Chosen People

I cannot and do not believe that God plays favorites. So what do I do with the Jewish concept of “Chosen People”?

The classic brachah (blessing-formula prayer) which invokes the concept of “chosenness” is the blessing recited before reading Torah in public: Baruch… asher bachar banu mi-kol ha-amim v’natan lanu et Torato. “Blessed are You, our Eternal God, sovereign of the universe, who chose us from all the nations/peoples and gave us [Your] Torah.”

(Note: the Hebrew actually says “His Torah” but I do my best not to assign gender to God in my translations. It’s almost impossible to get away from in Hebrew, where not only nouns and adjectives but also verbs have both gender and number.)

I gave a pretty faithful translation there. But it is certainly idiomatically correct and not far-fetched at all to understand it as meaning “who chose us from all the nations to give us Your Torah.”

I believe that religions, like languages and cultures, have specialties. Goat cheese? France. They also say French is the language of love; but if you want precise ways to describe sand? Probably Arabic. Snow? Probably Inuit. And so forth. Nobody can specialize in everything: not individuals, not groups. Not cultures, not languages, and not religions.

Meditation? Buddhism. Feeling close to God? Various mystical sects, including Jewish, Christian, and Muslim, and probably others I know nothing about. Putting religion into action in the world, in order to lift ordinary life to a higher plane and make the world a better place? Judaism, as I understand it. (See tikkun olam.)

According to this interpretation of this brachah, Torah and its way of life is God’s gift to the Jews, while other nations/cultures/religions have their own gifts. Each of us develops the gifts that we were given.

This interpretation is even hinted at by the phrase most often translated as “chosen people”: am segulahSegulah literally means “treasured”: Treasured people. (Isn’t it lovely?) As a parent, I treasure each of my children. But each differently. I can absolutely imagine God treasuring each religion. Differently.

I know this is not what Judaism has traditionally taught. I know it’s heresy to some people. And it’s probably much more satisfying to believe that you belong THE chosen people. Because if your religion isn’t the only true one, isn’t the only one with the right answers, it really calls your answers into question. Why be a Jew if you could just as well be a Baptist? A Sikh? A Zen Buddhist?

In a certain sense I don’t have a reply to that. But fortunately I don’t need one. This is who I am, and I treasure my heritage and culture and religion and people for all sorts of reasons, and that’s enough of an answer for me.

But equally because of who I am, because of when and where and how I live, I MUST believe that God treasures each religion equally, the same as I must believe that God treasures every human being equally. Nothing else makes sense to me. Nothing else describes a God I want to have anything to do with.

So that’s what I do with “chosenness.” And it certainly follows logically that I would reject the notion that God chose one particular child to be more special than all the rest, just as I reject the idea that God chose one particular nation to be more special than all the rest — as I wrote about in the previous post, which sparked the comment that prompted this post.