A look at the traditional Jewish prayer book highlights the importance of the notion that God chose Israel “from among all the nations.” The concept of chosenness comes up at critical liturgical moments: just before the daily morning recitation of the Sh’ma, among Judaism’s most sacred prayers; before reading the Torah; when sanctifying the Sabbath and festivals; when marking the end of the Sabbath; and in a special addition to the Eighteen Benedictions (a central prayer, recited thrice daily) for festivals.
The vicissitudes of Jewish history have likely contributed to endowing chosenness with such importance. In the face of suffering and Christianity’s claim to be the new Israel, emphasis on chosenness provided a measure of consolation: the Jewish people’s special relationship with God endured, which meant that redemption could not be far off.* Thus, the rabbinic period, which inspired so much of the liturgy stressing chosenness, unfolded in the shadow of the Temple’s destruction with all but a handful of Jews living in exile. Nonetheless, even the Sages occasionally adopted a more universalistic tone. One ancient midrash asserts that “God’s love for Israel was similarly directed toward the gentile nations.”* Another proclaims, “I call on heaven and earth to witness that whether it be a gentile or a Jew, a man or a woman, a manservant or a maidservant, the Holy Spirit will suffuse each of them in keeping with the deeds he or she performs.”*
In and of itself, the meaning of chosenness is ambiguous. What does it mean if a teacher chooses one student from among all others? There’s a big difference between being chosen to star in a play and being chosen to clean desktops. The danger arises when we equate chosenness with superiority, a position that many Jewish thinkers held in the Middle Ages, but which now is generally rejected. Instead, the emphasis falls on the idea that the Jewish people were chosen to receive the laws of Torah. And even here the story is not so simple because according to a common midrashic tradition, God first offered the Torah to other peoples who for various reasons rejected it. As one midrash explains, God chose Israel because Israel chose God and the Torah.*
What are the implications of election in this context? A contemporary scholar asserts that because chosenness is about accepting “duties, to fulfill a mission rather than to take on entitlements and privileges. . . . Within such a framework . . . it would be a perversion of the idea of election if it were turned into an argument in support of unequal treatment for the non-elect.”* In fact, an ancient prophetic tradition holds God’s election explains the Jewish people’s suffering. “You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth. That is why I will call you to account for all your iniquities” (Amos 3:2). Many likewise stress that rather than superiority, chosenness signifies the Jewish people’s special responsibility to be an ethical “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6).
Still, to assign one nation the task of providing ethical illumination to others only begs the question. Why choose us? To claim chosenness by God all too easily breeds arrogance and resentment. For these and other reasons, Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, our youngest and smallest denomination, completely rejected the concept of the chosen people. Kaplan’s 1941 Passover Haggadah, his first liturgical publication, omitted all references to it. Subsequent Reconstructionist liturgy has replaced references to chosenness with an expression of gratitude for having been being “brought near to God’s service.”* The phrase almost identical to one that appears in the standard Haggadah.
Christians typically think of themselves as “called” rather than “chosen.” Yet some texts use the latter term: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). Such texts can be misread as suggesting that Christians have replaced Jews as chosen people. Rather, to use the imagery of Paul, Christians are wild olive shoots, grafted to share the rich root of the olive tree (see Romans 11:17).
In both Old and New Testaments, we read of persons being called by God, beginning with Abraham. Some respond as does Abraham, “Here I am.” Others, like Jeremiah, are more reluctant: “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Jesus calls men and women to become disciples, and to participate in his movement for the Reign of God.
As the Gospels make plain, however, becoming a disciple does not magically bestow wisdom and goodness. The disciples are fallible and sometimes just dense. Like us, they tend to be self-absorbed and are often the last to understand the teachings of Jesus.
In every generation, the call is fundamentally the same: to be Christ in this world, to make flesh God’s desire for the flourishing of all creation, to incarnate God’s love. Or, in the words of Presbyterian minister and writer Frederick Buechner, “The place where God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.*
The Qur’an states that God favored (Faddala) the people of Israel by choosing them for His Call, and sent many prophets among them. [i. 2:40, 47, and 122] But their special status was conditioned upon obeying God, standing for truth and establishing peace and justice on earth. [ii. 2: 41-47 and 2:83.] Did the Muslim community replace the chosenness of the Christian or the Jewish community in the sight of God? Muslims debate this. But the Qur’anic criteria for any community to be chosen are that it must compete with other communities in the realm of good deeds, establishing justice, avoiding hate, neither following vain desires nor diverging from the Truth (5:48).
And unto thee [O Prophet] have We vouchsafed this divine writ, setting forth the truth, confirming the truth of whatever there still remains of earlier revelations and determining what is true therein. Judge, then, between the followers of earlier revelation in accordance with what God has bestowed from on high, and do not follow their errant views, forsaking the truth that has come unto thee. Unto every one of you have We appointed a [different] law and way of life. And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but [He willed it otherwise] in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto, you. Vie, then, with one another in doing good works! Unto God you all must return; and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ. Qur’an 5:48
O CHILDREN of Israel! Remember those blessings of Mine with which I graced you, and fulfill your promise unto Me, [whereupon] I shall fulfill My promise unto you; and of Me, of Me stand in awe! Qur’an 2:40
YOU ARE indeed the best community that has ever been brought forth for [the good of] mankind: you enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong, and you believe in God. Now if the followers of earlier revelation had attained to [this kind of] faith, it would have been for their own good; [but only few] among them are believers, while most of them are iniquitous. Qur’an 3:110