Some Thoughts on Chosenness: Toward a Non-Exclusivist, but Non-Colonizing, Particularism

Earlier today, a friend posted on Facebook asking for thoughts on the concept of being a/the Chosen People.   Some respondents affirmed chosenness as a call to duty, others commented on the problematic exclusive nature of Chosenness, the superiority in it, others asserted that many peoples are chosen and one simply posted the alternative, emended language of the blessing over Torah, “Praised are You…Who chose us WITH all the nations” (“אשר בחר בנו עם כל העמים”), instead of the traditional “Who chose us FROM all the nations (“אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים”).  The whole chain is on Rabbi Elie Kaunfer’s Facebook wall.  My comments might interest Jewschoolers, so in the spirit of The Jeffersons, I’m spinning them off here.

“ברוך…אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים ונתן לנו את תורתו.”
Praised are You…Who chose us from all the nations by giving us Your Torah.  (The traditional blessing over Torah study and for receiving an aliyah at public Torah reading)

[Background premise: I do not believe that, on the whole, most people do the most good through universal humanism. For the most part, people live in stories and those stories shape their ability to do specific good. John Lennon's song "Imagine" is a dystopic nightmare to my ears.]

I remember being a slave to Pharaoh in Egypt. I remember things changing — it seemed all of a sudden at the time, though in retrospect, I can now remember pieces that must have been lead-ins to it.

I remember being brought up out of Egypt.

I remember receiving Torah at Sinai.

I remember being in awe and fear of The One Who Spoke.

I remember weeping in gratitude even as I feared.

I remember feeling that I was worthless and doomed and I remember moments of exhilaration that I mattered, that I was being entrusted with The One’s truly awesome word.

Ever since, I’m trying to make sense of that word. The memory can get confusing, but in my better moments, when I feel most worthy as a person, I feel an awesome responsibility to share the word, to share Torah, with the world, the feeling that the world needs Torah and cannot possibly be expected to know it unless we share it, because we were there and they weren’t. The One Who Spoke Creation chose Israel to share Torah with the world, because Israel were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.

When I was younger, I thought that this meant that we were better than other peoples; I could testify to our chosenness and I couldn’t testify to anyone else’s chosenness, so therefore, we were winning 1-0. But, then, as an adult, as I started sharing Torah with the world, I had the opportunity to listen, too.  A lot of other peoples know a lot of stuff that we don’t know and they seem to have their own inspiration. And I realized that the reason that I can’t testify to their revelations is because I wasn’t there, just as they weren’t at Sinai. I don’t know who else was chosen for what; it would be spiritually colonialist for me to start spreading their gospels or testifying to any other people’s chosenness. I can’t possibly know anything about that, but I listen and take people at their word, at their testimony to their experience, just as I hope they’ll take my word and listen to my testimony of my experience.

We were not chosen WITH other peoples; we were chosen separately from other peoples, with Torah. It is our gift and our responsibility, and we should not expect anyone else to feel and remember it as their own. But we have no reason to doubt anyone else’s testimony to inspiration or revelation through their history, unless they testify to utter barbarism. All we say about other traditions is that we cannot take any testimony seriously if it violates one of the 7 Noahide laws:  If a people claims that many gods should be served simultaneously, or that God wants them to abolish all law and order, or to steal, or to tear limbs from animals — such a testimony we do not believe.  But any testimony that is civilized we have no reason not to believe and learn from, through their mediation.

We were chosen through Torah. We have no direct information as to whether anyone else was chosen, but it sure seems like many were, and the more I think about it, the more I hope so.

6 Responses to “Some Thoughts on Chosenness: Toward a Non-Exclusivist, but Non-Colonizing, Particularism”

  1. I’m a Recon rabbi and this is the first time I’ve seen that version of the “Reconstructionist” emendation of the Torah blessings. I wonder where it comes from. The much more commonly in use variation of the Torah blessings (happens in other points of the liturgy as well, such as Kiddush) is “asher kervanu la’avodato,” who brought us close to [God's] service, which acknowledges both the particularity of our position in the world without any back-handed denigration of anyone else’s particularity. Similarly, all Recon synagogues I’m aware of do not allow non-Jews to lead tefillah (in the most classic sense, English readings and such being a different ball of wax) or have an aliyah, because you might very much be a part of our community and very much be as much in relationship with the Divine as anyone else in this room, but this is not the pathway of your relationship with the Divine unless/until you choose it through formal conversion.


    Ariann · June 26th, 2014 at 1:06 pm
  2. Ariann, thanks so much! Yes, just now, on FB, someone else also corrected me, reminding me that the Reconstructionist nusach is אשר קרבנו לעבודתו; I knew that, but forgot, and appreciate the correction. I have emended the article accordingly, removing reference to the Reconstructionist movement, and referring to this language generally as an alternative. I’m trying to track down its origin.


    aryehbernstein · June 26th, 2014 at 3:14 pm
  3. holy spiritual relativism! Torah is our piece to speak, and as you wrote– its in the listening that we learn more…
    i also really resonate and agree with your opening premise- that non-specificized universalism doesn’t really cut it. the human experience starts as children in a family and grows from there.
    When R Menachem Froman passed away and I once tried to share something about him- this is what came out– “he was the most Jewish human, and the most human Jew…” down with the observation of paradox keeping us out of the deepest living truths of lifes paradoxes!!! long live us and long live Us!!!


    shaul · June 26th, 2014 at 4:36 pm
  4. I asked someone in my shul who says the “WITH all nations” where she learned it. Her mesora traces back to Kol HaNeshama in Jerusalem, so Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman might be the originator or he might know something about its history. I once wrote a brief piece about a minyan at which each of the three people who had aliyot each recited a different blessing.
    kevakavanna.blogspot.com/2012/12/chosen-ness-at-morning-minyan.html
    I never had a problem with the Torah blessings. To my mind, Aleinu is a much bigger problem, because it does claim to know something about other people’s relationship with the Holy One.


    Shoshana Zucker · June 27th, 2014 at 3:19 am
  5. For a brief period I said the “Im kol ha’amim” version. This was because I understood “mi kol ha’amim” to imply superiority. On the other hand, the “Im kol” version sounded sufficiently similar to the original that I felt comfortable saying it. That, I think, is it’s attractiveness: textually speaking, it changes as little as possible. Now, on the other hand, I think more-or-less the way Aryeh does (though: I think less). In general, I try to re-interpret traditional prayers rather than out and out change them.

    Along these lines, here’s what I think about Aleinu. The standard translation of “she’hem mishtachavim l’hevel va’rik” is “for they bow down to vanity and nothingness,” an explanatory clause–why we are happy we were not created like the nations. I read it as “who bow down to vanity and nothingness,” a limiting clause. Thank God for not making us like the nations that bow down to vanity and nothingness. It seems like a bit of a stretch to me, as far as translations go, but it’s more consistent both with what I believe and, I think, halacha. So I say the line that most liberals omit, because I think it saves the prayer from national superiority.


    Adam · June 27th, 2014 at 4:35 pm
  6. FWIW, I’ve definitely heard Reconstructionists use this wording.


    KRG · June 27th, 2014 at 6:41 pm

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik