It was unprecedented. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, was being accused of heresy. Rabbi Sacks had written the book The Dignity of Difference, right after 9/11, in search of a solution for religious violence. But some ultra-Orthodox critics saw the book as "irreconcilable" with Jewish dogma. Two leading British Charedi rabbis placed an ad in the Jewish Chronicle, and stated that the book was “a grave deviation from the pathways of traditional and authentic Judaism.” They issued a public demand that Sacks “repudiate the thesis of the book and withdraw the book from circulation.”
Abraham Sees Sodom in Flames, circa 1896–1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot
What had caused this controversy? Sacks’s words insinuated that there are multiple equally valid religions. To fend off the growing controversy, Sacks made several changes to the book, which was then reprinted. He removed references to evolution, and a reference to God sometimes appearing as female; but most critical were changes to his view of God’s relationship to other religions. Sacks’s original book had contained the passage, “God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to the Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims . . . God is the God of all humanity, but no single faith is or should be the faith of all humanity.” To his critics, this sounded like Sacks was saying that Judaism is not “absolute truth,” and God had revealed himself through other religions. Sacks changed it in the paperback edition to: “God communicates in human language, but there are dimensions of the divine that must forever elude us. As Jews we believe that God has made a covenant with a singular people, but that does not exclude the possibility of other peoples, cultures, and faiths finding their own relationship with God within the shared frame of the Noahide laws.” A corresponding correction dealt directly with the notion of the Jews being the chosen people. In the original it said: “God no more wants all faiths and cultures to be the same than a loving parent wants his or her children to be the same”; this clashes with the belief in chosenness, one that sees the Jews uniquely beloved by God. In the revised edition, Sacks changed this to: “Just as a loving parent is pained by sibling rivalry, so God asks us, his children, not to fight or seek to dominate one another.” With these revisions, the controversy died down.
Our Torah reading contains the first mention of chosenness in Tanakh: “Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples …” (In Devarim 7:6, the notion of being treasured is explicitly defined as being chosen.) In both this verse and many other contexts, chosenness is connected to the covenant; this is found as well in the daily blessing over the Torah, “Blessed are You God ... Who chose us from among all the nations and gave us His Torah …” The Jews were chosen by God to accept the Torah and create a unique covenant with Him.
But why are Jews the chosen people? To some, like the Zohar and Yehuda HaLevi, chosenness is an expression of superiority; God chose the Jews and gave them the gift of prophecy, because Jews have unique souls and spiritual capacities.
This depiction of chosenness is easy to criticize. Mordecai Kaplan removed any references to chosenness in the first Reconstructionist Prayerbook. He wrote that the concept of chosenness was an anachronism, and for Jews to continue to accept it today would be unethical. To believe that Jews are the chosen people in the 20th century is “self-infatuation.” However, Kaplan does grant that perhaps chosenness made sense in the past, as "a psychological defense" to counteract the humiliation of anti-Semitism. Less charitable were the comments of George Bernard Shaw; the famous playwright, who was an admirer of fascism, would assert that the Nazi policies were merely a copy of the Jewish belief in a chosen people. To assert a tangible difference between Jews and non-Jews opens one to accusations of racism. Even a more benign view of chosenness, that God simply has a unique love of the Jews, looks like chauvinism, a subtle assertion of superiority.
Sacks is certainly concerned with the question of chauvinism, but he is worried about a far larger problem. Chosenness is a type of exclusivism, the belief that only one religion or group matters. But that leads to the question: If God is the master of the universe, why doesn’t he have a relationship with all of humanity? And if only Judaism contains “absolute truth,” why was that denied to most of the world? Julian the Apostate, the fourth century Roman emperor who rejected Christianity, wrote a polemic against Christianity called “Against the Galileans.” In it, he critiques the beliefs of Christianity and Judaism, and attacks the notion of chosenness. Julian wonders why God only cares about Jews, and not Romans like himself: “For if he is the God of all of us alike, and the creator of all, why did he neglect us?” The great issue with exclusivism is that it actually diminishes God. Instead of being God of the universe, God ends up becoming the exclusive province of a small group of people.
