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

This week, we continue our summary of the responses of North American Orthodox Rabbis in the mid-1960’s to the following question:

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 Emanuel Rackman (1910 – 2008) writes that one may not feel superiority based on a quality that he would not enjoy based on his own merit alone.  G-d selected Abraham, according to Sefer Bereishit, because He recognized Abraham as a person who would transmit a mission of justice and righteousness to his descendants – i.e. on his own merit, not on his father Terah’s.  Abraham’s descendants (including contemporary Jewry), however, were seldom portrayed positively by Moshe or any of the later prophets, and would clearly not be selected on their own.  For a Jew to feel like he is better than his fellow-man because of his chosenness is not legitimate.  Rackman also views the Jewish approach to conversion as relevant to this issue.  Although we do not attempt to persuade non-Jews to join us since we already fall short of fulfilling the duties of our heavy burden and do not want to strengthen that failure, if they want to join us they have the same opportunity to be privileged to carry that heavy burden right along with us.  An elitism that potentially welcomes all cannot, in fairness, be called racist.  Rackman, like Lamm, makes the point that although it is troubling when a noble idea is twisted into an ignoble one, it does not tarnish that idea or conviction.

Yaakov Jacobs, editor of the Jewish Observer, the American Orthodox Jewish magazine published by the Agudath Israel of America from 1963 – 2010, defines the Chosen People as the people that require absolute commitment to G-d and His Torah.  Jacobs deemphasizes the privilege, honor, and distinction of being the chosen people and emphasizes the obligations, burdens, and risks that it incurs.  The “chosen people,” writes Jacobs, are “chosen for commitment to G-d and His mitzvot; chosen to live the godly life at risk to life and limb; chosen to demonstrate the presence of G-d’s kingdom on earth and to plow incessantly forward to the days of the Mashiach, when all mankind will achieve shlemut and shalom[1].”  He concurs with the others cited above that a group that accepts outsiders (i.e. converts) cannot claim national or racial superiority since one cannot be inducted into superiority.  The Jewish people is not a closed group but an open group – anyone who sincerely wishes may become “chosen” by accepting the yoke of being Jewish mentioned above.  He also agrees that the perversion of an idea cannot corrupt the true sense of that idea.

Rabbi Dr. Moshe David Tendler (b. 1927), a Yeshiva University professor of biology and expert in medical ethics, adds that from the gamut of Biblical and Talmudic literature it is clear that a non-Jew that opts not to assume these obligations and remain outside of the chosen people is not looked down upon.  It is part of the Almighty’s plan that world survival is based on the Jew observing his Torah, and the non-Jew his Torah (i.e., the Noachide laws) and that there is synergistic benefit between these two groups.  Tendler applies a Talmudic dictum that sums up this approach:  “Whether much or little, it is all the same if one but intends to do his work in the name of Heaven” (Berachot 17a).


[1] Rabbi Dr. Walter S. Wurzburger (1920 – 2002), longtime synagogue rabbi, author, and editor of Tradition agrees with this definition and emphasis as well as the approach of Rabbi Dr. Lamm regarding the both particularistic and universalist aspects of our chosenness.  He adds that the primary purpose of Israel’s election is to serve as His “witnesses,” and, significantly, that this election is a divine mystery that is beyond our comprehension.

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