THE BLOG
11/10/2011 06:36 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

What Does It Mean That the Jews are God's Chosen People?

The Jews are God's Chosen People.

No doubt this statement causes an emotional response. There are few concepts in religion that are more emotionally loaded and more misunderstood. If you are Jewish, the idea of "Chosen People" probably feels very uncomfortable -- perhaps as an offensive, divisive, or outdated claim of superiority, which has been at the root of anti-Semitism. This is why the very idea of "chosenness" had been removed by some modern Jewish denominations. Or you may feel proud, pointing to the extraordinary achievement of Jews, and the very fact that Jews have miraculously survived for thousands of years in spite of constant persecution and attempts at annihilation.

And if you are not Jewish this statement may sound like a claim that somehow God loves Jews better than others and has given them special treatment. Maybe you understand Jewish chosenness as an outdated, broken covenant, or as a holding position until a future time when Judaism will no longer be needed. And for those who insist on viewing religion as inherently divisive and anti-rational, the idea of "Chosen People" is seen as proof of the danger of religious doctrine and as undermining any attempts at reconciliation.

All of these responses, however, demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of the nature of "chosenness" (and, like most uninformed interpretations, say more about the person making the claim that the issue itself). The Jewish concept of the "Chosen People" is not a badge of superiority and separation. Quite the contrary: Jewish chosenness is a humble call to action and responsibility. Jews are chosen much as one may say to a child: "The room needs cleaning, and I choose you to do the work; you are my 'chosen' child." In this way, all people are chosen for something. Jews specifically have been chosen to, or have chosen to, be of service to others so that the world may be a more just place.

This is not a "spin" or an apologetic, but is a theological and historical fact. Judaism traces its beginnings to Abraham who, according to the Bible, was the first human being to recognize the truth that everything and everyone emanates from the same Source. And with this recognition comes the call to personal and communal transformation. Whatever your believe about Abraham -- that he was a real person, the mythologizing of a tribal chief, or a fabricated character -- does not matter, because the reality is that Judaism has understood his story as a call to kindness and hospitality. And while one can -- and at times ought to -- find serious flaws in Abraham, his flaws are deliberately shown so we can know that one does not need to be perfect in order to be of service, and that answering the call will inevitably lead to personal struggle and mistakes. Abraham is not a perfect human; he is a human who seeks to be more.

Chosenness continues when the Jews received the 10 commandments at Mt. Sinai. Again, whether historical fact or fiction matters not one bit, because we do have the 10 Commandments, and they came to the world through the Jews. While one can be critical ("why should an all-powerful God care if we take His name in vain?"), most criticism also comes from a deep misunderstanding. The Bible and Jewish literature does not refer to these as "commandments," but as "statements" that flow inevitably from one to the other.

This begins with the essential and revolutionary recognition that there is an eternal, loving, involved consciousness that is the creative and sustaining force of everything. With this knowledge the rest of the statements naturally follow: we will not desire to worship the "idols" of egoic gratification because we will see that these are illusions; will not use spiritual insight for personal gain (the real meaning of "not taking God's name in vain"); will honor our time and set aside a day to reconnect to Spirit; will feel gratitude for life and to those who gave us birth; will see others as fellow creations of God who must not be abused in any way; and finally we will not be jealous of others or want what they have because we will know that to compare ourselves is to be ungrateful for what we have been given. This radical understanding of the dynamics of life has slowly changed the world for the better.

Jews were chosen to bring to the world this message of goodness: treat the stranger as one's own, love your fellow as yourself, care for the widow, orphan and handicapped, give to the poor, know that Spirit is higher than material success and that you are a child of God, and most importantly, always value life. In this way, Jews are chosen to be the lamp that allows God's light to shine in the world.

This is not to say that all -- or even most -- Jews have accepted the task for which they were chosen. Again, quite the contrary. The Bible itself, primarily in the books of the Prophets, tells us that Jews have consistently rebelled against this call and the rebellion continues to this day. And yet Judaism itself professes a higher way to live, proclaiming that we must strive to live ethically in the face of barbarism. One may (and I'm sure that many will) point to the many horrific scenes in the Bible (stoning wayward sons, annihilating opposing tribes, taking virgins captive...), but Judaism has from the very beginning seen these scenes as warnings, and has categorically rejected violence and oppression. Judaism has been among the first systems to oppose the death penalty, to abolish slavery, to give rights to women, to create fair courts of law, and to value knowledge over might.

Being chosen to bring light is a difficult task, and history shows that Jews have paid a high price from those who fight to hide in the darkness in order to control others and wield unchallenged power. Jews are less than one-third of 1 percent of the world's population, and there is only one country in the world that is a majority Jewish state -- a postage stamp sized country (1/800th of the total Middle East in land mass) located on a plot of arid, resourceless land, which is the only society in the region that gives equal rights to women and gays, and that allows all citizens to vote (hopefully this will change if the Arab Spring brings more democracy). And yet this seems to be one Jewish state too many for much of the world.

When attacked, whether in a coordinated effort by her surrounding neighbors who three times sought to annihilate her, or by murderers lobbing missiles in to her civilian towns, Israel is condemned for daring to survive, and is even insanely compared to evil regimes that murdered millions of innocents. Again, this is not to say that Israel is perfect or beyond criticism. But it is to say that she is the only country in the world whose very existence is challenged, and the blatant hatred for Israel is yet another attempt to deny the light that Judaism is chosen to bring to the world.

Tevye the Milkman in "Fiddler on the Roof" understood the nature of chosenness well when he cried to the heavens, "I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can't You choose someone else?" And then he set out to invite a stranger to his home for dinner.