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

Love's Scandal

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

Love's Scandal

Article excerpt

Love's Scandal God's Kindness Has Overwhelmed Us: A Contemporary Doctrine of the Jews as the Chosen People BY JEROME (YEHUDAH) GELLMAN ACADEMIC STUDIES, 120 PAGES, $59

As German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig observed a hundred years ago, Jewish chosenness is not one of the thirteen principles of faith enumerated by Maimonides, although it is surely at the heart of Jewish life and consciousness. More than any other doctrine, save for the singularity of the law God gave to Israel, it distinguishes Judaism from other religions. More than any other doctrine, it defies the universalism at the core of modern liberalism.

Jerome Gellman, professor emeritus at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, is a veteran analytic philosopher of religion trained under Alvin Plantinga. As Yehudah Gellman, he has occasionally brought his tools to bear on Hasidic thought, the mystical theology of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, and Kierkegaard. He now proposes a new "contemporary" understanding of Jewish election that combines both of his authorships, though my ears discern more Yehudah than Jerome.

In God's Kindness Has Overwhelmed Us, Gellman wants to reciprocate revisions of Christian teaching on Jews and Judaism by re-examining Jewish sources in order to make their message more acceptable to non-Jews. He hopes to correct the common Jewish interpretations of chosenness that lead to "ethnocentric supremacy, cultural isolation, and the defamation of other religions." Many like me, who disapprove of compromising one's beliefs in the name of congeniality, find the motive compelling.

To this end, Gellman seeks to avoid any imputation of Jewish superiority or implication of the degradation of non-Jews, and he therefore excludes a wide variety of popular and sophisticated Jewish views on chosenness. He rejects, for example, views according to which God chose Israel for its supposed moral superiority before or after they were chosen.

He is unenthusiastic about two popular modern views of chosenness. One especially favored by enlightened Jewry in the nineteenth century treats Israel as a "light unto the nations," a pedagogue to the world, bearing the distinctive message of ethical monotheism. Against this, he tartly observes: "Judaism, as a religious practice, has not contributed much to world-mending."

The second view, which Gellman ascribes to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, regards the message of Judaism in the persistence of one small nation, bearing the divine imprint, against the seemingly irresistible pomp and forcefulness of worldly power. Again, Gellman does not see Jews, as a people apart, having this kind of impact on the modern world, mainly because most contemporary Jews are indifferent to their religious vocation.

Gellman also criticizes efforts to explain chosenness in terms of natural or acquired superiority. His objections to such approaches are obvious. Yet the two master thinkers Gellman discusses in this context, Rabbi Judah Halevi (twelfth-century Spain) and Rabbi Kook (early twentieth-century Europe and Palestine), combine a biological perspective on Jewish uniqueness with a strong affirmation of the majesty of the human species.

Nobody who knows their work in its entirety would see them as persecution-scarred xénophobes driven by the desire to demean other cultures. The most sophisticated non-Jewish intellectual life they were exposed to and took seriously-Arab medieval culture and evolutionary science, respectively-made room for racial thinking. In struggling to make sense of a sui generis theological phenomenon, they did their best with the most accessible concepts available.

Does Gellman's aggressive rejection of merit or inherent superiority have a basis in classical Jewish sources? His most significant scriptural citation is Genesis 12: God appears to Abraham and tells him to abandon his father's house to go to the land God will show him, with no prior indication of Abraham deserving such attention. …

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