Who Feels Chosen?

Few concepts are so closely with the Jewish people as that of the “Chosen People.” That singularity is reiterated constantly in the Torah. We are referred to variously as “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation,” “My special treasure among the nations,” “My son, my firstborn son, Israel.” Though our travails will be many, we are promised that G-d will never abandon us completely.

A strong sense of distinction has characterized the Jews from our earliest days as a nation. The ancient Greek and Roman historians noted the Jews’ refusal to intermingle freely with other peoples, their strict endogamy — and despised them for it.

Until our own day, the clannishness of the Jews is a frequent theme of anti-Semites (even as others attack us for our attempts to penetrate every area of gentile society. Anti-Semites of a Hegelian bent synthesize the two claims: Jews attempt to enter everywhere to advance their group interests.)

Those who accuse Israel of war crimes often attribute those “crimes” to the Jews’ belief that only their lives are of value and gentile blood may be freely shed. (In reality, no army in history has shed so much of its own blood to preserve that of enemy civilians as the IDF.)

Once, the idea that Jews constitute a people specially chosen by G-d caused us to separate ourselves from others and others to hate us for doing so. Today it is more likely to divide Jews from one another. Few claims make non-religious Jews more uncomfortable than that Jew’s are G-d’s chosen. About 15 years ago, Commentary Magazine ran a symposium of Jewish theologians from the so-called three “streams” of Judaism. Of the non-Orthodox respondents hardly one was prepared to offer a full-throated affirmation of Jewish chosenness, no matter how the concept was defined.

My colleague Amotz Asa-el spoke for many when he wrote a few years back, “The costs of being chosen have been far higher than the benefits.” Amotz’s problem was not so much the quality of our deal with G-d, as the very belief that we are His Chosen People, as implied by his title, “Are we chosen?”

Evangelical Christians have fewer problems with the Jews’ status as the Chosen People than do non-Orthodox Jews. For the latter, the whole concept flies too radically in the face of the egalitarianism of modern liberalism. Sure, there are still Jews who take pride in our astounding overrepresentation among Nobel Prize winners in science, medicine, and economics. But such ethnic pride has no consequences for behavior – e.g., for the decision not to intermarry. If one values only brains, there are quite enough highly intelligent gentiles with whom to preserve one’s gene pool (and minus the genetic diseases).

THE CONTRAST BETWEEN NON-ORTHODOX AND ORTHODOX JEWS in this regard could not be greater. At a convention of the European Agudath Israel last year, it suddenly struck me that every speech was predicated on the assumption that everything any Jew does is of cosmic significance. Stories of ba’alei teshuva, for instance, inevitably made the point: See to what lengths G-d goes to bring a single Jewish soul to recognition of Him.

I couldn’t help thinking how amusing a Yiddish-speaking gentile would have found the absolute conviction of this small group of black-garbed men and modestly attired women that they stand at the absolute center of the Divine plan for the world.

That deep-seated belief in the centrality of the Jews underlies the strong feelings of mutual responsibility that have always characterized the Jewish people. And it is the loss of that conviction that explains the rapidly declining sense of mutual responsibility. Less than half of American Jewish adults under 35 respond affirmatively to the question: Do Jews worldwide have some special responsibility for one another? If there is nothing special about the Jewish people, why should young Jews feel more concern for another Jew than for anyone else? Isn’t a universalistic, undifferentiated love for all human beings morally superior? (It’s easier too. If no one has a special claim to your assistance, you can give as little to charity as Vice-President Biden — .12% of his annual income — with a clear conscience.)

THERE IS ONE ASPECT of Jewish singularity about which all agree. The Torah belongs to the Jewish people. No other people has ever viewed its multitude of commandments as binding on them. And therein lays the explanation of why non-Orthodox Jews find it so hard to relate to the idea of the Jew’s as the Chosen People: They have so little connection to the Torah itself.

A mitzvah-observant Jew finds his awareness of himself as a member of a unique people continually reinforced every time he performs a mitzvah. But even mitzvah observance by itself is not enough. For as Montesquieu observed, every nation has its own unique laws.

The most intense feelings of being chosen are a product of a passionate commitment to Torah learning. Not by accident do we recite the blessing, “. . . Who has chosen us from all the nations . . . ,” before commencing our daily study of Torah or reading from a Torah scroll.

