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Particularism and Universalism (1)

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg

PART I:  The Chosen People

            The chaver's opening statements lead the Kuzari king to a disturbing conclusion.  He becomes convinced that in the Jewish view, the Torah's underlying principle - namely, the encounter with God via history - is irrelevant to him as a Gentile.  As a consequence, he rebels against the chaver's seemingly racist stance [A:28].  This conflict re-awakens a central query which has concerned us throughout our perusal of the book: Does not this emphasis on nationalism and particularism imply that the Torah was meant solely for the Jewish people, and thus has no universal significance?  To resolve this problem, we must discover the true meaning of the concept "the chosen people."


            The idea of chosenness is both one of the most central and one of the most difficult in Judaism, and it is therefore not surprising that the Kuzari king puzzles over its meaning.  To elucidate this issue, let us use as our starting point the book of Bereishit (Genesis), in which the initial paradox emerges.  In it we meet Avraham, whose call to monotheism rang out to all the nations of the world.  Avraham's basic message is universal in character.  On the other hand, it is he who witnesses and in fact precipitates the development of the two concepts which appear completely opposed to universalism: the distinctness of the Jewish People and of the Land of Israel.  And indeed, at the dawn of religious history, we find ourselves faced with the strange and surprising phenomenon of a universal Torah which nevertheless designates one people and one land as unique.  This is indeed a paradox, and we must therefore begin our search at its root.


            We will focus initially on the first-mentioned aspect: the uniqueness of the Jewish people.  How must we understand the concept of a chosen people?  We will cover a number of approaches to this question which have appeared throughout the history of Jewish thought.  The opinions do not necessarily contradict one another; nonetheless, we must distinguish between them, as a very basic difference of opinion has surrounded this issue for generations.


Chosenness: Acceptance of the Torah


            One possible way to understand the connection between universalism and uniqueness lies in the intuitive and fundamental comprehension of our national destiny which finds succinct expression in our liturgy: "[God] chose us from among the nations and gave us His Torah."  It is our acceptance of the Torah which bestows upon us our unique status.  Our distinction, then, is to be found in the fact that we must brave the persistent ridicule and opposition of the rest of the world in order to hold fast to what we know to be the eternal truth.  That, and only that, makes us chosen.


            We can understand this definition of chosenness with the aid of a simple parable.  Let us imagine a fish who must swim upstream in order to reach the place to lay its eggs.  Our fish sees all the other fish swimming in the opposite direction.  They swim effortlessly, carried by the current.  However, our fish is propelled forward by the imperative of its special mission.  Allow me to emphasize that we are speaking not of elitism, but of chosenness.  A sense of chosenness is necessary to maintain the momentum of any organism which dares to swim against the current.  Any other explanation of the concept of chosenness is, according to this approach, irrelevant, for we are no different from any other nation save in the mission which we have pledged to fulfill - the preservation of the Torah.


            In some liberal or secular versions of this approach, the underlying concept was applied not to Torah in its entirety but rather to certain sections of it, particularly its moral code.  These opinions emphasize the existence of a unique Jewish morality and claim that our chosenness finds expression in the Jewish people's special sensitivity to moral problems.  This approach was championed by Achad Ha'am and other thinkers in Eastern and Western Europe.


The Chosen Nation Rebels


            Before I begin to present an alternate approach, I would like to note briefly the transformation which has taken place in relation to the concept of chosenness in certain circles of modern Jewish thought.  Some thinkers disapproved of the very employment of the term "chosen people."  The concept was considered morally repugnant, since it sets us apart and causes us to view ourselves as different and perhaps better than others.  As an example I will mention Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, a non-Orthodox Jewish group, who made one of his chief concerns the battle against the concept of chosenness.  We also find many in the Zionist camp who defined Zionism's mission through the ideal of becoming similar to all other nations.  The goal, as they saw it, was to achieve national "normalization" and thus destroy the concept of a chosen people.  One recent expression of this tendency can be found in the works of A. B. Yehoshua, who claims that our historical pretensions to a mysterious mission have caused us to fashion our state as a framework for Jewish religious existence - but such a state cannot be normal.


            This approach, which turns its back upon the "myth of chosenness," is seemingly healthy, well-adjusted and feasible.  It was a dream shared by Zionists and assimilationists alike.  However, tragic modern history has shown us that Jewish chosenness was a reality even for those who attempted to escape it.  The most painful expression of this fact is found in the assimilated Jews who were forced by Nazism to reassume their Jewish identity.  The poet Natan Alterman wrote a piece about this phenomenon entitled "Ata Bechartanu" (You Have Chosen Us).  It contains an ironic attack upon the belief in chosenness, but concludes with a new perspective gained by those who finally understood history's lesson.


(This lecture was translated by Gila Weinberg.)


Copyright (c)1996 Prof. Shalom Rosenberg, Yeshivat Har Etzion.  All rights reserved.


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