The Future of the American Jew

By Mordecai M. Kaplan | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THIRTEEN
THE CHOSEN PEOPLE IDEA AN ANACHRONISM

Despite the tendency in certain quarters to consider ideas as mere by-products of the interplay of blind social and economic forces, and to regard reason as a mere rationalization of instinctive passions and desires, we Jews must insist on clear and forthright thought as indispensable. We must strive to overcome the inertia which keeps us chained to a thought-world entirely alien to the modern spirit. There is as much difference between our universe of discourse and that in which our fathers lived before the Emancipation, as between the modern mind-picture of the physical universe and the one which prevailed, until Copernicus proved that the earth moves around the sun. Just as, in ancient times, men thought that the earth was the center of the universe, and that their own homes, being equi-distant on all sides from the horizon, were the center of the earth, so our fathers, in pre-modern times, regarded the drama of human life as exhausting the whole meaning of creation, and the Jewish people as the hero in that drama, with all other nations merely the supporting cast.

The idea of Israel as the Chosen People, must, therefore, be understood as belonging to a thought-world which we no longer inhabit. It fits in with a set of ideas that were congruous and rational enough in their day. But it can no longer help us to understand relations, or to orient ourselves to conditions, as they exist today. The very notion that a people can for all time be the elect of God implies an epic or dramatic conception of history, a history predetermined in form and aim. Nowadays for any people to call itself "chosen" is to be guilty of self-infatuation. It is paradoxical for the Jewish people to be collectively guilty of self-infatuation, when individually so many Jews are guilty of self-hate. The skeptical attitude of the average Jew toward the doctrine of the Chosen People may be sensed in the Yiddish folk-rendering of the classic phrase, "Thou hast chosen us from all peoples." That rendering is Vos hostu gevolt hoben fun die Yiden? -- "What didst Thou want of the Jews?"

-211-

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