Of late, racism and antisemitism have each become more prevalent in American society. The reasons for this are complex and controversial. Regardless of how the increase in racism originated, I believe it is now an opportune time to review the attitudes of Jews towards “others” and determine whether, even inadvertently, we may be contributing to bias in American society.
There is a tendency to expect more openness and greater tolerance among minority communities and/or the religiously engaged. We assign higher moral standards to those who have suffered at the hands of prejudice and those who assert piety. And, though one might assume that the Orthodox Jewish community is doubly inclined towards neutrality—owing to its long history of oppression and its commitment to devout religious practice—racism is indeed alive in our community . I will intentionally not cite examples nor try to argue whether it is more or less common than among other American groups, but I submit that each of us has been confronted with incidents of racial prejudice within the Orthodox community.
Despite Orthodox Jews’ general adherence to moral principles as espoused by the Torah, I believe there are several “reasons” for this persistent discrimination.
Though there may be other contributing factors to the racism within the Orthodox Jewish community—such as the development of decades-long mistrust and strained relationships with other communities—it is the complex notion of our elitist status that bears the most exploration. The most powerful “explanation” for the racism that exists within the Jewish community is the particularistic and, perhaps, elitist ethos of the Jews as a chosen or elevated people. A misinterpretation of this doctrine could lead to the denigration of those who are not Jewish.
This essay is not the first consideration of Jewish chosenness. In addition to the classical rabbinical sources cited below, several modern writers have grappled with this problem. David Novak describes the view of several Jewish philosophers such as Spinoza, Hermann Cohen, and Franz Rosenzweig on the significance of chosenness. Their views provide different philosophical frameworks for thinking about Jewish election. What is more, some have written that the chosenness concept may not be solely a Jewish idea. For instance, Meylekh Viswanath suggests that Jewish chosenness may not be exclusive. One way to reconcile the differences, argues Meylekh, would be to allow for the fact that other nations or peoples may be chosen as well. While creative, this concept seems at odds with other scholars’ opinions that address chosenness. There is therefore much to discuss. My focus here will focus on the effects of election and on the way Jews view themselves as distinct from others.
Amalek and Chosenness
Chosenness is a concept so basic to the Jewish nation that it cannot be ignored, and its origin can be found in biblical sources. The Bible makes Israel’s distinction from other nations quite clear, stating, “and you shall be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). A second series of biblical references discusses Israel’s commandments to eliminate other nations. These commandments, if interpreted literally, clearly imply Israel’s unique chosenness and strongly suggest that we are somehow superior to others. The Jewish community’s views of other groups and the assignment of negative values and characteristics to other tribes, groups, or nations are most explicitly evidenced and readily apparent in the Bible’s treatment of the nation of Amalek. The nation of Israel is commanded:
Therefore, it shall be, when the Lord thy God has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget (Deuteronomy 25:17-19).
Amalek is a foreign nation, dangerous and deserving of the severest of punishments because of its choice to attack the most vulnerable portion of the Israelite camp—actions that could well be considered war crimes, using a current day definition. Maimonides addressed this text and delves into the Jewish people’s obligations vis-a-vis the nation of Amalek:
And so [too] is it a positive commandment to destroy the memory of Amalek, as it is stated (Deuteronomy 25:19), “erase the memory of Amalek.” And it is a positive commandment to always remember his evil deeds and his ambush in order to arouse enmity, as it is stated (Deuteronomy 25:17), “Remember what Amalek did to you.” From the tradition, they learned, ‘remember’—with your mouth—‘do not forget’—with your heart, as it is forbidden to forget his enmity and his hatred (Hilkhot Melakhim 5:5).
Maimonides derived three separate mitzvot from Deuteronomy. Two of these mitzvot— remembering Amalek’s actions and not forgetting them—are reactions against threats to our existence and help preserve the Jewish people. These are among a class of mitzvot that are associated with the creation of our national identity as depicted through the Exodus narrative. Many commandments, such as those pertaining to the observance of Sukkot and Passover, focus on the formulation of our national identity and are undergirded by the obligation to remember the Exodus from Egypt. They are typical of the group of mitzvot that assign a high priority to events that occurred around the time that our national identity was created.
The third, the mitzvah of physically eliminating Amalek, would be the most problematic vis-a-vis the Jewish community’s inclination towards bias, but, for Maimonides in the section that appears directly before the one cited above, it is no longer actionable, since we can no longer identify Amalek’s genealogical descendants.