Every aspect of yeshiva study reinforces the idea that Torah study transcends any other human activity. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato writes in The Way of G-d that Torah study is qualitatively different from the study of every other form of knowledge in its power to transform the world and the one involved in its study. In his classic statement of the ideal of Torah study for its own sake, Nefesh HaChaim, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin states that the universe would return to the original void if Torah study were to cease entirely for even a moment. Through the study of Torah one cleaves to the Divine Will, he writes, for Torah is, as the Zohar puts it, the blueprint from which G-d created the world.

One who truly translates these ideas into his own Torah learning has no doubt that the Jew’s acceptance of the Torah was most important event in world history or that the Jews were thereby chosen to reveal G-d to the entire world. And without that experience of a passionate connection to the Torah all claims of our having been chosen ring hollow.

The Jeruslam Post, April 24 2009


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19 Responses

  1. Nathan says:

    Shevet Mussar, Chapter 32:
    “Every nation and race believes that
    nobody equals them in wisdom or greatness.”

    Shevet Mussar was written about 300 years ago,
    but since then, people have not changed:

    * Japanese people who never left Japan and have
    no non-Japanese ancestors believe that they are
    purer and better than non-pure Japanese.

    * Even here in America, most Chinese parents
    are VERY upset if their children date people
    who are not Chinese. For thousands of years,
    Chinese people believed that their country was
    the center of the universe and outsiders were
    considered barbarians.

    The symbol for China is a rectangle with a vertical
    line going through it, which symbolizes that China
    is the center of the world.

    For many centuries, traditonal Chinese arts,
    such as Kung Fu, were only taught to people of pure
    Chinese ancestry. Even today, any person of Chinese
    ancestry who does not speak his ancestral language
    is ridiculed by his fellow Chinese.

    * In the South Pacific Ocean, inhabitants of
    the tiny and isolated Easter Islands refer to
    their homeland as the center of the world.

    * People from India believe they alone are
    descended from certain gods. Even today,
    any person of Indian ancestry who does not
    speak his ancestral language is ridiculed by
    his fellow Indians.

    Indian-Americans often visited India to find
    marriage partners instead of marrying
    non-Indian Americans.

    * Arabs believe that they are the greatest
    people on Earth because Mohammed
    was one of them, and because the Koran
    was written in their language.

    * Muslims are taught that they are the best people.
    When they see Jews surpassing them in agriculture,
    architecture, technology and combat, it makes them
    hysterical with rage because it makes them realize
    that they were taught lies.

    * The French, especially in Paris, are militant
    about the purity of their language. They resist
    the addition of non-French words to their language.

    If you speak to them, they will not answer you
    unless you spoke to them in perfect French.

    Furthermore, the French believe that their food,
    wine and overall culture are the greatest on Earth.

    * Greeks are bursting with feelings of superiority.
    They feel that they are heirs to the oldest language
    and culture, and that they are superior to non-Greeks.

    * During the Nazi Era, non-Germans were officially considered to be racially inferior to
    Germans. People who were found to be not of pure
    German ancestry were downgraded or brutally murdered.

    * People from Spain have told me with emphasis that
    Spaniards are superior to South Americans and
    Central Americans and Mexicans.

    * In the USA, my Italian-American friends often publicly
    expressed their belief that people of Italian ancestry
    were superior in physical attractiveness and strength.

    * African-Americans often believe that 400 years of
    slavery has made them faster, stronger, and even
    smarter than other people.

    * “…the Masai migrated into present-day Kenya…
    their beliefs included the understanding that all
    of the world’s cattle belonged to them…”

    SOURCE: Page 31 of: Africa 1500-1900, by Constance Jones,
    1993, Facts On File, New York City, ISBN 0-8160-2774-9

    * In Africa, there is a primitive tribe that calls themselves
    “The True People.” (Heard from Rabbi Avigdor Miller, ZTL, ZYA)

    What makes the Jews truly unique is not their belief
    that they are chosen, but that they feel guilty about it.

  2. Leonard Cohen says:

    The Rav of my shul (a well known talmid chacham) uses the term “am segulah” frequently in his Shabbos drashos, and each time he does so it makes me wince. While I am a ba’al teshuva, my reaction is not premised upon any kind of discomfort born of political correctness. Rather, I have had the temerity to argue with my Rav that the term is specifically dangerous in our generation, because its meaning is internalized by many modern American Jews in a very different way than from previous generations.

