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05/10/2013 12:54 pm ET | Updated Jul 10, 2013

Shavuot and the Chosen

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Shavuot (the two-day Festival of Weeks) by the Jewish people will commence Tuesday evening. The holiday commemorates revelation at Sinai, almost 3,300 years ago, when the Jews were chosen by God to receive the Ten Commandments. These 10 utterances and declarations became the moral and ethical foundation for Western civilization. It was at Sinai that the appellation "the chosen people" was first introduced.

Exodus 19:5: God says to Moses, "Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be my am segulah--my treasured possession among all the peoples."

The idea that the Jews are the chosen people is one of the most misunderstood concepts in history. Indeed, a lethal combination of misunderstanding and often deliberate distortion has caused immense suffering to the Jewish people at the hands of persecutors who point to the "chosen people" concept as evidence that the Jews claim to be superior to other religions and nations, and even that Jews covet world supremacy. Actually, the concept of the chosen people was never meant to assert Jewish superiority or supremacy, and it certainly doesn't mean that today.

Rather, the concept of chosenness designates the Jews' special mission to introduce the world to ethical monotheism. I believe that the emergence of Christianity and Islam as great world religions represent a fulfillment of that mission. When the Jews were first chosen for the mission to bring ethical monotheism to the world more than 2,000 years ago, there were only Jews and pagans in the world. Today, the great majority of the world's population adheres to one of the three Abrahamic faiths, and we speak of a Judeo-Christian ethic or, more accurately, of a Judeo-Christian-Islamic ethic.

It should be understood that being chosen has in fact proven to be more of a burden than a gift for the Jewish people. Because the Jews were chosen, they have suffered. Indeed, if Jews are "superior" to other peoples in any respect, it is in the staggering amount of persecution and bloodshed we have endured: 2,000 years of subjugation, coercion, martyrdom, slaughter, Inquisition, pogroms and Holocaust. All of this has been our destiny for the "privilege" of having been chosen.

The Torah contains a number of passages asserting that Israel's character as the land of the chosen people is unconditional, as in Deuteronomy 14:2: "For you are a holy people to the Lord, your God, and God has chosen you to be his treasured people from all the nations that are on the face of the earth." However, even at the beginning of Jewish history, Moses reminded the People of Israel that they were not at all superior to those of other nations. He tells them, "It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the Lord set His heart on you and chose you -- indeed, you are the smallest of peoples" (Deuteronomy 7:6-8). Moses further upbraids his people: "It is not for any virtue of yours that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to
possess, for you are a stiff-necked people" (Deuteronomy 9:6). While not suggesting any particular virtue on the part of those whom God chooses, the Torah does require that the chosen should respond by faithfully following God's commandments.

A significant point concerning the meaning of chosenness in the Jewish conception may also give surcease to many who believe that, despite everything I have elucidated above, the term "chosenness" per se implies superiority. It may be that the entire controversy could have been ameliorated with a more careful and painstaking translation of the Hebrew term that I referenced before, Am Segulah, which has generally been translated into the languages of the gentile world as "chosen people." Yet its literal meaning as expressed in the Torah (Exodus 19:5; Deuteronomy 7:6, 14:2, 26:18) can be more accurately rendered as "treasured nation."

So certainly the term Am Segulah refers to the special relationship that God has with the Jewish people. It makes clear that, throughout the biblical period, He had a hands-on involvement with and affection for the Jewish people that He not only expressed but repeatedly acted upon. And as I have stated, I believe God chose the Jewish people for a special mission, that of spreading ethical monotheism in the world, that is distinct from the missions for which He chose other peoples and faiths.

Yet "treasured nation" is, in my mind, subtly but profoundly different from "chosen people." The latter term certainly lends itself to the interpretation that God selected the Jews out of all the nations for better treatment or even to reign supreme, even though the punishment and martyrdom inflicted upon Jews through the millennia has led many Jews to ask ruefully why God does not choose another nation for a change. But awareness that the Hebrew term Am Segulah actually means "treasured nation," not "chosen people," also puts some distance between the Jewish people and any pretense to superiority or dominance over the nations. Yes, God saw us as his treasure, because during the biblical period we were the only nation that rejected the then-near-universal belief in idols and instead chose to accept the One God as the true one. In those times, we were the only people who accepted monotheism and its attendant manifold obligations to serve God. It is no wonder, then, that He would have called us his "treasured nation," assuming, of course, that we remained faithful to the laws that He laid down for us. As the Bible, the Talmud, and Jewish history all show, there were many times when we failed to do that.

While we are a long way from declaring that moral mission accomplished, we have succeeded in accomplishing something tremendously important: creating a widely accepted standard for ethical monotheism where none existed before. Unlike 2,000 years ago, today the majority of humanity has come to believe there is one God, and that believers in God should honor their creator by improving the world and treating our fellow human beings with dignity.

So, we aren't there yet, but at least we know the direction home. And while it has hardly been a joyride for the Jews to be chosen to carry out our God-given mission of bringing ethical monotheism to the world, it has been, and remains, an uplifting assignment, one that gives many of us a reason for getting up every morning and doing what we know needs to be done.

Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. This article is an excerpt from his upcoming book co-authored with Imam Shamsi Ali entitled "Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation About the Issues that Divide and Unite Jews and Muslims," to be published by Beacon Press in September.