Chosenness: What does it mean to be a Chosen People?
In this unit you can find resources and texts which explore the concept of “chosenness” and what it means to be a “Chosen People”. As well as texts from the writings of Rabbi Sacks, you can also find classic Jewish sources, other contemporary Jewish voices, and some broader secular texts to enrich the way you teach this concept in your classroom.
There are many resources provided here for the teacher to choose from when building a lesson or series of lessons on this topic (there are far too many to be included in one lesson only). If you only want to dedicate one lesson to the topic, then a suggested lesson-plan for a sixty-minute lesson is provided which can be used to explore the classic Jewish texts and initial writings of Rabbi Sacks only.
Age: The resources and lesson plan can be adapted by the educator to a wide range of ages, from middle school/key stage 3 (11-12 years old) upwards, but this unit is most appropriate for high school ages (15-18 years old).
Mark Twain was the pen name of American novelist Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835–1910). The following famous passage is taken from a magazine article he wrote in 1899 in answer to a request to clarify his views about the Jews.
If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way.
Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk.
His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it.
The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind.
All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?Mark Twain, Concerning the Jews, Harper’s Magazine, June 1899
- How can the survival of the Jewish people against all the odds be explained?
- What does Jewish history tell us about the relationship between the Jewish people and God?
- Why do you think the Jewish people have “contributed to the world’s list of great names… way out of proportion to their weakness of numbers?
Read the verses listed below, and then dicuss them, using the related Core Questions.
The origins of Jewish chosenness in the Bible:
- Bereishit 12:1-3
- Who was chosen here?
- What were they chosen for?
- Why were they chosen?
- Shemot 19:1-6
- Devarim 26:16-19
- Devarim 4:5-8
- What does the term “Am Segulah” mean?
- What does this have to do with Torah, mitzvot, and the Covenant with God?
- Do you think the chosenness of the Jewish people because an intrinsic worth or an extrinsic potential?
God’s relationship with other nations:
- I Kings 8:41-43
- Amos 9:7
- Isaiah 19:23-25
- Pirkei Avot 3:14
- What do these sources say about God’s relationship with the rest of the nations of the world?
- Does this message surprise you? How do you feel about these sources?
- What does this say about God’s relationship with the Jewish people?
Who chose whom:
- Mechilta deRabbi Yishmael to Shemot 20:22
- What do you think is the primary message of this midrashic source?
- How does this midrashic source inform the way we think about the chosenness of the Jewish people?
- Do we have a choice about being chosen?
Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic holiness/chosenness:
- Kuzari 1:95
- Rambam Iggeret Teiman
- What is the basis of Jewish chosenness according to the Kuzari?
- How does Rambam disagree?
- Which of these approaches resonates with you the most?
That is the meaning of ‘a holy nation’. The holy, in the Bible, simply means God’s domain – those points in time and space at which his presence is peculiarly visible. That is what Yeshayahu means when he says of Israel: ‘You are My witness – declares the Lord – that I am God’ (Yeshayahu 43:10)… There is no assertion in the Bible that the Israelites are inherently better or more moral than others. Their vocation represents not a privilege but a responsibility. It confers no material advantages, only the religious life itself…
…Israel’s role is to be an example: no more, no less. That is how Rambam’s son Avraham interprets, in his father’s name, the phrase ‘a kingdom of priests’:
“The priest of any congregation is its leader, its most honoured individual and the congregation’s role-model through whom they learn to follow in the right path. [In calling on Israel to be ‘a kingdom of priests’ it was as if God said to them], Become leaders of the world through keeping my Torah, so that your relationship to [humanity] becomes that of a priest to his congregation, so that the world follows in your path, imitates your deeds and walks in your ways.”To Heal a Fractured World, pp. 65-67
- How does Rabbi Sacks explain holiness in this context?
- What is the connection between holiness, the priesthood, and the national mission of the Jewish people? Hint: See Shemot 19:1-6)
- What is Rabbi Sacks’ approach to being an “Am Segulah“?
God, the creator of humanity, having made a covenant with all humanity, then turns to one people and commands it to be different in order to teach humanity the dignity of difference. Biblical monotheism is not the idea that there is one God and therefore one truth, one faith, one way of life. On the contrary, it is the idea that unity creates diversity. That is the non-Platonic miracle of creation.