    For example, to a Jew living in the Pale of Settlement, the meaning of ‘choseness’ was internalized as reflecting Hashem’s election of Klal Yisrael to suffer in exile: “Ribbono shel Olam, you have chosen to test our resolve to remain faithful to You and to Your Torah in the face of devastating poverty, pain and oppression. Tatte in Himmel, we cling to you nonetheless.”

    But, how is the term “am segulah” internalized by yidden driving their Lexuses (Lexi?) from million dollar McMansions (which dot the landscape of our golus from Lakewood to Boro Park to Flatbush to the Five Towns) to posh downtown offices or successful businesses?…well you get the picture. As a ba’al teshuva of 30 years I have struggled throughout my journey into the frum world with the arrogance, conceit, sense of entitlement, conspicuous consumption and pure chutzpah that I have witnessed in too many of the communities that I have lived in, shuls that I have davened in, and yes, even yeshivas that I have learned in, along the way. It’s not easy to become (and remain) a ba’al teshuva in this environment.

    To reiterate…I truly believe that the term “am segulah” is NOT appropriate coinage for (too many) 21st century American Jews. Sadly, we’ve lost the ability to internalize its profound significance in an appropriate way. Only the final geula can save us.

  3. Reb Yid says:

    See Arnie Eisen’s superb treatment of this subject in his book, THE CHOSEN PEOPLE IN AMERICA, written in the early 1980s.

    The concept of “chosenness” is particularly problematic for those who see the good in America and Americans, whatever their religion, or lack thereof. While “traditional” aspects of chosenness were historically aided by forces from within, they were also buttressed by external, hostile forces. It was easy enough for Jews to cast aspersions upon one’s not so friendly neighbors, etc., which in turn solidified one’s sense of being chosen.

    The challenge for those who continue to rely exclusively on pre-modern sources to support a sense of “chosenness” is to do so without resorting to outmoded classifications that denigrate one’s neighbors or country.

  4. Joel Rich says:

    “Noblesse oblige” is generally used to imply that with wealth, power and prestige (yes and with chosenness) come responsibilities. Perhaps if we focused more on the increased responsibilities than on “my ancestors better than yours” (oh wait, that’s why God created only a single individual, Adam, so that no one would say that), we’d be closer to where we need to be

  5. Barzilai says:

    One thing that distinguishes our self-image of chosen-ness is our competitor’s agreeement that it is true. Christians believe that we were, indeed, chosen, BUT…. Muslims agree that we received the Torah, BUT…. Everyone agrees that the Jews received the Torah, that the Jews were given a divine mandate. Of course, they say that after that revelation, things changed; God realized He bet on the wrong horse and changed His mind, the Jews changed their minds, whatever. But that doesn’t matter; it’s natural they would say that. The fact remains that every steepled church, every medrassa, and every mosque, testifies that the Jews are the chosen people.

  6. Daniel B. Schwartz says:

    How odd of G-d to choose the Jews- William Norman Ewer (“Trilby”)
    To which we responded:

    Not odd of G-d, Goyim Annoyim- Leo Rosten

    But not so odd
    As those who choose
    A Jewish God
    Yet spurn the Jews- Ogden Nash

    How strange of man
    To change the plan- Anonymous

  7. Steve Brizel says:

    Leonard Cohen-May I suggest that you disregard the external trappings and take a look at the commentaries on Exodous 19:5? That is the source for Am Segulah.

  8. Raymond says:

    I honestly do not understand what the debates is about concerning us Jews being the Chosen People. Implied in such a controversy, is the absurd notion that we have a choice in the matter. We do not.

    I think that many secular Jews are liberal, precisely because they hope that by bending over backward for the gentile world, that they will not be harmed and may even be accepted by that same world. But when deciding whom to murder, I do not think that adolf hitler and the nazis really cared about how much German culture the Jews living there had become enamored with. Why any Jew would want to deny our special status in the world is in itself a puzzle to me; isn’t it a good thing to be G-d’s Treasured Nation? Shouldn’t we be proud of the fact that the greatest book ever written, namely the Torah, has us as its central focus?

