In the Torah portion of Mishpatim we read about the covenantal ceremony between God and the Jewish People in which the terms of the covenant are agreed to with the words, “All the things that the Lord has commanded we will do.”
The ceremony confirms the exclusive nature of the relationship that was declared previously, in Exodus 19:5, when God says, “If you will obey me faithfully and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all the people.”
The concept of the Jewish People chosen from among all the people is a substantial part of our everyday liturgy. Just a few examples are the Ahavah Rabah prayer, the blessings on reading the Torah and the Aleinu prayer.
I started to reflect on the exclusive nature of our covenant when, during my stay in the United States, a rabbi who was reciting the blessing on reading the Torah changed the words and said, “mikol ha’amim” – from among all the nations,” instead of, “im kol ha’amim,” – with other nations.
The change seems to be only minor, but it makes a huge difference.
I can understand that the idea of Jewish choseness can be seen as problematic. Some see in it ethnocentrism that can’t coexist with otherness or even racism or superiority. Therefore, some try to explain the concept by charging the Jewish People with universal responsibility.
Martin Buber viewed the concept of election teleologically. “What then is the spirit of Israel of which you are speaking? It is the spirit of fulfillment. Fulfillment of what? Fulfillment of a simple truth that Man has been created for a purpose. Our purpose is the upbuilding of peace, and that’s its spirit, the spirit of Israel. The People of Israel was charged to lead the way to righteousness and justice.”
I guess there is a way to take those verses to a more universal place, but I want to take them to their original pshat or simple tribal meaning.
How can we understand the word “bahar” (on the mountain) when applied to God? Maimonides in his Guide For the Perplexed teaches us that we shouldn’t always understand literally. We can’t understand the action performed by God, but it is kind of like in the third law of Newton, action is equal to reaction, and the reaction would be na’ase venishma, (we will do and we will hear), the choice made by the Jewish People. Both happen at the same time. There is a dialectic to it all, the reciprocity is at work.
Israel Zangvil said that it is not so much the matter of the chosen people, but the choosing people. God’s choice requires me to choose to belong to Jewish peoplehood and to worship the God of our ancestors.
Since Spinoza, we can choose whether to be Jewish or not, without converting to any other religion. And, nowadays, with the influence of postmodernity, we don’t have to make any choices as we are able to embrace our multiple identities.
For me, nowadays, where I can choose, and I don’t have to make this choice, it is important to choose to be Jewish, to belong to the tribe.
One might think that I am concerned about the destiny of Jewish people, but the truth is that I know the Jewish People will be perfectly well without my humble person. I choose to choose because of my own self.
The former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Arnold Eisen, wrote once in his blog, “The premodern challenge was why be Jewish rather than Christian or Muslim. The modern challenge was why be Jewish rather than universal, modern, American or a human self. The postmodern challenge is why be, how can one be a self at all, rather than “a protean being” who feasts at many tables and consists of many selves?”
Let’s take me. Who am I? I am a Conservative rabbi, a Russian-born, Israeli Jew who was influenced by American Jewry.
Many theologies inside Judaism tell you that the self is an illusion. The self is attacked and put into an emotional bubble from which one can speak only from his own experience. One scary experience and the bubble collapses and there is no self.
For me, my belonging to the tribe draws a protective circle in which my own self can exist and fight against the challenges of our world. From this safe place I can enter the world full of instability outside.
I wish you all to have an island of stability inside you in this age of instability outside. Shavua Tov from Schechter.
Irina Gritsevskaya is the General Director of Midreshet Schechter. She holds a LL.B. from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a LL.M. from Bar Ilan University and MA in Jewish Thought from the JTS (Jewish Theological Seminary in New York) and was ordained by the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary. A native of St. Petersburg, Rabbi Gritsevskaya made aliya as a teenager and currently lives in Tel Aviv.