What is real, remarkable, and the proper object of our wonder is not the quintessential leaf but the 250,000 different kinds there actually are; not the idea of a bird but the 9,000 species that exist today; not the metalanguage that embraces all others, but the 6,000 languages still spoken throughout the world . . . Judaism is about the miracle of unity that creates diversity.The Dignity of Difference, p. 53
- If the national mission of the Jewish people is to “be an example” (see previous source, To Heal a Fractured World, pp. 65-67), what does Rabbi Sacks say we should be an example of?
- How do we do this idea?
- Where do we see this value in the Torah and other Jewish texts?
[Our] destiny was to create a society that would honour the proposition that we are all created in the image and likeness of God. It would be a place in which the freedom of some would not lead to the enslavement of others . . . Judaism is the code of a self-governing society. We tend to forget this, since Jews have lived in dispersion for two thousand years, without the sovereign power to govern themselves, and because modern Israel is a secular state. Judaism is a religion of redemption rather than salvation. It is about the shared spaces of our collective lives, not an interior drama of the soul . . . because Judaism is also the code of a society, it is also about the social virtues: righteousness (tzedek/tzedakah), justice (mishpat), loving-kindness (chessed) and compassion (rachamim). These structure the template of biblical law, which covers all aspects of the life of society, its economy, its welfare systems, its education, family life, employer–employee relations, the protection of the environment and so on . . . None of this was possible without a land . . .
Judaism is the constitution of a self-governing nation, the architectonics of a society dedicated to the service of God in freedom and dignity. Without a land and state, Judaism is a shadow of itself. In exile, God might still live in the hearts of Jews but not in the public square, in the justice of the courts, the morality of the economy and the humanitarianism of everyday life. Jews have lived in almost every country under the sun. In four thousand years, only in Israel have they been a free, self-governing people. Only in Israel are they able, if they so choose, to construct an agriculture, a medical system, an economic infrastructure in the spirit of the Torah and its concern for freedom, justice and the sanctity of life. Only in Israel can Jews today speak the Hebrew of the Bible as the language of everyday speech. Only there can they live Jewish time within a calendar structured according to the rhythms of the Jewish year. Only in Israel can Jews live Judaism in anything other than an edited edition. In Israel, and only there, Jews can walk where the prophets walked, climb the mountains Avraham climbed, lift their eyes to the hills that David saw, and continue the story their ancestors began.Future Tense, pp. 135–136
- According to this source, what is the ultimate fulfilment of the Jewish national mission?
- Why is this best done in Israel?
- What does this say about living in the diaspora?
- Rabbi Sacks on the Chosen People
- Rabbi Sacks on Tikkun Olam
- Ten Paths Unit 9 Opening Video: Kiddush Hashem
- Ten Paths Unit 10 Opening Video: Responsibility
God, the creator of humanity, having made a covenant with all humanity, then turns to one people and commands it to be different in order to teach humanity the dignity of difference.The Dignity of Difference, p. 53
To be chosen does not mean that others are unchosen. To be secure in one’s relationship with God does not depend on negating the possibility that others too may have a (different) relationship with Him.Covenant & Conversation, Toldot: Chosenness and its Discontents
Do not think that God choosing one people means He rejects every other people. Absolutely not! That was never our way. And that why, again and again and again, God, the prophets say, is not our God only. There are other people who worship God.Faith Lectures: Jewish Identity: The Concept of a Chosen People
A chosen people is the opposite of a master race, first, because it is not a race but a covenant; second, because it exists to serve God, not to master others. A master race worships itself; a chosen people worships something beyond itself. A master race values power; a chosen people cares for the powerless. A master race believes it has rights; a chosen people knows only that it has responsibilities. The key virtues of a master race are pride, honour and fame. They key virtue of a chosen people is humility. A master race produces monumental buildings, triumphal inscriptions and a literature of self-congratulation. Israel, to a degree unique in history, produced a literature of almost uninterrupted self-criticism…A chosen people is not a master race but its opposite: a servant community. That is why Jewry has always been attacked by – because its existence is an affront to – those who see themselves as a master race, an imperial power, or sole guardians of God’s truth.Not in God’s Name, p. 22
Why does God need to choose in the first place? Why this drama of chosen and unchosen sons? Why Isaac, not Ishmael? Why Jacob, not Esau? Why Abraham, not everyone? Why Israel and not all humankind?
This phenomenon has aroused more anger and vituperation, perplexity and misunderstanding than any other in the history of Western spirituality. Why does God choose? Judaism seems caught midway between the particularities of the pagan world – each nation with its own gods – and the universalities of Christianity and Islam: one God, one truth, one way, one path to salvation, one gateway to heaven.
