A Chosen People?

By Aryeh Tepper
Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Within months of Israel's lightning victory in the June 1967 war, French President Charles de Gaulle was asked for his judgment of the dramatically new situation created by the triumph of the Jewish state over its enemies. Still smarting from Israel's refusal to heed his advice and wait passively for the Arab armies to attack, de Gaulle labeled the Jews "an elite people, sure of themselves and domineering."

The not-so-veiled reference was to the idea of Jewish chosenness, and to the innate and unmerited sense of superiority that belief in this idea has allegedly conferred on the Jewish people. As a weapon of anti-Semites, this charge against the Jews has enjoyed a long historical run; revived in recent decades, it has been enshrined in the United Nations' 1975 resolution equating Zionism with racism, repeated and embellished by anti-Israel Western intellectuals, and invoked incessantly by Arab propagandists as the root cause of all the problems in the Middle East.  

The irony is that there are few ideas from which modern Jews, quintessentially imbued with the egalitarian ethos, are more likely to flee than the idea of chosenness. Liberal Jewish intellectuals, rabbis, and public figures have expended tremendous energy over the past century apologizing for the chauvinistic implications of the doctrine of Israel's election while, often simultaneously, attempting to rationalize it on acceptably universal grounds. Thus, we hear that the Jews were bidden to set an ethical example as "a light unto the nations," or, more actively, to "mend the world."

But apologies and rationalizations aside, the fact is that Israel's election is one of the most fundamental ideas in the Jewish tradition. But the traditional vision of chosenness—formulated in such biblical pronouncements as "you shall be a treasured possession to Me above all nations" (Exodus 19:5)—has nothing to do with racial superiority, let alone de Gaulle's image of elitism and arrogance (an almost comical projection by that haughty glorifier of French pride).  To the contrary, as the same passage and many others explicitly stipulate, it has to do with God's irrational love of Abraham and his descendants, sealed in an irrevocable covenant with all its special obligations.

Is there still room, then, for a belief in Israel's election in today's world? A recent day-long conference at the Center for Jewish Statesmanship in Jerusalem, featuring well-known figures from the academic, religious, and political worlds, showed just how much fresh insight on the topic is still needed.

Rabbi Zev Soltonovitch, associated with the messianic stream of religious Zionism, opened the day by unapologetically asserting that the time is ripe for Jews to realize their providential mission on the international stage. Drawing a parallel between the condition of the West today and that of the Roman Empire at the time of its collapse, he conjured up the picture of a well-fed global civilization that had lost faith in itself and of the concomitant search for new forms of spirituality. In Roman times, the answer came ultimately from Christianity; today, it must come from the Jews.

And what is that answer? In Soltonovitch's view, it lies in the traditional concept of the "seven commandments of the children of Noah": the minimalist code of universal justice that the talmudic rabbis derived from God's commands to Noah after the Flood. Having emerged in response to a catastrophe akin to World Wars I and II, the code was given to a battered humanity now re-conceived as a family—another historical parallel, in this case to today's global consciousness.

Soltonovich's sweeping presentation of contemporary problems and their solution provided, to say the least, an abrupt lesson in the imaginative fevers that animate the hard core of Israel's religious Right. In a welcome return to sobriety, Shalom Rosenberg of the Hebrew University proceeded to trace with expertise the story of Jewish particularity from the Bible to the present day, leading to a couple of difficult questions. Do Jews need to believe in election in order to sustain themselves as a nation? Might the belief in election actually harm Jewish existence?

The latter question calls to mind an early Zionist rebel, Yosef Haim Brenner, who denounced the belief in chosenness as an exercise in self-deception, a fantasy of those seeking an escape from the prosaic realities of Jewish life. Rosenberg, for his part, affirmed the belief, but only so long as it remains an internal spur to excellence.  When, said Rosenberg, it comes to relations with other nations, especially in a world shot through with anti-Jewish animus, "I want to be normal." His sentiments were echoed later in the day by Yuli Edelstein, Israel's minister of Diaspora affairs, who detailed how perceptions of Israel among foreign elites were informed by stunning levels of ignorance mixed in many cases with outright anti-Semitism. 

Hovering over the day's proceedings was the spirit of Ahad Ha'am (pen name of Asher Ginsberg, 1856-1927), one of the fathers of cultural Zionism. Although his name wasn't mentioned, and is altogether little mentioned these days, his questions remain to a large extent our questions, and his explorations of those questions retain much of their original vitality.  

Ahad Ha'am took up the issue of Israel's election in "The Transvaluation of Values," an essay written at the end of the 19th century. The Nietzschean title was deliberate: the essay is actually an extended meditation on the influence wielded by the German philosopher's ideas, especially concerning the sources of national vitality, on the modern Hebrew project.

Although, wrote Ahad Ha'am, various attempts have been made by Jews since the French Revolution to reconcile "the idea of national election with that of human equality," most notably through a belief in Israel's "mission" in the world, this is precisely the wrong approach. "The Jewish people as a whole has always interpreted its 'mission' simply as the performance of its own duties." Although, as the prophets hoped, success in that endeavor might "exert an influence for good on the moral condition of other nations," this would occur only as a result of the Jews' continual striving for "the highest type of morality" for its own sake. As Ahad Ha'am put it in characteristically provocative terms:  

Actually we are not superior to other nations, even in the sphere of morality.  We have been unable to fulfill our mission in exile because we could not make our lives a true expression of our own character, independent of the will of others.

A proud, self-assured, and noble belief in election as "a true expression of our own character, independent of the will of others," might only be actuated in a Jewish homeland, or so Ahad Ha'am postulated. But it had nothing to do with domination, and it did not need to justify itself by "serving humanity." Instead, it demanded of Jews the most strenuous devotion to self-perfection, for only with great difficulty would so noble a spiritual exercise produce a like demand within others.

In brief, Ahad Ha'am attributed the Jews' spiritual malaise in the modern period to their failure to cultivate the notion of election. He also hoped that his thoughts on the subject "might be expanded and amplified into a complete system." That never happened. Indeed, it may well be that, absent a bedrock faith in the covenant, no "complete system" of the kind he imagined could ever satisfy the modern mind or heart.

And so the question remains: is it, in fact, possible to articulate a vital and self-contained vision that will overcome the instinctive shame that so many modern Jews feel about being "a chosen people"?  

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