The Chosen People (Judaism)

Reference: Judaism
Reference: The World’s Religions by Huston Smith

[NOTE: In color are Vinaire’s comments.]

The fact is that Jews have continued their existence in the face of unbelievable odds and adversity, and have contributed to civilization out of all proportion to their numbers.

There is a familiar quatrain that runs:

How odd
Of God
To choose
The Jews.

Certainly, the idea that a universal God decided that the divine nature should be uniquely and incomparably disclosed to a single people is among the most difficult notions to take seriously in the entire study of religion. It is awkward not only for seeming to violate principles of impartiality and fair play, but also because many early peoples considered themselves special; one thinks of the Japanese, whose creation myth presents them as direct descendants of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. When Moses tells the Jews, “The Lord God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:6), is there any reason to think that we are in the presence of anything more than routine religious chauvinism?

The idea that a universal God decided that the divine nature should be uniquely and incomparably disclosed to a single people is among the most difficult notions to take seriously in the entire study of religion.

It is true that the Jewish doctrine of the election begins in a conventional mode, but almost at once it takes a surprising turn. For unlike other peoples, the Jews did not see themselves as singled out for privileges. They were chosen to serve, and to suffer the trials that service would often exact. By requiring that they “do and obey all that the Lord has spoken,” their election imposed on them a far more demanding morality than was exacted of their peers. A rabbinic theory has it that God initially offered the Torah to the world at large, but only the Jews were willing to accept its rigors. And (the thesis whimsically concludes) even they did so on impulse, not realizing what they were getting into. For “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities” (Amos 3:2). Nor was this all. We have seen that Second Isaiah’s doctrine of vicarious suffering meant that the Jews were elected to shoulder a suffering that would otherwise have been distributed more widely.

The Jews did not see themselves as singled out for privileges. They were chosen to serve, and to suffer the trials that service would often exact. 

How different from the usual doctrine of election this Jewish version turns out to be! How much more demanding; how unattractive to normal inclinations. Still, the problem is not resolved. For grant that God called the Jews to heroic ordeal, not sinecure; the fact that they were singled out for a special role in the redemption of the world still looks like favoritism. The Bible makes no attempt to avert this suspicion. “It was not because you were more in number than other people,…but because the Lord loves you [that he] has chosen you to be a people for his own” (Deuteronomy 7:6–8).

Still, the fact that they were singled out for a special role in the redemption of the world still looks like favoritism.

This rankles. Flying as it does in the face of democratic sentiments, it has provoked a special theological phrase to accommodate it: “the scandal of particularity.” It is the doctrine that God’s doings can focus like a burning glass on particular times, places, and people(s)—in the interest, to be sure, of intentions that embrace human beings universally.

We shall not be able to validate this doctrine, but there are two things that we can do. We can understand what led the Jews to adopt the concept, and what it did for them.

It has provoked a special theological phrase to accommodate it: “the scandal of particularity.” 

Our search for what led the Jews to believe that they were chosen will carry us past an obvious possibility—national arrogance—to the facts of their history that we have already rehearsed. Israel came into being as a nation through an extraordinary occurrence, in which a milling band of slaves broke the shackles of the tyrant of their day and were lifted to the status of a free and self-respecting people. Almost immediately afterwards they were brought to an understanding of God that was head and shoulders above that of their neighbors, and deduced from it standards of morality and justice that still challenge the world. Through the three thousand years that have followed, they have continued their existence in the face of unbelievable odds and adversity, and have contributed to civilization out of all proportion to their numbers.

The fact is that Jews have continued their existence in the face of unbelievable odds and adversity, and have contributed to civilization out of all proportion to their numbers.

From beginning to end—this is the point that lies at the heart of the matter—the story of the Jews is unique. According to expectations they should not have escaped from Pharaoh in the first place. Why their God, Yahweh, became in their eyes a God of righteousness, whereas Chemosh, god of the Moabites, and other local deities did not, is, as even such a protagonist of natural explanations as Wellhausen admitted, “a question to which one can give no satisfactory answer.” The prophetic protest against social injustice is universally conceded to be “without close parallel in the ancient world.” And to the already quoted judgment that “by every sociological law the Jews should have perished long ago,” we can now add that of the philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev: “The continued existence of Jewry down the centuries is rationally inexplicable.”

From beginning to end the story of the Jews is unique. By every sociological law the Jews should have perished long ago. The continued existence of Jewry down the centuries is rationally inexplicable.

If what these facts and judgments attest is true and Jewish history has been exceptional, there are two possibilities. Either the credit belongs to the Jews themselves, or it belongs to God. Given this alternative, the Jews instinctively turned the credit Godward. One of the striking features of this people has been their persistent refusal to see anything innately special about themselves as people. According to a midrashic legend, when God took clay for the making of Adam he gathered it from every part of the world and from every color of earth to insure the universality and basic homogeneity of the human race. So the specialness of the Jewish experience must have derived from God’s having chosen them. A concept that appears at first to be arrogant turns out to be the humblest interpretation the Jews could give to the facts of their origin and survival.

A concept that appears at first to be arrogant turns out to be the humblest interpretation the Jews could give to the facts of their origin and survival.

It is possible, of course, to resent particularism even here, but one must ask whether in doing so we would not be resenting the kind of world we have. For like it or not, this is a world of particulars, and human minds are tuned thereto. Nothing registers on human attention until it obtrudes from its background. Apply this point to theology and what does it give us? God probably blesses us as much through the air we breathe as through other gifts; but if piety had to wait for people to infer God’s goodness from the availability of oxygen, it would have been long in coming. The same holds for history. If relief from oppression were routine, the Jews would have taken their liberation for granted. Chalk it up to human obtuseness, the fact remains that divine favors could envelop humanity as the sea envelops fish; were they automatic they would be dismissed as commonplace. This being so, perhaps only the individual, the unique, the particular could have brought the divine to human attention.

Perhaps only the individual, the unique, the particular could have brought the divine to human attention.

Today Jewish opinion is divided on the doctrine of the election. Some Jews believe that it has outgrown whatever usefulness or objective validity it may have had in biblical times. Other Jews believe that until the world’s redemption is complete, God continues to need people who are set apart, peculiar in the sense of being God’s task force in history. For those who think in this second way, the words of Isaiah speak not only of the past but with continuing, contemporary meaning.

Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me from before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified. (Isaiah 49:1–3)

Jews believe that until the world’s redemption is complete, God continues to need people who are set apart, peculiar in the sense of being God’s task force in history.

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