God, ethnicity and the created world.

I fought off the urge to respond to "plus we're smarter" for as long as I could, but it soon felt wrong to remain silent. I wrote something true in the comment box: that "I liked what Chabon said," what the guy who'd posted the link said, and what the person who'd written "plus we're smarter" said -- "if he was joking."

When our love was new, the man I would marry used to dust off his drill once in a while in order to make a show of the meager tool-belt prowess he mostly lacked. Shortly after we were married, I asked him to fix something in our apartment. He said he'd call someone to do it.

"What's the point of having a husband," I joked, "if he can't fix stuff?"

"Jewish," he said, pointing to his head, chuckling and winking adorably. "Jews. We're intellectuals. We don't work with our hands." Thus he satirized the notion of Jewish "exceptionalism."

We're writers. Much of my husband's professional time and talent as an editor, writer and media expert has been dedicated to supporting, nay, revering the First Amendment. He's a comedian. It's funny when he puts on a thick Irish brogue and delivers one of his sprawling monologues that typically feature stereotypically drawn Colleens, sots and priests -- and usually somehow involve potatoes. I dubbed our favorite sitcom "Curb Your Judaism." Come Passover, it's not unusual to hear him boast about my "shiksa ball soup." I've read my twelve-page poem "To Hell with All the Popes; Here's to the Jewboys!" thrice in public. The tyranny of politically correct expression holds no sway with us -- with me -- yet "we're smarter" stung. Why?

A few days after Chabon's piece appeared, a handful of letters to the editor responding to it were published in the Times. I was surprised to see that some of the authors of these had predicated discussions on the axiomatic premise that Jews are smarter than non-Jews. This way of looking at things was hardly new to me -- I married into a Jewish family -- but I thought only stupid Jews (and non-Jews) actually believed this dreck.

Smart educators know measuring intelligence is always dicey. Having seen this margin of error up close, I am always suspicious of any generalization about intelligence. For 14 years I worked as a teacher of New York City children, adolescents, and young adults. The best students I had were (Jewish and not) children of middle-class families, but they were not always the most intelligent. People reared in cultures that discourage reading and inquiry are often mediocre students but superior thinkers.

One of the responses to Chabon's essay noted that Jews had been able to stake their claim as the most intelligent ethnic group while living in exile and enslavement. Where does that leave non-Jews who have triumphed over Diaspora? Are they by extension not "exceptional?" And if so, is it proper or useful to wax prosaic about their intellectual inferiority?

And isn't this reductive way of looking at humanity what fuels anti-Semitism? Do not claims like "and plus, we're smarter" create fresh license for bigotry all around?

Do those who like to toss around lists of names, stats, universities and awards, bring legitimate scholastic rigor to this investigation? Do these conclusions take into account intellectual growth through the ages in the Near and Far East? And should comparative assessment of "exceptionalism" be limited to intellect -- or extended to include other categories of excellence? Which ethnic group is the most physically beautiful, courageous, courteous, lyrical, honest, virtuous, athletic, musical, physically strong?

Do we really want to default lazily back toward understanding ethnicity through the crude and inaccurate prism of prejudice? Obviously doing so is lawful, but is it ethical? Is it smart? Does it honor our sacred covenants? No, no, no and no.

All ethnic groups think themselves exceptional. Taking pride in the survival of the Jewish people and the astonishing achievements of individual Jewish scientists, artists and thinkers is something I exhort my children to do on a regular basis. Though it would please me to think marrying outside my ethnic group has afforded my spawn a clearer shot at intellectual greatness, any mad 'brainiac' DNA my children might possess more likely arrives via their crazy, drunken, Mensa-smart goyishe grandfather than from their closest Ashkenazi kin.

But what I really want for my children is the gift of imagination, for it is from the measurement-defying capacity to imagine that the ability to honor diversity derives. Bigotry is the by-product of weak imagination. The God of the Torah chose the Jews not because they were smart, but because they exhibited imagination enough to enable them to trust in God's greatness even in times of strife.

Were I to teach my children that Jews are smarter than non-Jews, I would not only teach prejudice, but I would also fail to impart how important it is that the God of Genesis made the world various. I would be "throwing down" with the erroneous idea that factual accuracy and truth are one and the same.

Though I expect that the pride they take in their Jewish heritage will increase as they mature, I hope my children will never come to see themselves as members of some intellectual caste.
Are Jews smarter than everyone else? I don't think so, but I'm not sure. What I am sure of, however, that it's idiocy to pretend our race (the human one) has the means to verify such a thing.

Adolph Hitler embraced a kind of "exceptionalism." The confidence that God had "chosen" them propelled 19 al-Qaeda "martyrs" to fly into the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. "Exceptionalism" is no friend of peace.

I'm a recovering fight fan. Hoping he wasn't just some great white dope or "tomato can" set up by the boxing machers to take a fall, I rooted for Yuri Foreman to win the Cotto-Foreman bout. Because he was Jewish? Yeah, I guess. Somehow a Talmud-studying pug who refuses to throw a punch on the Sabbath seemed a triumph for imagination. It wasn't in me to not be for him. He seemed like some kind of sign from on high -- of all the beauty and talent we can never tally neatly up -- but whose holy wallop has the power to knock the wind out of us and bring us to our knees.