Racism in basic Jewish Theology? The Chosen People in Jewish Thought, Part I

In 1966, the editors of Commentary magazine published a book entitled “The Condition of Jewish Belief.”  They submitted four questions about the meaning of Judaism in the modern era to fifty-five North-American rabbis and scholars of all denominations and received thirty-eight responses.  This article will summarize the response of two of the eleven Orthodox rabbis that responded to the second question about the idea that the Jews are the Chosen People.  The question was worded as follows:

In what sense do you believe that the Jews are the chosen people of God?  How do you answer the charge that this doctrine is the model from which various theories of national and racial superiority have been derived?

Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm (b. 1927), longtime chancellor of Yeshiva University and spokesperson of Modern Orthodoxy, writes that the superiority of the Jewish people is purely related to its “spiritual vocation.”  Israel’s mission confers a position of spiritual and educational leadership among the nations but does not confer nor indicate any ethnic, racial, or biological superiority.  Lamm has a Universalist approach to that mission; he also rather sharply labels efforts to particularism as not Jewish.  More specifically, he sees the Jewish people as having two distinct but connected and related roles in this mission.  At Mount Sinai, God said we would become a goy kadosh, a holy nation, and a mamlechet kohanim, a kingdom of priests.  A goy kadosh refers to the need to develop a national separateness for the sake of heightened spirituality – via the halachaMamlechet kohanim implies – just as the prophets understood the primary role of kohanim as teachers – the need to utilize this holiness to be teachers and leaders for the rest of mankind.  Although one of these roles requires and engenders isolation and the other requires integration, Lamm views them as supplementary.  The end-goal of the holiness resulting from the existential Jewish separateness is to transmit that holiness and meaning to others.  If, however, the separateness brings to only to alienation and nothing further or higher, it is not the separateness of the mamlechet kohanim and goy kadosh.  Interestingly, Lamm points to Jewish secular nationalism and its particularism as well as the liberal credo and its inclination to dissent as examples of the mistake of valuing alienation as a virtue in its own right.  He also concedes that the Jewish idea of chosenness be misunderstood and lead to racism with potentially deadly results, but concludes that any idea can be distorted; in fact, the nobler the idea, the greater the risk and the uglier the distortion.

Rabbi Dr. Immanuel Jakobovits (1921 – 1999), Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and pioneer in the field of Jewish medical ethics, de-emphasizes the uniqueness of the Jewish chosenness by fleshing out a greater context of which it becomes but one part.  He believes that every people and even every individual is “chosen” to fulfill a particular role in the Divine cosmic plan.  He suggests that although it was never, to our knowledge, so declared by God, the Greeks were chosen for their contributions to art and philosophy, the Romans for their pioneering law and government, and the Americans for their contribution to the idea of democracy.  Against this backdrop, the Jews were, albeit explicitly, chosen to be pioneers of religion and morality.

Jakobovits attributes the ruggedness and stubborn survival of the Jewish people to its sense of this chosenness, and foretells its downfall when this sense atrophies.  He writes: “The humblest Jew in the Middle Ages had a greater awareness of his and his people’s indispensible part in realizing the prophetic vision of human perfection than most Jewish leaders have in our times.”  Just as if Americans were to lose their sense of the uniqueness of the American way of life, they would subsequently fail to fulfill their national purpose and shoulder their unique national burden, if the Jews would lack the sense and incentive of living for a morally and religiously superior purpose, they would yield to the pressure to assimilate and lead religiously and morally ordinary lives.

The Jewish idea of chosenness has never justified or led to discrimination against strangers in Jewish law or political domination in Jewish history.  This, writes Jakobovits, demonstrates that the idea has never been understood as national or racial superiority.

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3 Comments

Filed under Theological Issues, Things I've Read

3 responses to “Racism in basic Jewish Theology? The Chosen People in Jewish Thought, Part I

  1. This is very interesting. Wonder how it would compare to European Orthodox thought and of course the Israeli position? I’m pretty sure my Italian rabbi would echo the position of Rabbi Lamm.

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