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Chosen people

Chosenness is the belief that the Jewish people have been chosen (or have chosen) to be in a special relationship, a covenant, with God.

This idea is first found in the Torah (five books of Moses) and is elaborated on in later books of the Hebrew Bible. Much is written about this topic in rabbinic literature.

The idea has traditionally been interpreted in two ways: one way of understanding chosenness is that God chose the Israelites to enter into a covenant with Him; another traditional Jewish understanding is that the Israelites chose to enter into a covenant with God, by accepting God's laws. (According to Judaism, these laws are delineated in both the Torah and the Oral law). Although collectively this choice was made freely, most Jews believe that it created individual obligation for the descendants of the Israelites. Crucial to the notion of chosenness is that it creates obligations exclusive to Jews. Generally, it does not entail exclusive rewards for Jews.

Chosenness is the claim that the Jewish people have been chosen by God to fulfill the mission of proclaiming God's truth among all the nations. This choice does not imply a superior claim, but a special duty and responsibility on the part of the Jewish people. This duty devolves from the belief that Jews have been pledged by the covenant which God concluded with Abraham, their ancestor, and again with the entire Jewish nation at Mount Sinai, to testify, by precept and example, to the truth revealed to them, to lead a holy life as God's priest-people, and, if needs be, sacrifice their very lives for the sake of this truth. In this peculiar sense they are called God's own people.

Table of contents

Conditions of Choice

That Israel's character as the chosen people is conditioned by obedience to God's commandments is stated in the very words of the Sinai covenant: "Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people; for all the earth is mine: and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation" (Exodus 14:5, 6). "The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people; but because the Lord loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers" (Deuteronomy 7:7, 8).

The great obligation imposed upon Israel as the chosen people is especially emphasized by the prophet Amos (3:2): "You only have I singled out [R. V., "known"] of all the families of the earth: therefore will I visit upon you all your iniquities." Compare Deut. 14:2: "Thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all peoples that are upon the face of the earth," and ib. 24:18, 19, R. V.

Chosenness in the Jewish prayerbook

One standard way this mission is described is that God chose the Jews to be a light unto the nations. For example, the blessing in the siddur (Jewish prayerbook) for reading the Torah reads "Praised are you, Lord, King of the universe, who has chosen us out of all the nations to bestow upon us his Torah." We find a similar qualification in the prayer known as "Kiddush", a sanctification ceremony in which the Sabbath is inaugurated over a cup of wine. The text reads "For you have chosen us and sanctified us out of all the nations, and have given us the Sabbath as an inheritance in love and favour. Praised are you, Lord, who hallows the Sabbath."

Views of choseness by the modern Jewish denominations

Among the four major Jewish denominations, only the Reconstructionist movement rejects the concept of chosenness. Its founder, Rabbi Kaplan, said that the idea that God chose the Jewish people for any purpose, in any way, is "morally untenable", because anyone who has such beliefs "implies the superiority of the elect community and the rejection of others."

The remaining three denominations -- Orthodox, Conservative and Reform -- do hold that the Jews are a chosen people. However, contrary to popular belief, Jewish texts do not state that "God chose the Jews" by itself. Such a claim could imply that Jews believe that God loves only the Jewish people, or that only Jews can be close to God, or that only Jews can have a heavenly reward. In contrast, the statements found in Jewish texts is that the Jewish people were chosen for a specific mission.

Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, former Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Great Britain, describes chosenness in this way: "Yes, I do believe that the chosen people concept as affirmed by Judaism in its holy writ, its prayers, and its millennial tradition. In fact, I believe that every people - and indeed, in a more limited way, every individual - is "chosen" or destined for some distinct purpose in advancing the designs of Providence. Only, some fulfill their mission and others do not. Maybe the Greeks were chosen for their unique contributions to art and philosophy, the Romans for their pioneering services in law and government, the British for bringing parliamentary rule into the world, and the Americans for piloting democracy in a pluralistic society. The Jews were chosen by God to be 'peculiar unto Me' as the pioneers of religion and morality; that was and is their national purpose."

