Culture

Why Do Jews Struggle with Chosenness?

I have no interest in seeing Ridley Scott’s epic IMAX 3-D meisterwerk Exodus: Gods and Kings. Why would I want to spend money on a “gloriously junky” movie that turns my history into a collection of high-tech special effects laced together by a biased, biblically-inaccurate script? Yet, for however lousy the movie itself might be, it has inspired some interesting commentary on Jewish peoplehood from Emma Green over at the Atlantic. For Green, the film inspired a polemic that highlights the seemingly eternal struggle Jews have with the idea of being called out, that is to say “chosen” by God.

I’ve always found this to be rather asinine as far as ideological burdens go. Most people struggle to find their purpose in life. Jews are born into it. We are here to bring God’s teachings into the world in order to make this earth a better place. This chosen status, this calling doesn’t make us any better than anyone else. It simply gives us a job to do, a role that manifests itself through every aspect of existence, every academic discipline, every profession we’ve ever encountered. Whether we’re religious or not, or politically Left or Right, we (for the most part) are bent on doing our part to make the world a better place. Which is probably why those who hate us the most love to rub our chosenness in our face, intimidating the Emma Greens among us into second guessing our God-given responsibility.

Perhaps the anti-Semitic claim that chosenness is prejudicial is what leads Jews like Emma Green to conclude that being chosen is a burden of difference and inequality, a way of saying “we’re special and you’re not.” Citing the massacre of the Egyptians in Exodus (something Scott apparently sympathizes with more than the 400 years of slavery and mandatory murder of all firstborn males suffered by the Hebrews), Green writes:

For some Jews, this may just be part of the truth they embrace as believers—that the world we live in is unfair, and unjust, and unequal, but by birthright, the Jewish people have a covenant with God. For me, at least, it’s unsettling—and an undeniably relevant moral challenge. Must the freedom of the Jews come at the price of others’ lives?

This is an idiotic question in more ways than one. Should any enslaved population remain persecuted for the sake of their masters’ lives? Moreover, if Green had any sense of biblical history she’d acknowledge the fact that a mixed multitude — both Hebrew and Egyptian — ran from Pharoah’s imperial army. In reality, the Hebrew movement for freedom saved countless gentile lives alongside Jewish ones. Chosenness, therefore, isn’t just a birthright, but a “lead by example” mentality that encourages others to join in the struggle and be inheritors of the promise.

God did not command, and we did not choose the mere “freedom of the Jews” in the Exodus. Rather, the very concept of humanity’s freedom was and is our pursuit through every action we take. The Bible tells us so through a cadre of mitzvot, morality plays and historical chronicles. And how do we know the Bible tells us this? Because thousands of years ago the ancestors of those Hebrew slaves started recording this journey for us.

The truth is that were the Hebrews not chosen by God to lead the way, concepts like monotheism, not stealing, not murdering, not coveting, and honoring your parents might be rather foreign to us today, these thousands of years later. We can try to argue that human civilization would have come to these conclusions in some Darwinian, survival-of-the-intellectual-fittest sort of way. That argument could, of course, be easily countered by the fact that Darwin’s apostle concluded the exact opposite to the point of wanting to wipe the Jews and their allies from the face of the earth. Survival of the fittest, indeed.

Green’s conclusion remains as obnoxiously ignorant of these facts as it is of Jewish biblical history:

“What happens when we start running?” Moses asks Aaron. It’s a confusing line, one that seems to imply meaning more than communicate it. But given the history of the Jews, a people pursued, cursed, oppressed, and set apart from others everywhere they’ve gone, it’s a heady implication. Even in ancient Egypt, Scott seems to say, Moses understood that the Jews would be a people who flee—and that this pursuit of freedom sometimes comes with moral complications.

If Scott’s Moses was of any biblical worth, he would’ve answered his brother with the promise given to their forefather Abraham centuries prior: “When we run, we run to the promised land.” We are not “people who flee.” We are people who lead the way in pursuing God’s promise, usually at great personal cost. No one was more fully aware of the “moral complications” of the pursuit of freedom than the Exodus generation whose lack of faith resulted in 40 years of desert-wandering. Neither they nor Moses entered the Promised Land, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, the two scouts who didn’t balk at God’s promise or wrestle with their chosen status. They were the leaders who took the children of the mixed multitude into the land to inherit the promise and carry on the responsibilities that came with responding to the call of the chosen.

Long before educators began to examine differentiated instruction, God knew not everyone would learn through reading. Most would learn by example. For better and worse, on Sinai we Jews accepted that we are this example. To struggle against our chosenness is to fight against the covenant we made with God for the blessing of all humanity. Instead of berating our role, we (and the rest of the world) should praise God for the many blessings that continue to result from our willingness to fulfill our covenant responsibility. Whether it’s giving hope to the hopeless or a voice to the voiceless, our chosenness continues to make this world a better place. And there is nothing more holy or more worthy — and worthy of celebrating — than that.