The Magazine

Blessing and Burden

What it means for Jews to be the 'chosen people.'

Nov 23, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 10 • By HILLEL FRADKIN
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The Chosen

The History of an Idea and the Anatomy of an Obsession

by Avi Beker

Palgrave Macmillan, 256pp., $38

Avi Beker, a diplomatic historian and former Israeli diplomat, has written about an important subject and an abiding concern: the biblical designation of the Jews as the "chosen" people and the longstanding Jewish experience of persecution. He is especially concerned with the current revival of anti-Semitism. Of course, the most direct object of current hatred is the state of Israel. But as Beker observes, contemporary anti-Semitism is not only directed at Israel or Zionism; in a well-worn tradition, it charges Jews, as such, with all manner of conspiratorial evil, including a uniquely malevolent character and behavior.

The contemporary revival of anti-Semitism, which is particularly powerful among Muslims but also within the secular left, has been a great shock, coming as it does so soon after the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews. Beker believes that a most powerful root of this unreasonable, unjust, and dangerous hatred is the concept of the Chosen. Jews say they are different, and the world agrees--unfortunately, with malevolent intent.

In part, this is due to the fact that others have claimed an equal, or more precisely superior, distinction. This is true of both Christianity and Islam, each of which acknowledges the original chosenness of Jews but claims that such status was superseded by their new teachings. It was even true of Adolf Hitler, as Beker brings out, who adopted the notion of chosenness to define his mission and explain the necessity of destroying the Jews.

Although other factors have historically contributed to the hatred of Jews--especially the desire for a scapegoat in unhappy circumstances--the dialectic of chosenness and supersession is the most abiding and specific plane of the problem. For this reason Beker sees no other alternative but to address the issue directly, an approach he believes has been neglected even by Jews themselves since, at least, the Middle Ages when it was last taken up by its two greatest thinkers, Moses Maimonides and Judah Halevi.

Beker offers this study in that tradition. But his goal is more ambitious than theirs, since Maimonides and Halevi addressed themselves only to fellow Jews. Beker certainly has a concern for his fellow Jews; but he is also addressing non-Jews, and in so doing hopes to put the issue (and perhaps anti-Semitism) to rest once and for all. It might be said that what justifies Beker's larger ambition is a change in historical circumstances: Jews have, through modern conditions, a greater opportunity to address non-Jews; they also have greater need now that we have seen, in the example of the Holocaust, the danger to which Jews are exposed by modern conditions.

The first order of business is to describe and explicate the notion of the Chosen in its original biblical sense. Beker stresses that the notion of chosenness has nothing to do with any presumed genetic or racial superiority. Neither Judaism nor Zionism is racism; the core and basis of chosenness is the covenant God made with the Children of Israel at Mt. Sinai. The task of Jews ever since has been to adhere to God's law and preserve it by teaching it to their children.

But this obligation does not exhaust the duties entailed in chosenness. For contrary to any parochial understanding of the role of Israel or the Jews, it involves a duty to all people. Beker makes special reference to the preaching of the Hebrew prophets--in particular to Isaiah's famous formulation that Israel should be a light unto other nations--but it would be equally important to stress that this obligation is first enunciated and given specific content in the Pentateuch. In Deuteronomy, Moses declares in his farewell instructions to the Israelites that they should

Observe these statutes and judgments; for these are your wisdom and understanding in the sight of the nations which will hear them and say: What a wise and understanding nation this great people is. .  .  . What great nation is there that has such just statutes and judgments as in all this teaching.

To be the Chosen people is to embrace a task: to provide universal instruction in justice and wisdom. This justice and wisdom is embodied not in the Jews as such but in the principles with which they have been entrusted--principles intelligible to all men. To be the bearers of justice and wisdom may be a privilege, but it is far more certainly a very heavy responsibility and burden, one which, as the Bible details, the Israelites were not always up to.