    But again, even if some of us are foolish enough to deny the truth of our Chosenness, the nations of the world never let us forget it. Nor is this some relic of the ancient past, when people were presumably more primitive. It exists right here and now. The islamofascist terrorists hate ANYbody who is not of their religion and even hate one another; yet none of that hate can hold a candle to the rage they feel against us Jews. Ever wonder why it bothers them that we have our little Jewish State back after 2,000 years, when our sworn enemies control 99.9% of the geographic Middle East? If we Jews were so unimportant and so much like any other nation, why are our enemies absolutely obsessed with us Jews who control 0.1% of the land of the Middle East? And why does much of Europe continue to hate the Jews, even after all the horrible mass murders that they have committed against our people, and even after it is plain as day that it is not us, but the terrorists who are threatening the extinction of Europe as we know it?

    Most of you reading this, probably agree with me. But to those Jews who wish to deny the obvious, I say, please stop the nonsense. Accept not only who you are, but embrace it. In spite of all the terrible things we Jews have to experience as a consequence of living in a hostile world who cannot understand G-d’s people, I feel blessed beyond measure for being a member of G-d’s Treasured Nation. Baruch Ata Hashem, Elokeinu Melekh HaOlam, SheLoh Asani Goy.

  9. cvmay says:

    To truly understand the depths of the term ‘Am Segulah’ read the letter that Rav Avrohom Yitzchak Hakohen Kook sent to the Ridbaz (Iggeret Takana, letter 555).
    The Ridbaz’s main criticism of Rav Kook was that he tried to bring ‘everyone closer’ including ‘sinners of Israel’. Rav Kook responded that the sanctity of Israel and the heavenly bond with the Nation of Israel is based on two principles, which together define the essence of Jewish particularity, of chosenness. The first is called “segulah”. It is the inheritance of a holy nature in the collective soul of Israel, it is unconditional, dependent neither on our choice nor on our actions. Is is also timeles and eternal, the basis of the convenant between Gd and the House of Israel……..

  10. sholom levenson says:

    steve brizel-please correct the source that you cited in item seven above. thank you

  11. Steve Brizel says:

    Sholom Levenson and all others inteested-Mea culpa. Please see Exodus 19:6.

  12. Ahron says:

    In a lot of unhappy ways I agree with Leonard Cohen above that contemporary understandings of am segulah among Orthodox Jews frequently differ–and differ heavily–from all of the implications and meanings that the term would have had, say, 100, 500 or 1,000 years ago. On a social level I do not believe our understanding of that term mirrors Chazal’s any longer.

    There does tend to be an altogether dispiriting level of self-satisfaction and blithe comfort in many American Jewish communities (and yes… I’m talking the Orthodox ones here). The same attitudes also crawl through Israel. But it didn’t always.

    I’ve read and heard about a roughly 1,600-year-old synagogue (probably this one) that was unearthed several years ago at a dig site in southern Israel near Ein Gedi. On the floor of that synagogue was a mosaic consisting of a bizarrely simple excerpt from the Tanach. Not just any part of Tanach, but the most boring verses from the most boring book of the entire Scriptures.

    It was the opening lines of the Book of Chronicles (Divrei ha’yamim). They read as such: “Adam. Seth. Enosh. Kenan. Mahallal’el…” and on and on like some paleographic attendance list. What could possibly be the meaning of this inscription?

    I think the meaning, in fact, is obvious: the community’s watchword was that they were fulfilling the destiny and the process that was started by these people. Eventually that process led to “Avram–he is Avraham.” And now it was up to them to continue it forward to its total fruition. What a remarkable and holistic conception of what “a treasured people” really means. How awesomely different is this encompassing vision from the cheap modern notions of ethno-religious supremacism that are but a dessicated imitation of the real meaning of “segulah”.

    “It’s not easy to become (and remain) a ba’al teshuva in this environment.”

    You’re right. It really isn’t. In this generation the only thing that is going to keep anyone really going is a profound internal sense of the yashar and tov. The straight, the good and the real.

  13. Chaim Fisher says:

    re Leonard Cohen etc:

    Why resort to Lexus-bashing?

    Rabbi Rosenblum did such a brilliant job here of pointing the finger right at one of the big problems of our age. A whole lot of Jews are in denial on this chosen people yesod, and it is not because of their cars.