The Minhat Hinukh (604:1) held similar views. The ancient nations are said to have been exiled and transplanted by Sanherev to other locations and, therefore, are no longer identifiable. We therefore have no way of performing the mitzvah. There are two ways to understand this non-application. One is purely technical: the mitzvah is still relevant and incumbent upon us, but we are simply unable to perform it properly. However, there is an alternate explanation to the Minhat Hinukh’s dismissal of the mitzvah’s current applicability.
While certain tribes in antiquity exhibited behavior and touted values antithetical to the Israelites’ morals, or, as was the case with Amalek, were guilty of war crimes, those groups were insular and monolithic. The command to eliminate them was not personal but rather reflected our mission to build a better world—one that could not coexist with a tribe dedicated to murder and unethical behavior. Though some would label the annihilation of Amalek genocidal and demand further justification, this commandment by God marked a necessary preventative measure for the good of society rather than an offensive attack.
In today’s world, few tribes or groups are as isolated as the ancient ones were. At that time, it was easy to conflate racial ideas with values-based characterizations because, as we stated, groups were insular, small, and developed group-based traits because of similar upbringing.
In fact, Eugene Korn has suggested that Maimonides reframed the commandment to relate to a group of moral failings rather than a genetically defined cohort. It was easy to conceive of a particular race with certain negative characteristics. Such biases were not necessarily racial in character, but mitigated against particular societies and their underlying values. Today’s integrated society yields tremendous racial, ethnic, religious, and national overlap, making the insular characteristics of tribes such as Amalek no longer accurate or identifiable. Those unique descriptions that were relevant in the characterization of small, insular nations such as Amalek or the Spartans are no longer relevant—or even existent—in today’s multicultural nation states.
Additionally—and prior to society’s global modernization—as stated above, the ancient nations were said to have been “mixed up” in the days of Sanherev. Amalek’s unique characteristics were not preserved in a defined nation, and the nation no longer bore the relevant existence to warrant elimination. Thus, the mitzvah is not negated; it is merely conditional—were Amalek still identifiable as a group with specific characteristics, the commandment would be valid. This explanation makes it clear that a tendency towards racism based on precedents from our traumatic history with Amalek is simply not valid today.
The Two Classical Roles of Jewish Chosenness
The Jewish people’s chosenness is meant to serve as a moral force for the world, by working to eliminate immorality. As discussed above, such commandments occur only in extraordinary circumstances and not at all in the present day. How should one view the Jewish role as a nation and in today’s society?
I suggest that Jews have two opposing roles in the world: to assert our distinctiveness and ensure that our practice and tradition remain intact—a particularistic paradigm—and to serve as examples and ambassadors for all human beings—a universalistic role. The question of how to balance these roles has been at the center of a dialectic within our own community for over two millennia. However, regardless of the balance that any individual strikes between having a more isolationist or a more engaged relationship with the non-Orthodox or non-Jewish world, both orientations are essential parts of what it means to be a Torah Jew.
As discussed earlier, the first sources that deal with Jewish exclusivity are found in Exodus. Exodus 19:6—“and you shall be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”—remains a key Biblical verse in the characterization of Israel’s chosenness. Elsewhere—in Deuteronomy 26:18—the text, again, suggests a sense of chosenness when it refers to the Jewish people as an am segulah, a chosen nation. Yet, the verse that immediately follows moves beyond the focus of these two, saying, “to make you (Israel) high above all nations that He has made, in praise and in name and in glory; and that you may be a holy people unto the Lord your God.” This verse not only suggests chosenness, as the others do, but expands the concept to its relational implications, discussing the Jewish nation’s relationship to others and implying a sense of superiority.
Commenting on verse 19, Ovadia Sforno attempted to mitigate the implication of superiority, arguing that “making Israel high above all other nations” implies Israel’s acting as teachers and guides for others, fulfilling their destiny of being a “kingdom of priests.” Nachmanides, along similar lines, argued that the verse only suggests that other nations will praise Israel for its close relationship to God.