These two other Abrahamic monotheisms borrowed much from Judaism – its belief in one God and its sacred scriptures in the case of Christianity, its stories and prophets in the case of Islam – yet they did not borrow Judaism’s most singular feature: its distinction between the universality of God as Creator and Sovereign of the universe, and the particularity of the covenant, first with Abraham, then with Moses and the Israelites.Not in God’s Name, p. 189
A chosen people is the opposite of a master race, first, because it is not a race but a covenant; second, because it exists to serve God, not to master others.5 A master race worships itself; a chosen people worships something beyond itself. A master race values power; a chosen people cares for the powerless. A master race believes it has rights; a chosen people knows only that it has responsibilities. The key virtues of a master race are pride, honour and fame. The key virtue of a chosen people is humility. A master race produces monumental buildings, triumphal inscriptions and a literature of self-congratulation. Israel, to a degree unique in history, produced a literature of almost uninterrupted self-criticism.Not in God’s Name, p. 198
There are other cultures, other civilisations, other peoples, other faiths. Each has contributed something unique to the total experience of humankind. Each, from its own vantage point, has been chosen. But this is ours. This is our faith, our people, our heritage.Radical Then, Radical Now, p. 175
God chooses those whom the world rejects. That is why He chose us. In the ancient world, power and position went to the firstborn. That is why God always chooses the younger rather than the elder. In the ancient world, power went to the strong and the many. The Jewish people always was a tiny people. God chooses whom the world rejects. He chooses the marginal, the nomads, the few, the young.Faith Lectures: Jewish Identity: The Concept of a Chosen People
- How do these contemporary Jewish thinkers approach the concept of chosenness?
- How does this compare to the approach of Rabbi Sacks?
- Do you think they conflict, compliment, or add to the approach of Rabbi Sacks?
Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits
Yes, I do believe in the Chosen people concept as affirmed by Judaism in its holy writ, its prayers, and its millennial tradition. In fact, I believe that every people – and indeed, in a more limited way, every individual – is “chosen” or destined for some distinct purpose in advancing the designs of Providence. Only, some fulfil their mission and others do not. Maybe the Greeks were chosen for their unique contributions to art and philosophy, the Romans for their pioneering services in law and government, the British for bringing parliamentary rule into the world, and the Americans for piloting democracy in a pluralistic society. The Jews were chosen by God to be ‘peculiar unto Me’ as the pioneers of religion and morality; that was and is their national purpose.Z. Eleff, Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2016, pp. 260–264
Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook
At the outset of the plantation of this people who understand and carried out the idea of God, clearly and purely, in a time when the world was dominated by impure deities, God commanded Abraham to establish a whole nation who would “keep the ways of God and perform righteousness and judgment”… to uplift humanity from under the awful burden of spiritual and material troubles and to bring it to a free life full of beauty and splendor in the light of the Divine notion, and by this to bring humanity to success.
In order to achieve this, the people of Israel must have their own social and political state and a national kingdom with its own culture – “a people wise and clever, and a great nation.” Furthermore, this absolute Divine notion would govern there and sustain the people and the land. In order that this kind of nation can teach the world that living in the way of God is available not just to the very wise, the zealous, Nazirites and holy people who live according to this Divine notion privately, but that it is accessible to entire peoples sophisticated in culture and matters of state: entire nations, incorporating all classes of people from the intelligentsia to socialists and political economists, to the proletariat and even the lower classes, are able to live in the way of God and become upright and moral.A.I. Kook, 2015 (originally published in 1920), Jerusalem: Koren Publishers
Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik
We Jews have been burdened with a twofold task; we have to cope with the problem of a double confrontation. We think of ourselves as human beings, sharing the destiny of Adam in his general encounter with nature, and as members of a covenantal community which has preserved its identity under most unfavorable conditions, confronted by another faith community. We believe we are the bearers of a double charismatic load, that of the dignity of man, and that of the sanctity of the covenantal community. In this difficult role, we are summoned by God, who revealed himself at both the level of universal creation and that of the private covenant, to undertake a double mission – the universal human and the exclusive covenantal confrontation.J. Soloveitchik, Confrontation, Tradition 6 (2) Spring-Summer, 1964, Available online at traditiononline.org
Rabbi S. R. Hirsch
The Bible terms Israel segulah, a peculiar treasure, but this designation does not imply, as some have falsely interpreted, that Israel has a monopoly of the Divine love and favor, but on the contrary, that God has the sole and exclusive claim to Israel’s devotion and service; that Israel may not render Divine homage to any other being.S. R. Hirsch, The Nineteen Letters on Judaism (Prepared by Jacob Breuer, based on the translation by Rabbi Dr. Bernard Drachman), Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers, 1969.