Conservative Judaism views the concept of chosenness in this way:

Few beliefs have been subject to as much misunderstanding as the "Chosen People" doctrine. The Torah and the Prophets clearly stated that this does not imply any innate Jewish superiority. In the words of Amos (3:2) "You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth - that is why I will call you to account for your iniquities". The Torah tells us that we are to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" with obligations and duties which flowed from our willingness to accept this status. Far from being a license for special privilege, it entailed additional responsibilities not only toward God but to our fellow human beings. As expressed in the blessings at the reading of the Torah, our people have always felt it to be a privilege to be selected for such a purpose. For the modern traditional Jew, the doctrine of the election and the covenant of Israel offers a purpose for Jewish existence which transcends its own self interests. It suggests that because of our special history and unique heritage we are in a position to demonstrate that a people that takes seriously the idea of being covenanted with God can not only thrive in the face of oppression, but can be a source of blessing to its children and its neighbors. It obligates us to build a just and compassionate society throughout the world and especially in the land of Israel where we may teach by example what it means to be a "covenant people, a light unto the nations".("Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism" JTSA, New York, 1988, p.33-34)

Reform Judaism views the concept of chosenness in this way:

Throughout the ages it has been Israel's mission to witness to the Divine in the face of every form of paganism and materialism. We regard it as our historic task to cooperate with all men in the establishment of the kingdom of God, of universal brotherhood, Justice, truth and peace on earth. This is our Messianic goal. (Source: The Guiding Principles of Reform Judaism , Columbus, Ohio, 1937 )

We affirm that the Jewish people is bound to God by an eternal covenant, as reflected in our varied understandings of Creation, Revelation and Redemption....We are Israel, a people aspiring to holiness, singled out through our ancient covenant and our unique history among the nations to be witnesses to God's presence. We are linked by that covenant and that history to all Jews in every age and place. (Source: Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, adopted at the 1999 Pittsburgh Convention, Central Conference of American Rabbis)

Beliefs of Reform Judaism (http://www.rj.org/rj.shtml)

Superiority

Not all Jews have always held this view. Starting in medieval Europe, during a time of intense persecution of Jews by both Christians and Muslims, some Jewish thinkers began teaching that the meaning of chosenness implied that God loves Jews more than other human beings, and that Jews were inherently superior to non-Jews. This philosophy was first taught by Yeuhada Halevi in his work "The Kuzari: A Book of proof and argument - An apology for a despied religion." This view later resurfaced in the Zohar, the classic book of Kabbalah (Jewish esoteric mysticism), and has been repeated in a few later Hasidic texts such as the Tanya. Over time this view became popular among a segement of the Jewish community; it is rejected by the majority of the Jewish community, and by all official statements from mainstream rabbinic organizations.

Non-Jewish view of chosenness

Supersessionism is the Christian belief that Christians have replaced Israel as God's Chosen people. In this view, the Jews' chosenness found its ultimate fulfillment through the message of Jesus; Jews who remain non-Christian are no longer considered to be chosen, since they reject Jesus as the Messiah and son of God. Related topics include Predestination, and Predestination (Calvinism).

According to Islam the leaders of both Judaism and Christianity deliberately altered the true word of God, and thus led all of their believers down a false path. In the Quran, Mohammed charges the Jewish people with "falsehood" (Sura 3:71), distortion (4:46), and of being "corrupters of Scripture."

Some parts of the Quran attribute differences between Muslims and non-Muslims to tahri fi-manawi, a "corruption of the meaning" of the words. In this view, the Jewish Bible and Christian New Testament are true, but the Jews and Christians misunderstood the meaning of their own Scriptures, and thus need the Quran to clearly understand the will of God. Other parts of the Quran teach that many Jews and Christians deliberately altered their scripture, and thus altered the word of God in order to deceive their co-religionists. This belief was developed further in medieval Islamic polemics, and is a mainstream belief in much of Islam today. This is known as the doctrine of tahrifi-lafzi, "the corruption of the text".

Ye People of the Book! Why do ye clothe Truth with falsehood and conceal the Truth while ye have knowledge? Surah 3.71
 
Can ye (o ye men of Faith) entertain the hope that they will believe in you? - seeing that a party of them heard the Word of God and perverted it knowingly after they understood it. Surah 2.75

Then woe to those who write the Book with their own hands and then say: "This is from God", to traffic with it for a miserable price! - Woe to them for what their hands do write, and for the gain they make thereby. Surah 2.79

Islamic supersessionism retroactively rewrites the role of Abraham, and presents Muslims as the only people chosen to carry the true word of God.

"Abraham was not a Jew, nor yet a Christian; but he was an upright man who had surrendered (to Allah), and he was not of the idolaters." (III - The house of Imran 67)

External link

The Jewish concept of chosenness (http://www.acs.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/Shokel/Preaching/S970623_Covenanting)

References

G. Vajda Juifs et musulmans selon le hadith Journal Historique 229 (1937): 57-129;

Hava Lazarus-Yafeh, Jews and Christians in Medieval Muslim Thought in Robert S. Wistrich, ed., Demonizing the Other: Antisemitism, Racism and Xenophobia (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1999), p.113



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