My friend and colleague Amotz Asa-el wrote recently in these pages of Jewish chosenness: "the costs of being chosen have been far higher than the benefits." As a religious Jew, I read those words not with anger, but with sadness, profound sadness.
Even among some Orthodox youth, the mitzvos are experienced as a burden -- a checklist to be gotten through daily before getting on to the real business of life. Given the choice, they would rather have been born without the checklist. And for the vast majority of non-observant Jews, being Jewish constitutes such a small part of their self-identity that the idea of Jewish chosenness is laughable, at best, and repugnant, at worst.
The Jewish chosenness that Amotz finds a burden was the key to my return to the faith of our fathers.
From the first, Jewish chosenness was, for me, a dialectical process. As much as G-d may have chosen us, so we have chosen Him over and over again, ever since we proclaimed at Sinai, "We will do and we will understand.
On an Israeli bus, the morning of the Entebbe rescue, I pondered my overwhelming feeling of closeness to my fellow Jews, while watching complete strangers embraced one another. Why had all the obvious differences between us – skin color, language, personal and familial history – suddenly become so unimportant when those same differences seemed to count for so much on a New York City subway.
We were all bound, I concluded, by a single fact. None of us would be here as a Jew today but for an unbroken chain of ancestors, each of whom had chosen his relationship to G-d over every blandishment that the gentile society could offer, and in the face of every form of torture and affliction.
That same summer, reading the Book of Fire at the Diaspora Museum, I realized that no Jew for 2,000 years of Exile has been able to look forward with confidence to his children and grandchildren living in peace in the same place. Pogroms and forced exile were not just grim possibilities but an ever-present reality. No Jewish community, it seemed, ever enjoyed 80 years of continuous tranquility.
Yet our ancestors not only accepted their fate, they chose that fate by insisting on remaining faithful to their G-d. Their feeling of closeness to G-d was worth all the afflictions that went with being His chosen. Even at the stake, they sang, "Ata bahartanu – You have singled us out from among the nations."
The question I asked myself that summer was: Could the belief that gave our ancestors – great scholars and humble folk alike, in every place and over thousands of years – their power to endure, become my belief as well? Could I – the product of suburbia and America’s elite universities -- still tap into the source of that power?
Only by doing so, I realized, could I link myself to the chain of Jewish history. For if I concluded that my ancestors had made the wrong choice, that their belief in G-d and His revelation to the Jewish people was delusional, then I could not continue in their footsteps.
What precisely did our ancestors mean when they spoke of being the chosen people? All men, after all, are created in G-d’s image, and must be treated with dignity. Our classical sources give two answers. First, the Jewish people has been imbued with a greater capacity for holiness, and thus for closeness to G-d. Second, the Jewish people are the vehicle for G-d’s revelation to mankind.
Does that make Jews better than others, either individually or collectively? Hardly. Capacities are gifts, but, like all gifts, they can be easily abused or wasted. The larger the vessel for receiving holiness, the greater the capacity for its opposite as well. If the vessel is not filled with holiness, then it will be filled with impurity. The spiritual universe, like the physical, abhors a vacuum.
For the believing Jew, being Jewish is an all-encompassing identity, not one out of many. He cannot conceive of his life apart from being Jewish. He has no "I," no essence, that can be separated from being Jewish.
I am grateful to G-d for many gifts – my parents, my wife, my children. But above all, I am grateful for the gift of having been born into this tiny people who received His Law and whose every moment is filled with purpose.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein used to complain of the damage done when children hear the old Yiddish expression, "It’s difficult to be a Jew." Rather we have to teach our children that it is the greatest privilege to be born a Jew.
When we thank G-d every morning for "not having made me a gentile," we should not think of some drunken peasant, but of the most elevated gentile – e.g., Goethe or Mozart. For no matter how great the achievements of non-Jews may be, we Jews have been chosen for a task that is ours alone.