Superficially, however, Exodus 19:6 and Deuteronomy 26:18-19 seem to suggest a sort of elitism, but, in addition to Sforno’s and Nachmanides’s reinterpreting these verses, the later text of the Tanakh also supports a more nuanced version of national relationships. In Isaiah 49:6, where the relationship between the Israelites and the rest of the nations of the world is discussed, the text says, “I shall place you as a light unto the nations.” Rashi claimed that the verse suggests a prophecy about the destruction of Babylonia while Radak believed that it refers to the role we will assume in Messianic Era. Don Isaac Abravanel, on the other hand, held that the description may refer to our role in positively influencing others at all times. While he associated the final part of the passage—“You shall be my redemption until the end of the land”—with the Messianic Period, he put forward that the beginning of the verse and the focus of our discussion—“I shall place you as a light unto the nations”—refers to our being a positive influence in a more general sense and to our being the vehicle for others’ recognition of and return to God. Textual references both to an Israelite elitism and a more universal mission are both present in scripture, and analysis of this complex mission has continued throughout millennia of Jewish thought.
The Babylonian Talmud contains several passages, perhaps none more famous than Avot 3:14, that seem to extol the Jewish people’s selection as God’s favorite and, at times, appear to denigrate non-Jews in general. On the other hand, comments like one found in Sanhedrin 59a, that a learned non-Jew is comparable to a High Priest, although open to interpretation, complicate the notion that the Talmud has a uniformly accepted understanding of the nature of Jewish elitism. An individual’s intellectual achievement rather than genetic or national origin is what drives her or his respect.
Commentators and scholars continued to address questions about Jewish elitism and chosenness throughout Jewish history. A debate between Rabbi Judah Halevy and Maimonides delves into the implications of our chosenness and provides the contours that, ultimately, may help us understand the concept of a chosen or isolated people. Lippman Bodoff once asked: “Was Judah Halevi a racist?” Bodoff identified a sense of “racial superiority … with regard to their (i.e., Jews’) spiritual and religious qualities” within the narrative of the Kuzari, noting the author’s insistence that only Jews by birth are true inheritors of God’s prophecy and enjoy a special relationship with the Divine. By contrast, Maimonides, did not insist upon a concept of chosenness based in genetics, but, instead, in a person’s ritual observance and commitment to Jewish spiritual enlightenment.
Others such as Norman Strickman have suggested that Halevy’s beliefs were more complex and not necessarily racist; his views were more similar to those of Maimonides. In particular, Strickman submitted two key arguments. First, he claimed that since the Kuzari is ultimately an affirmation of conversion it cannot be that there is a genetic argument for Israelite superiority. Second, he posited that the focus on Israel’s chosenness and unique relationship with God was not fundamentally racially based, but, rather, a reaction to Christianity and Islam’s having supplanted Judaism. Halevy combatted this by affirming a unique loving relationship between God and the Jewish people and rejecting the idea of another religion’s taking its place as a conduit to God’s love. Few, however, accept this rereading.
The conversion of the Khazars to Judaism at the conclusion of this twelfth century work disrupts Rabbi Judah Halevy’s argument. It would seem more logical for the natural extrapolation of its philosophy to be some sort of discouragement of conversion. If non-Jews can never elevate themselves, why convert? Even for Halevy, conversion at most represents an elevation to the status of “election” even if it cannot achieve true equality.
Maimonides’ perspective on the matter diverged greatly from the most widely held interpretation of the Kuzari’s position. His philosophy demanded that we be more open-minded about conversion because the Jewish relationship with God reflects intellectual and spiritual enlightenment rather than hereditary entitlement. For example, in the laws of slaves (9:8), Maimonides addressed laws related to non-Jewish slaves. Here he stated: “Cruelty and arrogance are found only among idol-worshipping gentiles. By contrast, the descendants of Abraham our patriarch, namely, Jews, whom the Holy One granted the goodness of Torah and commanded to observe the righteous statutes and judgments, are merciful to all.” Here, Maimonides associated the Jewish people’s chosenness with the observance of mitzvot, not with a genetic trait. Their specialness as a chosen nation, according to Maimonides, is based on the Jewish people’s fidelity to commandments and ideology and on their achievements as human beings.
The long-debated notion of our chosenness remains alive in the minds of contemporary scholars. In 1966, the editors of Commentary asked 50 scholars to respond to a number of theological questions. One such query read: “In what sense do you believe that the Jewish people are the chosen nation of God, and how do you answer the charge that this doctrine is the model from which the various theories of national and racial superiority have been derived?”
