At this season, with just about six weeks until November 6th, it is important for me to speak about the election.
It is also important that the synagogue retain its tax exempt status, so, the election I want to speak about is the Election of Israel. I didn’t say the elections in Israel. I’ve no intention of interfering in the politics of another country, even Israel. When I say the Election of Israel I am using a term used by theologians and Biblical historians to refer to the notion of Israel as the Chosen people. Few concepts in Judaism are more controversial.
For some Jews, the idea that we are the chosen of God makes all the sense in the world. How else to explain our remarkable achievements in the face of persecution, our outstanding gifts to the world despite our small numbers? How else to understand the miraculous survival of the Jewish people for thousands of years in the face of innumerable attempts at our annihilation? No doubt you have received the same e-mail forwards as I have touting the percentage of Jewish university presidents or Nobel Prize winners, or PH.Ds per square mile in Israel.
I particularly like the story about the Russian military college where a renowned general gave a lecture to the graduating senior class. Then he accepted questions from the audience. One young man asked which country would be Russia’s next great enemy and the general answered that it would be China. The young man replied that in case they were doomed since China had so many billion people and Russian had only 200 million. How could they ever defend themselves? It would be a lost cause. “Nonsense,” said the general. “Consider the wars between Israel and the Arab nations. A few million Jews against nearly 100 million Arabs.” The student responded, “Yes, I know that history. But we don’t have that many Jews.” We love that. We talk about Yiddisher kupf and Jewish devotion to philanthropy, and we think we are just great.
Others Jews find the idea of Chosenness absolutely abhorrent. They see it as an outdated, offensive and divisive notion. Some say it is a major cause of anti-Semitism. The Reform and Reconstructionist movements have eliminated the concept from their theology and edited their prayer books to reflect that change. That is why you may hear some people recite the Torah blessing minus “Asher bachar banu”, “Who has chosen us,” and instead they say “Asher karvanu” “Who has brought us close to His service.”
From my perspective, both of these reactions reflect a profound misunderstanding of what it means to be God’s chosen people. In fact, we have misunderstood the idea of Chosenness since the very days of the prophets. Tonight I want to talk about the election of Israel, God’s choosing us to be His holy people, because this concept must be understood if we are to understand our Jewish identity. Last week I said that we Jews, who call ourselves Conservative, are very passionate about being Jewish. I think that’s clearly so. Just look at how many of us are gathered here on this holy night. But what does our being Jewish mean to us? And does it mean anything that our tradition speaks of our being a Chosen People? Chosen for what?
On Rosh Hashanah the hero of our Torah readings was Abraham, and that is where the story of the Chosenness of Israel truly begins. And it doesn’t matter what you think of Abraham, whether you believe that he actually existed, or you feel that he is a figure of Jewish mythology. The essential point is that Judaism has understood his story as the beginning of our story. My Christian colleagues talk about ‘being called,’ to their vocation and in reality, that is what happened to Abraham. He got ‘the call.’ God gave him a mission, and that is where it all began. It is important to note that as we read the Abraham stories, we see that he is a flawed character, in many ways far from perfect. I think his flaws were intentionally not edited out of the text. It tells us something vitally important: that a person does not have to be perfect to serve God. Abraham was not a perfect human; but he was a human willing to try his best to do God’s will.
There is one verse in the Torah text, just before Abraham has his famous negotiating session with God about saving the people of Sodom, that makes it very clear to me what it means to be a Jew. The Torah says, “I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right.” I love that verse and I am going to repeat it.
“I have singled him out,” that is the choosing.
“That he may instruct his children and his posterity,” that means us, whether you are a Jew by birth or a Jew-by-Choice, you are the posterity of Avraham Avinu, our father Abraham.
“To keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right.” “By doing what is just and right.” If that is our mission, what more needs to be said? That makes it crystal clear. To be chosen is no emblem of superiority; it is in fact a heavy responsibility.
We Jews have always had a hard time with that idea. It is so much more pleasant to see God’s choosing us as a star on our report card; as some sort of magical shield from injury. That would be nice, but it is not what our tradition tells us. Just look back at the prophets.
One of the most coveted Torah portions for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is Kedoshim, in the book of Leviticus. What excites the young boy or girl who has to get up on the bima is that the prophetic reading for that Shabbat, the Haftarah they will have to prepare, is just 9 verses long. Only 9 verses, but they are exceptionally powerful. The message of the prophet Amos contains the most basic and significant statement about the Chosenness of Israel that exists. He makes it very clear that Chosenness does not mean that God loves Israel more than the other nations. In that chapter Amos compares Israel to the Ethiopians. The verse says, “To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians. True, I brought you up from the Land of Egypt, but I also brought the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir.” In other words, God reaches out to all oppressed people. The prophet is telling us, “Don’t think you are so special because God redeemed you from Egyptian bondage.” That is not how it is to be understood. God redeemed you because you have a job to do, and people cannot be in the service of God as long as they are enslaved to flesh and blood taskmasters.
Another important message in this passage is that there is nothing exclusive about being the Chosen People. We do not claim that we are the proprietors of the only truth. Have you ever had a missionary come to your door, hand you six or seven different tracts, and tell you that you can study them all and decide which path to God you think is best for you? No, that will never happen. What we find so insulting about proselytizing, about missionaries who tell us that their gateway to heaven is the only door, is that it is saying “your way is defective.” What we find intolerable about radical Islamists who feel their way is the only correct path is that they too often use violence and kill people to make their point.
