Rabbi Weinreb’s Torah Column, Parshat Yitro

The Chosen People

She couldn’t have been much more than 16 years old, but she was one of the toughest interviewers I have ever encountered.

I was part of a panel of several clergymen, and I was the only Jew on the panel. We were talking to a group of high school students about the role of religion in a democracy. As I recall, it was a presidential election year about two decades ago.

The young woman addressed me and asked, “Rabbi Weinreb, do you believe in democracy?” Of course, I answered, “Yes,” and then commented on how Jews have benefited from democracy.

Then she continued, politely but tenaciously, “Then how can you believe that the Jews are a chosen people? Doesn’t your religion teach that Jews are better than non-Jews, and that we are not all equal?”

I have certainly considered that question frequently in my own attempts to understand the concept of a chosen people. And I had been confronted with her question before, but never so bluntly, and in such a straightforward manner.

Every year since that encounter, when this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, comes around, I have given thought to that question and have pondered my response to it.

Simply put, I do believe that the Jews are a chosen people. I fail to see how any believing Jew can disregard the many passages in the Bible, the Talmud, and in our liturgy which declare our chosenness.

But I am also convinced that, although we are a chosen people, we are not a superior people. We are chosen by God to play a special role in history, and it is a role that assigns us duties and responsibilities rather than rights and privileges.

In my personal study of the Torah portion of two weeks ago, Bo, I came across a fascinating passage in the Mekhilta, an ancient rabbinical midrash. It reads:

“Until the land of Israel was chosen, all lands were fit for communication with God; once the land of Israel was chosen, the other lands were dismissed.
Until Jerusalem was chosen, all of the land of Israel was fit for altars; once Jerusalem was chosen, the rest of the land of Israel was dismissed.
Until the eternal Temple was chosen, all of Jerusalem was fit for the Divine presence; once the eternal Temple, was chosen, the rest of Jerusalem was dismissed.
Until Aaron was chosen, all of [the people of] Israel were qualified to be priests; once Aaron was chosen, the rest of Israel was dismissed.
Until David was chosen all of [the people of] Israel were qualified to be King; once David was chosen, the rest of Israel was dismissed.”

Rabbi Yechezkel Sarna, a 20th century sage whose writings I cherish, points out that once the land of Israel was chosen, the other lands of the earth were stripped of their sanctity. And likewise throughout the passage, the land of Israel outside Jerusalem, Jerusalem itself, Jews who were not Aaron’s descendants and Jews who were not David’s descendants were stripped of their former sanctity or qualifications.

But, Rabbi Sarna notes, the Jews are a chosen people, but the passage does not even mention their chosenness in contrast with non-Jews. Jews are chosen, but non-Jews are not dismissed, nor are they stripped of their specialness.

Rabbi Sarna insists that this is because all human beings are equally special to God. The Jews have their special role, but that does not diminish the relationship of the non-Jews to the Almighty.

To bolster his opinion, Rabbi Sarna turns to the famous passage in Ethics of the Fathers (3:18), in which Rabbi Akiva states:

“Beloved is a man, for he was created in the image of God…
Beloved are Israel, for they were given a precious vessel (the Torah)…”

Clearly, Rabbi Akiva affirms that all of mankind is precious to the Almighty. If the Jews are special, it is only because they have been given a distinctive mission and a unique set of tasks.

One source for the concept of the chosen people is to be found in this week’s Torah portion:

“… Ye shall be My own treasure from among all peoples; for the earth is Mine. And ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation…” (Exodus 19:5-6)

Detractors of the Jewish people, nay, detractors of the Bible, see the above phrases as chauvinistic, even racist.

How differently our own commentators view those phrases! Take, as but one example, the words of Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, the Italian Jewish exegete:

“The entire human race is more precious to me than the lowly animals… but you will be my ‘kingdom of priests’ to help the human race understand and to teach it to call upon the Almighty in prayer and to worship Him in unison. That is the future role of Israel. ”

My response to my young interviewer so long ago may not have been precisely what I have written above. I certainly did not have these references at my fingertips then. But she captured the essence of my response when she wrote in her school newspaper, from which I have reserved a clipping to this very day, the following words:

“The rabbi did not dodge my question. He is convinced that the Jews are a chosen people. But they are not a better people. They simply have their own job to do. And so too, all God’s children have their job to do. And our job is to make this a better world… together.”

Wherever she is now, she may have been the toughest interviewer I have ever faced. But she also understood me very well, certainly better than many others since, on this important question.

I am afraid that many of our coreligionists misunderstand the concept of a chosen people. It is high time to correct that misunderstanding. It is certainly time to become familiar with the role our faith expects us to play in the world. In the Ten Commandments, found in Yitro, God explicitly expects certain behaviors from us. It is most certainly time for us to conscientiously demonstrate these behaviors for all who are created in His image.