Chosenness as Motivator

ONE OF THE MORE CONTROVERSIAL aspects of traditional Judaism is the idea that “Jews are the Chosen People.” Some (both Jew and non-Jew) take this to mean “superior” in some way (I’m looking at you, Grandma), and use it as an(other) excuse to resent and revile us; some Jews are so uncomfortable with the notion that they go so far as to pretend it doesn’t exist.

I can certainly sympathize with their discomfort, but as a Religious Agnostic, I’m not sure that that isn’t throwing out the baby with the holy bathwater.

Full disclosure: I don’t believe in a G?d Who plays favorites or makes distinctions between one branch of Homo sapiens and another, or even between Homo sapiens and the other animals. But I think there may be some value in thinking there is — at least, a little bit.

For one thing, it’s almost universal. Nearly every known human culture can make the case for its own exceptionalism (except maybe the Hopi); many, but not all, do take it as a claim for superiority. The case for Jewish exceptionalism (“a kingdom of priests and a holy people”) can be traced back to Genesis 18:19, where G?d says to G?dself about the patriarch Abraham:

For I’ve known him for the purpose that he’ll command his children and his house after him, and they’ll keep יהוה’s way, to do righteousness and justice, and for the purpose of יהוה’s bringing upon Abraham what He spoke about him.

In other words, if Abraham’s descendants will follow in his footsteps and do the right thing, G?d will “know” (have an intimate relationship with) them. Chosenness in this context means duty and obligation, not merit or perks. We’re here to serve as a good example — no more, no less.

To slightly paraphrase Robert Anton Wilson: If you go around thinking that G?d is watching over you, that attitude can effect some interesting changes in your psyche. You might worry less. You might raise the personal bar of your behavior, becoming more grateful, compassionate, humble, connected, etc. You might take life less for granted, seeing it as the amazing interconnected miracle it is.

Sure — you don’t need G?d as an excuse; some of my best friends (really!) are atheists, and they’re also some of the most awe-filled people I know. They also do the right thing, just because it is the right thing. But if you’re someone who believes in a deity-centered universe, doesn’t it make sense to act accordingly?

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