Few religious, ethnic or national doctrines have attracted more virulent, emotionally-charged criticism than the idea of a/the "chosen people." Indeed, type the word chosenness -- the abstract form of the concept -- on to your screen, and you will quickly learn that -- properly speaking -- no such word exists. (I no longer have that problem; I added it to my personal dictionary a long time ago.)
For at least three millennia, we Jews have referred to ourselves as "The Chosen People." And for at least three millennia, that self-referent -- whether loudly proclaimed, softly whispered or merely contemplated -- has been at least partly responsible for placing us in more dire peril, making us the butt of more opprobrious commentary and stereotyping, and leading us to more gaols, gallows and gas chambers -- than anything real or concrete.
Although differing in historicity and proof texts, Judaism, Islam, Catholicism, Mormonism, Rastafari, -- even Unification and Brahma Kumaris -- all know about chosenness; that which adds strength, power and purpose -- if not superiority -- to their theology and weltanschauung. Very briefly, and by way of examples consider the following:
- Rastafari belief structure contain six fundamental principles, including the complete chosenness of the black race in the eyes of Jah -- God incarnate -- rendering them supreme physically and spiritually to all other people.
- Mormons view all Latter Day Saints as covenant, or chosen, people; they have accepted the name of Jesus Christ. (Interestingly, Mormons do not dispute the "chosen" status of the Jewish people; rather, they believe that ultimately, Jews will accept Christianity . . . or else)
- The traditional Christian concept of "Supersessionism" holds that Christian believers have replaced physical Israelites as God's chosen people. They believe that Israel's chosenness found its ultimate fulfillment through the message of Jesus. Therefore, Jews who remain faithful to Judaism are no longer considered chosen, since they reject Jesus as both messiah and the son of God.
- Brahma Kumaris (the "New Spiritual University") believe in a strict hierarchy of human souls . . . that they are the only religion which God talks to in person and the only one that will both inherit and rule the Heaven on Earth for 2,500 years.
It is a sad fact of history that as times become more fraught with economic uncertainty -- indeed, as society goes through more rapid, uncharted changes, as the gap between "haves" and "have-nots" widens -- intolerance, racial and religious bigotry, discrimination and demagoguery all grow. For Jews, this means a heightened sensitivity to growing levels of anti-Semitism, and an increased awareness of just how many untruths frightened people are willing to believe.
And this gets us back to the concept of the "Chosen People."
The term "chosen people" has been more closely identified with the Jews than any other group for a long, long time. The reason is simple; Jews were the first to be called by that name. And for those who care to ask the question "Chosen for what?" the original answer was also simple: chosen to receive The Law at Mt. Sinai. And anyone -- Jew, Christian, Muslim, Rastifarian or atheist -- can read the relevant passages in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) in Deut. 7:6, 12:5, or 18:5. as but three examples. Over the course of time, that question -- "Chosen for what?" -- has been asked with far less frequency. As anyone who has studied history knows, in far too many cases, Jews have been accused of understanding that "chosenness" to mean being superior to everyone else. And although nothing could be farther from the historic truth -- about Jews considering themselves superior -- it is perhaps understandable how people in times of change, uncertainty and dislocation might come to that unwarranted conclusion.
It seems to me that were that question to be asked today -- "Chosen for what?" that a proper answer would quite simply be, "Chosen to be faithful witnesses to -- and to have a positive effect on -- all of human history."
Nowhere does superiority enter into that answer.
I believe that the Jews have done just that: acted as both faithful witnesses while having as much of a positive effect as possible. Consider, if you will that despite being something like 0.227% of the world's population (14.6 million out of 6.43 billion), the Jews have:
- Won 29 Nobel prizes in chemistry, 44 in physics, 49 in medicine, 24 in economics, 11 in literature and 9 in peace.
- Virtually created the motion picture industry . . . Meyer, Zukor, Goldwyn, Cohen, Thalberg, Lubin, Selig, Fox, Laemmlle, Warner . . . including the most successful filmmaker of all time: Steven Spielberg.
- Created the field of psychoanalysis . . . Freud and Adler, Fromm Erikson, Rapaport and Maslow.
- Responsible for creating the New York Times, Pulitzer Prize, Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Aldred A. Knopf.
- Clothing and design: Levi Strauss, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan.
- Department stores: Macys, Federated, Bloomingdales, Filenes, Saks, Abraham & Strauss, Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman and Sears.
- Created the world's largest and most valuable computer company (Dell, Michael Dell).
- Co-founded the world's most successful search engine (Google, Sergey Brin).
- Head of the world's largest software company (Microsoft, Steve Ballmar).
- Co-founded and head of the world's largest software company (Oracle, Lawrence Ellison).
- Co-founded, led and served as chairman of the world's dominant microprocessor and memory chip company (Intel, Andrew Grove).
- Served as CEO or COO at three of the world's four most valuable Internet companies (Yahoo, Terry Semel; eBay, Jeff Skoll; and IAC, Barry Diller).
- Co-founded and head the communications protocol/chip company whose chips are in most U.S. cell phones and are slated to be utilized in the next generation of cell phones to be used worldwide (Qualcomm, Irwin Jacobs).
And yet, even with all this, many will counter with the names Bernard Madoff, Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, and claim that America's current batch of problems are due to people like Barney Frank, Chuck Schumer, Lawrence Summers, Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod.
So maybe its not so much that Jews are the "Chosen People," as the "Choosing People," a folk who have chosen to roll up its sleeves and make as much of a difference in the lives of others.
But there's just so pleasing some folk.
As we have long said, Es ist shver tzu zein a yid . . . namely, "It's hard to be a Jew."
Or, to put it another way, "The Jews are just like everyone else . . . only more so."
©2009 Kurt F. Stone