The following sources were referenced by Rabbi Sacks in his article Issues in Jewish Thought: The Chosen – A Personal View and in the Ten Paths Curriculum, Unit 9: The Way of Kiddush Hashem: The Jewish Task
[Miller:] However, as I said before, I hold with the philosophers of the last century that the Jews have played no great part as a people, though Pash will have it they’re clever enough to beat all the rest of the world. But if so, I ask, why haven’t they done it?”
“For the same reason that the cleverest men in the country don’t get themselves or their ideas into Parliament,” said the ready Pash; “because the blockheads are too many for ‘em.”
“That is a vain question,” said Mordecai, “whether our people would beat the rest of the world. Each nation has its own work, and is a member of the world, enriched by the work of each. But it is true, as Yehuda HaLevi first said, that Israel is the heart of mankind, if we mean by heart the core of affection which binds a race and its families in dutiful love, and the reverence for the human body which lifts the needs of our animal life into religion, and the tenderness which is merciful to the poor and weak and to the dumb creature that wears the yoke for us.”George Eliot, Daniel Deronda, Book 6, ch. 42
I said; “but all the same hear the rest of the story. While all of you in the city are brothers, we will say in our tale, yet God in fashioning those of you who are fitted to hold rule mingled gold in their generation, for which reason they are the most precious – but in the helpers silver, and iron and brass in the farmers and other craftsmen.
And as you are all akin, though for the most part you will breed after your kinds, it may sometimes happen that a golden father would beget a silver son and that a golden offspring would come from a silver sire and that the rest would in like manner be born of one another. So that the first and chief injunction that the god lays upon the rulers is that of nothing else are they to be such careful guardians and so intently observant as of the intermixture of these metals in the souls of their offspring, and if sons are born to them with an infusion of brass or iron, they shall by no means give way to pity in their treatment of them, but shall assign to each the status due to his nature and thrust them out among the artisans or the farmers.
And again, if from these there is born a son with unexpected gold or silver in his composition they shall honour such and bid them go up higher, some to the office of guardian, some to the assistanceship, alleging that there is an oracle that the state shall then be overthrown when the man of iron or brass is its guardian. Do you see any way of getting them to believe this tale?”
“No, not these themselves,” he said, “but I do, their sons and successors and the rest of mankind who come after.” “Well,” said I, “even that would have a good effect making them more inclined to care for the state and one another. For I think I apprehend your meaning. XXII. And this shall fall out as tradition guides.”Plato, Republic III, 415
In this subject as in others the best method of investigation is to study things in the process of development from the beginning. The first coupling together of persons then to which necessity gives rise is that between those who are unable to exist without one another: for instance the union of female and male for the continuance of the species (and this not of deliberate purpose, but with man as with the other animals and with plants there is a natural instinct to desire to leave behind one another being of the same sort as oneself); and the union of natural ruler and natural subject for the sake of security (for he that can foresee with his mind is naturally ruler and naturally master, and he that can do these things with his body is subject and naturally a slave; so that master and slave have the same interest).
Thus the female and the slave are by nature distinct (for nature makes nothing as the cutlers make the Delphic knife, in a niggardly way, but one thing for one purpose; for so each tool will be turned out in the finest perfection, if it serves not many uses but one). Yet among barbarians the female and the slave have the same rank; and the cause of this is that barbarians have no class of natural rulers, but with them the conjugal partnership is a partnership of female slave and male slave.Aristotle, Politics, 1,5
John Adams (1735–1826) was America’s first Vice-President (1789–1797), and second President (1797–1801).
I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation. If I were an atheist, and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations. If I were an atheist of the other sect, who believe or pretend to believe that all is ordered by chance, I should believe that chance had ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization.President John Adams to F. A. Vanderkemp, February 16, 1809, in The Works of John Adams, ed. C. F. Adams, vol. 9, pp. 609–10
Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), author of “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina”, was perhaps the greatest novelist of all time. In 1877 he had an intense religious experience and thereafter devoted most of his life to religion and a new vision of society which influenced some of the early Zionists, as well as Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
The Jew is that sacred being who has brought down from heaven the everlasting fire and has illuminated with it the entire world. He is the religious source, spring and fountain out of which all the rest of the peoples have drawn their beliefs and their religions . . . The Jew is the emblem of eternity. He whom neither slaughter nor torture of thousands of years could destroy, he whom neither fire nor sword nor inquisition was able to wipe off the face of the earth, he who was the first to produce the oracles of God, he who has been for so long the guardian of prophecy, and who has transmitted it to the rest of the world – such a nation cannot be destroyed. The Jew is as everlasting as eternity itself.Letter found in the archives of the Bulgarian statesman F. Gabai. Text in Allan Gould, What Did They Think of the Jews, pp. 180–181
Paul Johnson (b. 1928) is a Catholic historian, former editor of the New Statesman, and author of “A History of the Jews”, from which these passages are taken.
