Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ki Tavo 5762/2002

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Paarashat Ki Tavo 5762/ August 24, 2002


Is the Concept of a Chosen People Racist?


Dr. Hava Eshkoli


Parshat Ki Tavo (Deut. 26-29) is one of the central passages describing the essence of the Jewish people and their bond to the land.   This week’s reading (and the parallel passage in Leviticus 25) forecasts all that has happened to our people since they went into exile:  dispersal among the nations, anti-Semitic attacks, persecution, annihilation, yet ultimately also survival.

It is fitting to devote a few words to the concept of a “treasured people” that appears in this week’s reading (Deut. 26:18-19):

And the Lord has affirmed this day that you are, as He promised you, His treasured people who shall observe all His commandments, and that He will set you, in fame and renown and glory, high above all the nations that He has made; and that you shall be, as He promised, a holy people to the Lord your G-d.

Great Jewish thinkers, including Yehudah Halevi, Shadal, and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, have attempted to clarify what it means to be chosen.  With the rise of modern racism in recent years, clarifying what is meant by this concept has become of greater current interest.  Various forces in the gentile world claim that the idea of being “chosen” or “treasured” reflects an extremist racist attitude.   Liberal Jews and Zionists also find these notions an embarrassment.  The idea that the Lord “chose us out of all the nations,” and certain discriminatory practices of the Halakhah regarding non-Jews, appear to them to contradict the fundamental rationalist notion that all human beings are born equal.

Is Judaism indeed founded on a nationalist-racist attitude?   Much evidence can be cited to show that Judaism’s world outlook is no less universalist (striving to improve all of mankind) than nationalist.  We present a sampling of these arguments here.

A.  The Torah stresses that the father of all mankind was created in the image of G-d.   In other words, the Torah is not confined to a nationalist approach, but sees the entire world, the human race in general, as the forerunners of our ancestors.   The Holy One, blessed be He, aspired to confer the Torah on all peoples, except that they rejected it.   In the end the Creator’s desire to bestow the Torah on the nations was fulfilled by the Jews accepting the responsibility to spread the spirit of the Torah to the entire world.  To this end the Torah was also given in seventy tongues.   The gentiles were obliged to observe only seven commandments, known as the “seven commandments of the descendants of Noah.”  Observing these seven precepts sufficed for those who upheld them to be called “righteous gentiles” and to be assured a place in the World to Come.   If gentiles should happen to transgress, they may benefit from the Lord’s mercy, since He is compassionate towards His creatures.   According to legend, the ministering angels rejoiced when they saw the Egyptians being drowned in the Red Sea.   The Lord reproved them, saying, “You dare to sing praises while the creatures that I made are drowning in the sea!”  The Lord commanded the prophet Jonah to warn the gentile inhabitants of Nineveh that He would imminently destroy the city if the populace did not cease their evil ways.

Nor have the Jews ever sought to rule or exploit other nations in the End of Days.  All they have sought is to be a spiritual center, spreading the light of morality to the nations of the world and helping them ascend to a higher level of sanctity.   “In the days to come, the Mount of the Lord’s House shall stand firm above the mountains and tower above the hills; and all the nations shall gaze on it with joy.   And the many peoples shall go and say:   “Come, Let us go up to the Mount of the Lord, to the House of the G-d of Jacob; that He may instruct us in His ways, and that we may walk in His paths.”  For instruction shall come forth from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Is. 2:2-3).

B.  Judaism is not a closed club, rather it takes into its ranks anyone who converts.   The Bible commands, “There shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger [Heb. ger]” (Num. 15:16); “You too must befriend the stranger” (Deut. 10:19).   This week’s reading says emphatically, “And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that the Lord your G-d has bestowed upon you and your household” (Deut. 26:11).   According to the Sages, “The Holy One, blessed be He, exiled Israel to dwell among the nations for no other reason than to acquire proselytes [Heb. ger]).”   Although they also said, “Proselytes are hard on the Jews as a canker,” Rabbi Abraham the Proselyte interpreted this as meaning the opposite:  that since the proselytes are far more punctilious than the Jews in their observance of the commandments, therefore they arouse the Lord’s wrath towards the Jews.   In the legends of the Sages, as well, we note that many great Jewish figures, including such people as Shemaiah and Avtalion, Rabbi Meir and Onkelos, actually descended from proselytes.   Moreover, King David was a descendant of Ruth the Moabite.

C.  Israel was chosen to be the Lord’s treasured people not in order to give the Jewish people special rights, but to impose on them special responsibilities.   These responsibilities – the 613 commandments with all their accrued hedges and restrictions – reflect the Torah’s inclination towards elevating reality to the level of the divine.   Hence the strictness of Jewish morality and the protective attitude toward the weak (the stranger, the orphan and the widow).  According to Rav Kook, that Israel is chosen means that the Jews do not view morality as coercively imposed from the outside, but rather as an expression of their deepest aspirations, i.e., the result of matching the will of the nation to the word of G-d.  In this respect the Jewish people are like a “nation of priests,” whose obligations outweigh their rights.   Moreover, the behavior of the Jewish people is under constant supervision and promise of reward or punishment:   “But if you do not obey the Lord your G-d to observe faithfully all His commandments and laws which I enjoin upon you this day, all these curses shall come upon you and take effect” (Deut. 28:16).  Judah Halevi described the status of the Jews in relationship to other nations as the heart is to the other parts of the body.  The heart, he explained, is subject to the most ailments of all the organs, yet is also the most endowed with health; in other words, it is subject to greater risks, but has more strength to withstand than do the others.

The Jewish notion of a chosen people is diametrically opposed to the racist-Darwinist approach, that drew inferences from the laws of the jungle to human society and concluded, accordingly, that the stronger have every right to trample the weaker.  The Nazis implemented this rule not only with respect to other races, but also towards weaker elements within the Arian race itself.  

In conclusion, the Jewish notion of a chosen people is very far from the modern concept of racism.  The Torah, the teaching of the Jews, was the first to set forth the idea of the racial unity of mankind.  The one-ness of mankind follows logically from the one-ness of the Creator.   One can enter the Jewish people not only by being born to a Jewish mother but also by conversion.   The notion of a “chosen people” means that the Jews have an obligation to serve as an example of a nation that lives by high moral values and in this respect is a light unto the nations.   Nor does the Jewish belief in future Redemption have any aspirations towards subjugating other nations, nor certainly any desire to annihilate them.  The essence of the collective Jewish soul is love of mankind.   The Sages taught us, “Israel are regarded fondly, for they are the Lord’s children,” but at the same time, “Man is regarded fondly, for he is created in the image of G-d.”   All that Judaism seeks is that the Jews be let alone and not hindered in fulfilling their obligations, and that everyone acknowledge the presence of G-d in the world and recognize His will.