Sacks places this theological issue front and center. First and foremost, he emphasizes the seven laws of Noah, a covenant that God made with all of humanity after the Flood. This makes it clear that God is the God of all humanity and that God has never neglected any of his children. But he also emphasizes God’s transcendence, which he notes is greater than religion. Belief in a transcendent God automatically leads one to recognize the importance of all humanity.
After the controversy, Sacks issued a 117-page sourcebook in response to his critics. The opening quote is from Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, who talks about the reaction of those who are inspired by the love of God. Rav Kook writes: “When these love-possessed people see the world … they feel and know that the nearness of G-d, for which they yearn, can only lead them to joining themselves with all and for the sake of all. When they confront the human scene, and find divisions among nations, religions, parties, with goals in conflict, they endeavor with all their might to bring all together, to mend and to unite.” Belief in God is greater than one religion; it should bring everyone to search for unity, and bring humanity together.
Sacks’s writing is carefully nuanced, which leaves room for the imagination. His critics believed he was advocating religious pluralism, the belief that all religions have a small piece of the truth, and all are equally valid. This was clearly not Sacks’s intent. And pluralism is in many ways theological suicide: Why follow the beliefs of one religion, if it's just one of multiple truth choices? As Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik notes in a letter, Judaism recognizes that all of humanity can find salvation in their own way. But then he writes, "However, this tolerant philosophy of transcendental universalism does not exclude the specific awareness of the Jews of the supremacy of their faith over all others. As a matter of fact, the act of praising the worth of one's particular religious experience ... constitutes the very essence of the transcendental performance ... The homo religiosus is convinced that his unique relationship with God is the noblest and finest, and is ready to bring the supreme sacrifice for the preservation of his religious identity... This is exactly the standpoint of the halakha which maintains that, while it is forbidden to impose our faith upon others by force, it is our sacred duty to defend our convictions against any onslaught, even at the expense of our very lives.” Pluralism would make a mockery of the sacrifices of medieval Jewish martyrs.
Rav Soloveitchik and Rabbi Sacks recognize that Judaism embraces universalism and particularism all at once; God is the God of all humanity, and God is the God of the Jewish people Who gave us the Torah. This desire to grab onto both beliefs at the same time should not be surprising. God is both our King and our Father. He is the transcendent creator of the universe, and the loving companion with whom we commune in prayer. But these two perspectives remain at tension with each other; and this makes the concept of chosenness particularly complicated.
How does one reconcile Judaism’s embrace of universalism and particularism? One response is the doctrine of mission, that Jews are chosen to be an or l'amim, a "light unto the nations," to bring ethical monotheism into the world. God cares about all humanity, which is why He chose the Jews for a special mission of education. Our Torah reading reminds us that God chose the Jews to be a “nation of priests”; and in their commentaries to this verse, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman emphasize that the Jews were chosen to bring God's word to all of humanity.
This view has been criticized from both sides of the chosenness debate; on one side, Kaplan calls the idea of a Jewish mission “spiritual imperialism.” From the other side, some wonder how to square a universal mission with a God-given national homeland tucked away in a small corner of the earth; before modern travel and communication, how would Jews embark on their mission? Despite these criticisms, I have always embraced this view, because it has offered me profound inspiration.
This past week, our community collected supplies for the victims of the Bronx fire. I was privileged to join a group of Ramaz students, led by Deeni Hass, the Upper School's Coordinator of Chesed and Outreach, to deliver the supplies to the Islamic Community Center of the Bronx, the mosque attended by virtually all the families. We were met there by Meyer Appel, the founder of the interfaith coalition The Bridge, who brought with him representatives of the Chasidic, Haitian, and Pakistani communities. As we brought the boxes into the mosque, we spoke to members of the mosque and saw the impact our very presence made, and we walked away feeling like we had received far more than what we have given. Carrying the supplies, I felt like I was emulating the actions of Avraham and Sarah 3,800 years ago, to offer help, care and love to all humanity. To believe in God is to believe in goodness.
Standing on 166th Street in the Bronx, we were doing what God chose us to do.