This past Shavuot, my friend and colleague Amotz Asa-El wrote of Jewish chosenness: "The costs of being chosen have been far higher than the benefits."
I suspect that Asa-El's problem is not so much the quality of our deal with God, but whether we were chosen at all. Hence his title, "Are we chosen?"
No doubt the idea of a chosen people in general, and the Jews as that people in particular, does not sit well with the modern sensibility. In a Commentary Magazine symposium five years ago on the state of Jewish belief, almost none of the non-Orthodox Jewish theologians were prepared to affirm the concept of Jewish chosenness, despite the Torah's constant reiteration of our selection to be "a nation of priests, a holy nation."
Yet, as Will Herberg once pointed out, to deny the possibility of a chosen people is to deny individuality as well. We have no trouble recognizing that every individual is unique, and most of us choose a life partner based on his or her particular personality and suitability for what we deem our mission in life. Why is it so hard to believe, then, that God too chose one nation, on the basis of its unique character, to be His partner - the vehicle for His revelation to mankind?
To believe that Jews are imbued with a greater capacity for holiness, however, does not mean that any given Jew, or even Jews collectively, are better than non-Jews. Capacities are gifts from God, 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 some it is hard to believe in our chosenness, if, even after the Holocaust, we still find ourselves in constant peril in our Land. For others, however, it has never been easier. The world's continued obsession with Jews reflects the spiritual reality of our central role in the Divine plan. Millions have been slaughtered all over the globe in the past decade, yet only the death of 56 Palestinians killed in combat with Jews is reported as a "new Holocaust." Jewish history may not have been one long romp through sunny meadows, but only the Jews survived as a people for 2,000 years removed from their Land. Already the Men of the Great Assembly saw God's power in His ability to preserve His people as "a solitary lamb among 70 wolves."
The description remains apt today.
All the curses of Parashat Bechukotai have been fulfilled, but so has the Divine promise: "I will not be utterly disgusted with them nor will I spit them out to obliterate them, to annul my Covenant with them . . ." And those who survived as Jews are precisely those who preserved that Covenant. Groups that denied either the Written or Oral Torah, like the Sadduccees and the Karaites, have disappeared. Demographic trends point to the same result today.
ASA-EL'S ESSAY struck a deep personal chord, for the issues he addresses are ones with which I have grappled. All our ancestors viewed God's choice of the Jewish people in a different light than Asa-El, who, it seems, would have preferred that God had chosen someone else. Our ancestors' perspective played a large role in my own religious journey, and perhaps explains my own profound sadness on reading the words quoted at the outset.
Not only did God choose the Jews, but ever since we proclaimed at Sinai, "We will do and we will understand," we have been choosing Him. Our ancestors not only accepted their fate, they chose that fate by insisting on remaining faithful to God. Their feeling of closeness to Him was worth all the suffering that went with being His chosen. Even at the stake, they sang, Ata bahartanu - You have singled us out from among the nations. Read the Book of Fire at the Diaspora Museum, and you will learn that no Jew for almost the entire 2,000 years of Exile was able to view the future confident that his children and grandchildren would live in peace in the same place. Pogroms and expulsion were not just grim possibilities, but an ever-present reality. No Jewish community, it seems, ever enjoyed 80 years of continuous tranquility.
Every Jew living today is the product of an unbroken chain of ancestors, each of whom chose his or her relationship to God over every blandishment that gentile society held out to the most literate members of that society, and in the face of every torture and affliction.
That realization struck me in the face more than a quarter of a century ago on the morning of the Entebbe rescue. As complete strangers embraced on the bus, I asked myself why I felt so close to my fellow passengers despite all the obvious differences between us - skin color, language, personal and familial history. Why did these differences count for so little on the Egged bus, when they loomed so large on a New York City subway? The only answer I could give was our common chain of ancestors - great scholars and humble folk alike - who in every place and over thousands of years found in their connection to God the reason and strength to endure as Jews.
That morning, I began to ask myself whether I - the product of suburbia and America's elite universities - could still tap into that same spiritual power. The question was far from academic, for if I concluded that my ancestors had chosen wrongly, that their belief in God and His revelation was a beautiful delusion, then I would cut myself off from the chain of Jewish history.
What my ancestors had suffered could not obligate me to choose the same life they had.
But at the very least, I, whose Judaism had entailed so little, owed it to them to find out whether their choice could become mine.
Today I am part of that chain of believing Jews who recite every morning, "Blessed art Thou God, our Lord, King of the Universe, Who did not make me a gentile" When I do so, I think not of a drunken peasant, but of the most elevated gentile - Goethe or Mozart. No matter how great the achievements of non-Jews may be, the greatest privilege is to have been born into this tiny, despised people, who received His Law and whose every moment is filled with purpose.