One of the respondents was Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein. He explained that the concept of Israel’s chosen status is substantially different from the theories of racial and national superiority written about by others. “Chosenness,” he wrote, “as we understand it, resides in our covenantal relationship with God, rather than in any inherent superiority. We are both burdened and privileged to represent Hashem and Torah.” Rabbi Lichtenstein continued:
It is of course quite conceivable that the doctrine of Israel’s national election has indeed served as the model for these theories (of superiority). I am not historian enough to judge. It should be clear however, that there is no real analogy. We do not boast of our prowess. We lay no claim to aboriginal merit. Rather, we humbly thank God for assigning us a unique destiny, and we strive to fulfill the responsibilities of the covenant which He proffered and we accepted.
Joel Kaminsky also dealt with the nuanced history of election and compares the Jewish concept to other religions. Ultimately, he concluded that the “service” model of Jewish chosenness is inadequate to justify its existence and that “love,” while perhaps arbitrary (as love is), is the only explanation for this special relationship.
An Alternative Perspective
In contrast to the views that have been presented, there is an alternative way of describing the uniqueness and purpose of God’s special relationship with the Jewish people. That relationship, one might suggest, is based both on historical necessity and the need for the actualization of God’s desired relationship with humanity. The Jewish people’s role in maintaining that relationship is to serve as a conduit and as an example. This sort of chosenness does not require the introduction of bias towards others or an elitist mentality. This construct can, in part, be based on traditional sources.
For example, the midrash offers a metaphor about the development of Jewish chosenness (Leviticus Rabbah 23:3). This parable concerns a king who had an orchard in which a variety of plants grew: grapes, apples, pomegranates, and more. The king left his orchard in the care of a sharecropper. After some time, the monarch returned to find that the sharecropper had been neglectful, allowing his orchard to become overgrown with thorns and weeds. However, after searching amid the brambles, he found a single rose among the thorns. The king was so pleased by the single rose that he decided to save the entire orchard because of it. The midrash, then, relates that the entire world would not have been created or sustained had it not been for the Torah. After twenty-six generations, God examined the world He created, only to find wickedness. Yet, amid the wrongdoing, he found one rose—Abraham. And God cultivated Abraham and his family until they were worthy to receive the Torah.
To further enrich that allegory and bring greater sophistication to our understanding of Jewish chosenness, we might examine the narrative that preceded Abraham’s.
God created Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a controlled environment, in which they led an unconfronted existence. They did not have to work for their food, they were not fighting over territory with others, and they were not struggling intrinsically with God.
There are several theories about how and why that existence failed, but the critical fact is that non-confronted man didn’t succeed. The experiment demonstrated that a thinking human being with a physical existence and human striving could not exist and thrive in a non-confronted environment. To progress, man needed to eat from the tree of knowledge and enter the realm of “confronted man.”
After He expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, God hoped that a now confronted species, universally aware of its relationship and history with God and shared heritage amongst its own, could coexist as equals and would reach a point at which everyone would develop a personal relationship with God. Yet, that experiment failed, too. Perhaps the memory of Eden and an unconfronted existence was too much of an impediment to success in man’s newly acquired state of awareness, and so, God brought the flood, washing away the memory of an unconfronted past with it. God began again with someone who understood Him and with the hope that he would build a society that would be filled with an appreciation of God and His nature.
By the time we arrive at Abraham’s narrative, we discover that, by and large, this era was a failure, as well. In Abraham’s world, society was beset by corruption. Thus, Abraham had to rediscover God by himself. Any knowledge of God that would have been passed down from the prior generation of the Flood was lost to the general population (although it may have persisted in some individuals). Idolatry was rampant, Nimrod was a tyrant, and human beings had not succeeded in creating a society of enlightened people who would foster creative spiritual expression.
Therein lies the core of the chosenness of Israel based on the midrash. We must recognize that prior attempts to maintain a universal relationship between humanity and God were unsuccessful due to human failure. Therefore, God cultivated a relationship with one person, one family, and, eventually, one nation who would devote themselves to achieving and fulfilling His desires to build a just, constructive society that had a relationship with its creator. The Jewish people emerged as the chosen nation because God desired a group of emissaries who would develop their relationship with Him for the sake of setting an example for others.
