To my 11-year-old student, the idea was beyond the pale. “That’s racist!” he exclaimed angrily. “How can Judaism say that? It’s just wrong.”
His reaction was to a passage in his barmitzvah portion (Deuteuronomy 14:12), which declares Israel to be a people treasured by God above all the other nations on earth.
In a world which knows the horrors of ethnic supremacy all too well, the question of how to understand the Jewish concept of “chosenness” looms large.
For my student, suggesting a difference between Jews and others – and especially a difference which cast Jews as the favoured ones – challenged the message he had grown up with, that we are all made in the image of God, and created unnecessary barriers.
He struggled to see it as anything but elitism, and then added: “No one likes a teacher’s pet”.
It’s certainly not a new problem. This tension between our universal and particular identities has long concerned Jewish thinkers.
The more painful moments in Jewish collective memory also provoke the question: “If we are really chosen, then why has this happened to us?”
My answer to my student was two-fold. As we repeat each week in our Torah blessings, “chosenness” is not a one-sided notion – “I have chosen you from all the peoples, and given you my Torah.”
Chosenness is about covenant. It is about a specific responsibility in the world. It is a charge given to us by history and by Torah, to act in our world and to be God’s partners in the work of its repair.
The second part is how we respond to this situation. We have to choose as well, because chosenness arguably means little unless we step up to the plate and act on the obligations that come with it.
Deborah Blausten is a student rabbi at Leo Baeck College
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