Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Why Are the Jews Chosen?

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Why Are the Jews Chosen?

Article excerpt

One way anti-Jewish sentiment has been interpreted is simply as a quid pro quo. Gentile animosity, in this view, does to the Jews what the Jews have done, or at least would like to do, to Gentiles- because we Jews present ourselves as the chosen people. In the seventeenth century, Baruch Spinoza suggested that the Jews made the Gentiles hate them by claiming to be God's people and setting themselves apart by their practice of circumcision-the bodily sign of God's covenantal election. In 1938, immediately after the Nazi pogroms of Kristallnacht, George Bernard Shaw wondered why the Jews were complaining so loudly; after all, wasn't this what the chosen people did to the Canaanites in the process of conquering the promised land?

In this view of Jewish chosenness- given its clearest expression, after the Holocaust, in George Steiner's 1999 novel The Portage to San Cristóbal of A.H.envy of the Jews' claim made the Nazis do two things. The first was to accuse the Jews not only of having invented their chosenness but also of having invented the God who chose them. As Steiner's Hitler asks, "Was there ever a cruder invention, a contrivance more calculated to harrow human existence, than that of an omnipotent, all-seeing, yet invisible, impalatable, inconceivable God?" And the second was to argue that, because there can be only one chosen people, it must be either the Jews or (in this case) the Germans. One must extinguish the other from the face of the earth. There is no possible middle ground, no possible compromise.

There are Jews today who seem to hold this view, even if they do not like to ascribe it, as Steiner does, to Hitler. They have concluded that if the affirmation of chosenness by God is the cause of near extinction, Jews must root that affirmation out entirely. And for some Jews, this denial of election means denial of God- a denial that fits, unfortunately, with the atheistic agenda of some of the more radical Jewish secularists, who think they can build a thoroughly secular Judaism. The denial lives at a primal, emotional level: "Since God's choice of us Jews has led to death and destruction, we now unchoose Him! " This is the dead-god atheism of Nietzsche rather than the there-never-was-a-god atheism of Feuerbach.

I remember this myth being thrown in my face little more than ten years after the Holocaust, when, as a Jewish teenager, I was confronted in our Chicago high school by another Jewish student- Sam, who screamed at me for wanting "to be chosen by that god," after most of his family in Europe was murdered in Auschwitz. Compared to Sam's anger, the occasional taunts from Gentile classmates were mild. And ever since that afternoon in 1956, 1 have tried to think of what I should, or could, have said in response.

Along the way, I also have found that Sam is legion.

We might begin with the obvious point that biological identity is natural while national identity is constructed. Even when God chose Israel, he did not create the people of Israel as he created its human members, as natural beings. Instead, God formed the people of Israel from individual human beings already living in the natural world, calling them into a new historical identity.

These identities are necessarily related, but they are not the same. No one lives without some sort of political-cultural identity, and all political-cultural groups are made up of individual human members- but persons are not a people, and a people is not a person.

Most Jews, like most rational persons, know that their personal identity and their ethnic identity are not one and the same. Some Jews, in fact, seem to have concluded that their political-cultural survival might work against their individual biological survival. If there is a much greater chance that I and my children will be killed because we are identifiable as Jews than if we become (or pass as) Gentiles, then isn't assimilation the most reasonable means? Some evidence for this exists in the extremely low birth rate among more secularized Jews, their high intermarriage rate, and the fact that they are much more likely to convert to other religions than are religious Jews. …

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