The Current Condition
It is Judaism’s responsibility to show all of mankind how we ought to live, what God’s vision for the world is, and how we must appreciate His greatness. If we foster an existence wherein we do not act justly towards other Jews or other people, if we view our “elitism” as a way to condescend to others, feel superior and deny others respect, if we ignore our obligation to set the right kind of example for others, then we are undermining the concept of the Jewish chosenness. If the Jewish people use this sort of speech or perspective as an excuse for condescension and disregard the laws and expectations of greater society, these actions and views will no doubt render this yet another failed experiment in the long line of those with whom God tried to partner to better the world.
Like many Americans, many Orthodox Jews currently feel apprehensive about the social and political instability that has surfaced across the country. In the United States, where Jews and other racial groups live in close proximity to one another and friction often arises, we must learn to engage in positive relationships with our neighbors. The few areas that do represent points of tension must not be viewed as justifications for racism, but, instead, as complicating yet surmountable factors in our quest for peaceful coexistence.
Perhaps the most compelling reasoning of all to dissuade our community from prejudicial thinking is that the preoccupation with biases interferes with our core mission as Jews, namely, to be the bearers of the message of God’s divinity and proof of the value and righteousness of the Torah. Some might argue that the primary mission of the Jewish people is particularistic, that we need not be overly concerned with our influence on the world and on others’ views of us. While the balance between these two missions is debatable, the importance of both is affirmed at least three times a day, during the recitation of Aleinu.
Aleinu’s two paragraphs contain two separate themes that, together, evidence the dual nature of our mission. The first few sentences extol our uniqueness and thank the Almighty for creating the unique group that is the Jewish people. The prayer then relays the grandeur within God’s creation of the universe as a whole. The juxtaposition of these first two ideas lends a certain prominence to the Jewish people’s special bond with God, heightening our sense of uniqueness and particularity.
The second paragraph of Aleinu could not be more different. It describes God’s relationship, not with the Jewish people, but with all of humanity. It begins by affirming: “We hope to you God … (and it is said) and it will be that the Lord will be King upon all of the earth.” It concludes with the words: “all of them will accept the yoke of Your kingship and You will rule over us (the Jewish people and then non-Jews of the world) … On that day (and only on that day) the Lord will be One and His name One.”
At the close of every single prayer service, traditional Jews express the hope that, through our dedication, God’s influence will spread over the entire world. Although Aleinu does not specifically task the Jewish people with the role of bringing about the Redemption, that concept is relayed in other sources, as previously mentioned.
It is true that there are many examples in halakhah in which Jews and non-Jews are not treated equally. Some, such as the laws which allow for charging interest to non-Jews but not Jews, seem biased a priori. The traditional explanation invoked to understand most of these laws involves an extension of the idea of family. Charging interest or engaging in any other behavior that seems unequal may indeed be universally justified. The time value of money certainly makes interest payments seem morally and ethically appropriate. However, one might not charge a family member interest out of a sense of camaraderie or love, rather than sound business practices. The tribal nature of our relationship with other Jews that encourages such behavior is different from supporting actions that denigrate or act unfairly to others.
Bias or prejudice against other groups has no moral, halakhic, or practical justification in today’s society. To the extent that it exists, it must be eliminated. We can only accomplish the task of spreading the value of Torah to the entire world if we act admirably. Every Hillul Hashem, each desecration of God’s name, negates the positive contributions that a people make to the world and distances us from the Redemption. Regardless of how much we choose to integrate into American society, if we do not project a heartfelt positive image—one that reflects the deeply held value of protecting and upholding human dignity—we cannot possibly serve as a light unto others.
 Meylekh Viswanath, “Racism and Chosenness: What it Means to be a Light Unto the Nations,” Conversations 17 (2013): 161-177.
 Will Herberg, “The Chosenness of Israel and the Jew of Today,” in Arguments and Doctrines, ed. Arthur A. Cohen (Philadelphia: Harper & Row, 1970): 267-83.
 Lippman Bodoff, The Binding of Isaac, Religious Murders, and Kabbalah: Seeds of Jewish Extremism and Alienation? (New York: Devora, 2005), 374-89.
 Aharon Lichtenstein, “The State of Jewish Belief,” Commentary 42 (August 1966): 114.
 Joel Kaminsky, “A Light to the Nations: Was there Mission and or Conversion in the Hebrew Bible?” Jewish Studies Quarterly 16 (2009): 6-22.