Rabbi’s Weekly Message

Rabbi’s Message, Feb.4, 2024

The Most Misunderstood Concept in Judaism

Illustration: An illustration of the Chosen People, in Reuven Hammer, “How odd of God…” Jerusalem Post, Nov. 21, 2017. Photo Credit: Pepe Fainberg


            What is this concept? Hint: Antisemites seize on it to justify their Jew hatred.  Some Jewish Progressives eliminate it—I will argue, erroneously-- because they feel it ill accords with their understanding of essential Judaism.  Even some traditional Jews misunderstand and misapply it, either out of chauvinism or as a kind of scar tissue, a defense mechanism engendered by centuries of experience, enduring bigotry and oppression.
            Again, what is this concept? The identification of the Israelites as the so-called “Chosen People.” The Hebrew phrase in question is      .
            I say “so-called” because the entire discussion rests on a doubtful translation. Here is the biblical passage that serves as the textual basis of the concept, Exodus 19:4-6. The setting is Mt. Sinai. The recently-emancipated Israelites have journeyed in the Sinai for a month-plus from the Sea of Reeds and have arrived at the foot of the mountain. Moses has climbed the mountain to encounter God, and God tells him to say the following to the people:

אַתֶּ֣ם רְאִיתֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִׂ֖יתִי לְמִצְרָ֑יִם וָאֶשָּׂ֤א אֶתְכֶם֙ עַל־כַּנְפֵ֣י נְשָׁרִ֔ים וָאָבִ֥א אֶתְכֶ֖ם אֵלָֽי׃
וְעַתָּ֗ה אִם־שָׁמ֤וֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ֙ בְּקֹלִ֔י וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֑י וִהְיִ֨יתֶם לִ֤י סְגֻלָּה֙ מִכׇּל־הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים כִּי־לִ֖י כׇּל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃
וְאַתֶּ֧ם תִּהְיוּ־לִ֛י מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹשׁ אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תְּדַבֵּ֖ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל

            The recent translation of Robert Alter avoids the term, “Chosen People” and elucidates what the Hebrew term segulah actually suggests:
“…Thus shall you tell to the Israelites: ‘You yourselves saw what I did to Egypt, and I bore you on the wings of eagles and I brought you to Me. And now, if you will truly heed My voice and keep My covenant, you will become for Me a treasure among all the peoples, for Mine is all the earth. And as for you, you will become for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”

            In line with the medieval Jewish Bible commentators, Alter renders the Hebrew word segulah as “treasure.” The word is uncommon, but as the commentator Rashi points out, it is used precisely with the meaning “treasure” in Ecclesiastes 2:8, where segulat melakhim means “treasure of kings.”
            What is gained by this more precise understanding?
            The context of the term in our Exodus passage is God telling Moses that the Israelites have the opportunity to enter into an unparalleled relationship with God.  Put it in neutral, historical terms: the Israelites had the opportunity to become the first monotheistic faith in world history.  That is not chauvinism. It is a matter of historical record.  The history of religions begins with animism and progresses—if progresses is the word—to polytheism. Monotheism is a late arrival in the history of human religious expression.
            As a theological matter, Judaism is tolerant of polytheism as practiced by the other nations of the world.  In Deuteronomy 4:19, we have the remarkable admission by Moses that “the LORD allotted them [the sun, moon and stars] to all the peoples under the Heaven [as objects of worship]; only the Israelites are commanded to have no other gods but the One. The strictures leveled against polytheism in the Bible are a result of the horrible lack of ethics as practiced by the polytheists of the day, up to and including child sacrifice.
            The Israelites, then, have the opportunity to be different from the entire unethical world. By virtue of accepting the covenant that God is offering, they can create, for the first time in history, a society where people are equal under the law. That first-ever conformity with God’s plan is what will make them treasured. It is not racial or ethnic.  It is about living as God wants all humans ultimately to live. It is about becoming the first historical concretization of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.
            That is the nuance of “becoming God’s treasured people.” As is suggested by the covenant God gave all humanity—meaning the family of Noah—after the Flood, God wants people to acknowledge their common kinship, to live in peace, to love and respect each other.  At the time of the Exodus, no society had followed that covenant.    Precisely because they had been the “have nots”, the enslaved chattel of the Egyptian Pharaoh, the tribes of Israel  had the historical experience necessary to become radically different.
            The conclusion of the short speech at Sinai makes this clear.  God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites that if they accept this covenant, they will become “A kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”  This short phrase is telling.  Which priests would the Israelites have known? Israelites did not have a hereditary priesthood yet. The generation standing at Sinai would have been familiar with Egyptian priests.  Those priests were—according to Genesis 47:22—the only free people in Egypt.  All other Egyptians had become the property of the Pharaoh during the years of famine. To be a kingdom of priests means to belong to a society where all people were free, and therefore enjoyed the same privileged status under God’s law.
            To understand how radical this concept was, consider the inequality of people in the eyes of the law, according to the major powers of that day.  In every category of law in the Code of Hammurabi, the noble enjoyed greater legal protection and status than the merely free man, and the enslaved person, least of all.  In Egypt, the inequality was even greater, for the Pharaoh was hailed as a God incarnate, and no protection of the law would protect a subject from the whims of the Pharaoh.
            This stark difference between Israelite law and the law of its neighbors is made clear in the treatment of the fugitive slave. In Hammurabi’s code, a person could be put to death for not returning a fugitive slave to its owner. (#16—“If a man harbor in his house a male or female slave who has fled from the palace or from a freeman, and does not bring him forth at the call of the commandant, the owner of that house shall be put to death.”) Egypt was built on slavery.  But in the Bible, and only in the Bible, it is a commandment not to return a fugitive slave to its master, but rather to shelter the fugitive and allow that person to reside at will among any Israelite settlement. (Deuteronomy 23:16)
            The Bible is filled with denunciations of the Israelites for not living up to this ideal of the equality of all before God’s law.  If the “Chosen People” concept had been about a supposed ethnic privilege, those denunciations would never have ensued. Precisely because being treasured by God means being different from the sinful majority of humans, whenever the Israelites chose the immoral path taken by others, the prophets were unsparing in criticism: “You alone have I known among the families of the earth; therefore, I hold you to account for all your sins.” (Amos 3:2)


Illustration: CBS News, “How far have we come on the arc of justice?” Sept 20, 2016

             Dr. King famously declared that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” God’s plan for humans gains ground, however slowly, and the ideals given to humankind at Sinai are now known to many, if only imperfectly followed. Every branch of the human family has the opportunity to be treasured. Israel was the first born of that family. But for all, Jew and Gentile alike, becoming God’s treasure remains a work in progress.  
            “V’yamlikh malkhutei b’chayeikhon uv’yomeikhon”—As we say in the Kaddish prayer, “may God’s kingdom be concretized in our lifetimes, in our day”—truly, an ideal to be treasured.