No people has ever insisted more firmly than the Jews that history has a purpose and humanity a destiny. At a very early stage in their collective existence they believed they had detected a Divine scheme for the human race, of which their own society was to be a pilot. They worked out their role in immense detail. They clung to it with heroic persistence in the face of savage suffering. Many of them believe it still. Others transmuted it into Promethean endeavors to raise our condition by purely human means. The Jewish vision became the prototype for many similar grand designs for humanity, both divine and man-made. The Jews, therefore, stand right at the center of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of a purpose . . .
All the great conceptual discoveries of the intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they have been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time. The Jews had this gift. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without the Jews it might have been a much emptier place.Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, p. 2 and p. 585
Thomas Cahill (b. 1940), a Catholic historian, studied Judaism for two years in preparation for his book “The Gifts of the Jews”, from which the following passages are taken.
The Jews started it all – and by ‘it’ I mean so many of the things we care about, the underlying values that make all of us, Jew and gentile, believer and atheist, tick. Without the Jews, we would see the world through different eyes, hear with different ears, even feel with different feelings . . .
For better or worse, the role of the West in humanity’s history is singular. Because of this, the role of the Jews, the inventors of Western culture, is also singular: there is simply no one else remotely like them; theirs is a unique vocation. Indeed, as we shall see, the very idea of vocation, of a personal destiny, is a Jewish idea.
The Jews gave us the Outside and the Inside – our outlook and our inner life. We can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact – new, adventure, surprise; unique, individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice – are the gifts of the Jews.Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews, p. 3 and pp. 240–41
The concept of Chosenness and the approach taken by Rabbi Sacks, can also be connected to universal themes that are relevant to issues in wider contemporary society which are explored in the writings and thought of Rabbi Sacks. Here are some further resources and readings that are examples of this, organised according to theme:
- The Politics of Hope (book)
- The Politics of Hope (animated video)
- Beyond the Politics of Anger (The Daily Telegraph)
- The Home We Build Together (book)
- The Home We Build Together (animated video)
The Universal and the Particular
- Not in God’s Name (Book – especially Ch. 11: The Universality of Justice, the Particularity of Love)
- Covenant & Conversation, Parshat Yitro: Particular Paths to a Universal God
- Video: Rabbi Sacks on Particular vs Universal (JInsider)
The Dignity of Difference
- The Dignity of Difference (Book – especially Ch. 3: The Dignity of Difference: Exorcizing Plato’s Ghost)
- Rabbi Sacks on The Dignity of Difference (Videos, Part 1 and Part 2 (JInsider)
- The Dignity of Difference: 2007 Kenan Institute for Ethics Distinguished Lecture (Video)
Suggested Lesson Plan on Chosenness
The following lesson plan is a suggestion of how some of the resources contained in this unit could be incorporated into a 60-minute class period for a high-school age class. This will focus solely on the thought of Rabbi Sacks. If you wish to incorporate the broader secular sources and the other contemporary Jewish thinkers into your class, more than sixty minutes will be necessary.
Download our 60-minute class outline for high-school age students.
Bet Nidrash on Choseness
Having completed your study of this topic, you may wish to embark with your students on a “Bet Nidrash” on the topic, a practical project based on what you have learned and discussed. The term “Bet Nidrash” is a play on the term Bet Midrash (study hall) replacing the word for study (Midrash) with the word Nidrash, which means “required” or an “imperative”. This suggests that one’s study should not be just for its own sake, but rather a means to an end, to improve oneself and the world around us. Rabbi Sacks’ philosophy and writings were always focused not on the theoretical, but on the deeply practical. He urged for the ideas he wrote about to be implemented outside of the walls of the Bet Midrash, in the real world.
Brainstorm with your students a project in the wider community that would achieve the following goals (based on the values discussed in this unit):
- Allow your students to model Torah values
- Achieve some kind of Tikkun Olam (improving society)
- Demonstrate the Dignity of Difference by honouring diversity in the community