Some people familiar with Jewish liturgy point to the Aleynu prayer as proof that we too have that arrogance. You know how it begins “Aleynu l’shbayach la-adon hakol, latet gdulah l’yotzer bereshit –It is our duty to praise the Master of all, to acclaim the Creator.” We continue to chant that prayer in the Hebrew “Sh’lo ah-sanu k’goyeh ha-aratzot” I wonder how may Jews know the translation of that passage. It says, “God did not make us like the other nations and did not assign us a destiny like theirs; God did not make our lot like theirs nor our portion like that of all other people.” Many find that a very troublesome passage; it seems to smack of elitism. I understand that what the text is saying is that we Jews have a special role to play in the world. But appearances matter. The problem is that the words do sound arrogant and exclusivist.
Very often when I daven on weekday mornings I use the prayer book recently published by the Israeli Marsorti/Conservative movement. I like what they do with the Aleynu. Where the traditional text says “Sh’lo ah-sanu k’goyeh ha-aratzot – Who has not made us like the nations of the earth” the siddur provides an alternative passage. It is a verse from Micah. The prophet says, “For all people will walk every one in the name of his god, and we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.” I find that text so much more palatable. It says very clearly, “Our way is not the only way. It is the way for us.”
Amos, in an earlier chapter, says very clearly that the election of Israel was not a matter of privilege but rather a call to special responsibility. “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.” In other words, our Chosenness is more connected to our suffering than our reward. Tevye the Milkman in “Fiddler on the Roof” understood the nature of Chosenness well. He cried to the heavens, “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?” And then, he demonstrated that he truly understood what it meant to be chosen by setting out to invite a stranger to his home for Shabbat dinner.
Make no mistake: being chosen is no small matter. Jews were chosen to bring to the world God’s message: love your fellow as yourself, care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger, give to the poor, all people were created in the Divine image, and most importantly, always value life. In this way, Jews are chosen to be a “light unto the nations.”
There is no doubt that living a life of holiness in a society that is not only secular but in many ways profane, is a significant challenge. We live in a society that does not know the meaning of modesty, that sexualizes the marketing of just about anything, that puts materialism way above spirituality, and puts pleasure above responsibility – all values that are so contrary to the teachings of Judaism. It takes considerable backbone, and appreciation of a Jewish way of life, to swim against that very strong current. And that is what is being asked of us when God says that we are to be a ‘light unto the nations.’ But it is the role for which we were nominated and if we say, “If nominated I will not run and if elected I will not serve,” if we try to say that, we are being derelict in our duty as Jews.
The magnitude of this challenge has to give us tremendous admiration for Jews-by-Choice and for Baalei Teshuva, those who have chosen to adopt a life in which they take their covenantal responsibilities seriously.
Rabbi Sholomo Riskin tells a fascinating story. A young man from a secular background came to him to study and learn more about his heritage. Over time, the man became thoroughly observant and of course, Rabbi Riskin was very pleased. Then quite suddenly, the man stopped appearing at services, no longer attended study sessions, and just fell off the radar screen. Rabbi Riskin had no way to contact him and was quite worried. Then, some months later, the rabbi spotted the man in the market and approached him for an explanation. The man said this. “Rabbi, it was just too much. When I had to make decisions based on my own ideas and what my friends might think, I could manage. When I had to tailor my life to what I believed God would want of me, it was just more than I could take.”
In essence, this young man was choosing not be chosen. Now let me tell you a very different story.
Louis Brandeis was a student at Harvard Law School at a time when there were explicit limits on what Jews could hope to achieve. Quotas were in effect and many law offices were completely closed to Jewish attorneys. When Brandeis was in school, his colleagues would say, “Brandeis, you’re brilliant. If you weren’t a Jew, you could end up on the Supreme Court. Why don’t you convert? Then all of your problems would be solved.” Brandeis did not respond to such comments, but on the occasion of his official introduction to an exclusive honor society at the law school, Brandeis took the podium and announced, “I am sorry I was born a Jew.” His words were greeted with enthusiastic applause, shouts, and cheers. But when the noise died down he continued. “I’m sorry I was born a Jew, but only because I wish I had the privilege of choosing Judaism on my own.”
The initial response of stunned silence slowly gave way to awed applause. Ultimately, his anti-Semitic peers rose and gave him a standing ovation. In 1916, Louis Brandeis became the first Jew appointed to the United States Supreme Court.
So my friends, we all have to make a choice; the choice to be chosen. Some people say that in this very open society, we Jews are all Jews-by-Choice. To some extent that is true. But I find over and over again, we cannot escape our identity. Whatever you do in life, you are representing the Jewish people. Your actions reflect not only on you, but on all of us.
As you say your prayers in the next 24 hours, I want you to consider that choice. How do you understand being a Jew? What does it mean to you that the Jews are God’s chosen people? Accepting chosenness, in this age, in this world, means being a rebel. A wonderful young scholar who taught here two years ago, Rabbi David Hoffman, wrote these words.
From Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Isaiah to Rabbi Akivah and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in the 20th century, Judaism has never been about acceptance. The greatest teaching that Judaism offers the world is that the way things are is not the way things have to be. The course of our lives and the condition of the world are not inevitable realities. God, through the Torah’s commandments and the protest of the prophets, created a vision of the world as it was meant to be, but is not yet.
Each and every one of us stands in that chain of tradition. He continues: “This, perhaps, is the core religious commitment of a Jew: to live with an awareness of this sacred tension between the reality of our world and the dream of what it should be.”
Friends, that awareness is what it means to accept Chosenness. On this Yom Kippur, I challenge you to make that choice.