    The Gemara is filled with stories of people like Rebbi who was one of the richest men that there ever were. And if you do not think that the yetzer hara found the Lexus equivalent 3,000 years ago, then take a look at ‘yesh lo maneh, rotze mataim,’ and so on, it’s all over Gemara, Pirkei Avos, Rambam, Chovos haLevavos, and everywhere else since the Torah predicted our love for our ‘chail’ would cause us to leave the land.

    If you see people not living like your Mussar learning tells you they should live, then its a sure sign that you are using Mussar to criticize other people rather than improve yourself…sorry, but really…

  14. Raymond says:

    My understanding of what the Torah means when it calls us Jews G-d’s Chosen People, is that we were chosen to be G-d’s representatives on Earth, to show the world, both through our teachings and our behavior, what it means to be G-dlike. For example, just as G-d is compassionate, so are we supposed to emulate G-d by being compassionate. Just as G-d has brought good to the world, so should we Jews follow suit and do the same thing.

    This is what is so ironic about the antisemites of this world claiming to hate us on the basis of us calling ourselves the Chosen People. The antisemites confuse our concept with the nazi concept of the Master Race. But in reality, no two ideas can differ more from one another. The nazi concept of Master Race, proclaims itself superior to all other peoples, and that somehow justifies murdering anybody who is not of the Aryan Race. But in the Jewish concept of Chosen People, we Jews are to show we are deserving of such a title, by being sensitive and kind to those who may not be as fortunate as us. While the nazis murdered the disabled, for example, we Jews feel an extra obligation to have empathy for them and help them.

  15. Tootycat says:

    Oh how I love you people!!! More so because of your chosen-ness and Who has chosen you.
    an evangelical American christian

  16. Leonard Cohen says:

    To Ahron (comment #11): You clearly understood my point. I very much appreciate your further–and eloquent–elaboration.

    To Chaim Fisher (comment #12): I am sorry, but I do not understand your point. I fully appreciate the sincerity of Rabbi Rosenblum’s essay, but I did feel the need to present an alternate viewpoint on
    the ‘am segulah’ issue.

    You concluded, Reb Chaim, by stating: “it’s a sure sign that you are using Mussar to criticize other people rather than improve yourself… sorry, but really…”

    In truth, you are perhaps correct. My declining health and wrenching family situation have caused me to agonize over the possibility that, yes indeed, these yissurim are being visited upon me due to a failure to improve myself sufficiently in the Ribbono Shel Olam’s eyes.

    But, I do have a caveat to YOUR pointing this out to me. For even if you are correct, I cannot conceive of how you — who does not know me personally at all — can publicly proclaim such a negative conclusion (please note that I do not write anonymously). Really, Chaim…I am hard enough on myself.

  17. Tzurah says:

    “What makes the Jews truly unique is not their belief
    that they are chosen, but that they feel guilty about it.”

    To add to Nathan’s comment above, here another one:

    What makes the Jews truly unique in not their belief that they are chosen, but that others think it just might be true.

  18. Mark says:


    “I cannot conceive of how you — who does not know me personally at all — can publicly proclaim such a negative conclusion”

    When I read Chaim’s comment, I winced as I thought of what you just wrote. But I must confess, I did the same when I read your original comment about how terrible all those Orthodox Jew whom you don’t even know are. Surely you’re not in a better position to judge them than Chaim is to judge you, are you?

  19. Leonard Cohen says:

    Mark: I am sorry that I did not respond to you sooner, but I did not return to this site until this evening. Perhaps at this late date you will not even see this response, but I will proceed anyway.

    Please note that in my original comment I did not mention any Jew by name or Orthodox affiliation. What I tried to express was my concern about the impact of the words “chosen people” upon a segment of the Orthodox community, based upon my personal experiences in those communities in which I have lived.

    Additionally, there have been no lack of articles and essays in the Orthodox Jewish media which, too, have addressed the issues that I referred to. I remember from 25 years ago a cover story in the Jewish Observer bemoaning the loss of derech eretz in our community, written in a spirit of reflection and self-examination. And surely you are aware that many gedolim have expressed growing concern over the opulence evident at too many Jews bar mitzvahs and weddings.

    Anyway, I don’t wish to belabor the point. We were “chosen” by Hashem
    to demonstrate to the world a sense of moderation and midos tovos under any and all social conditions. I believe that a great deal of mussar study is necessary to get back to that basic understanding.

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