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What Does It Mean For Jews to Be the Chosen People?

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'Abraham and the Three Angels', 1630s. Artist: Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn
Heritage Images / Contributor/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

According to Jewish belief, Jews are the Chosen People because they were chosen to make the idea of one God known to the world. It all began with Abraham, whose relationship with God has traditionally been interpreted in two ways: either God chose Abraham to spread the concept of monotheism, or Abraham chose God from all the deities that were worshiped in his time. Either way, the idea of “chosenness” meant that Abraham and his descendants were responsible for sharing the word of God with others.

God’s Relationship with Abraham and the Israelites

Why do God and Abraham have this special relationship in the Torah? The text doesn’t say. It certainly was not because the Israelites (who later became known as Jews) were a mighty nation. In fact, Deuteronomy 7:7 states, "It is not because you are numerous that God chose you, indeed you are the smallest of people."

Though a nation with a massive standing army may have been the more logical choice to spread the word of God, the success of such a mighty people would have been attributed to their strength, not the power of God. Ultimately, the influence of this idea can be seen not only in the survival of the Jewish people to this day, but also in the theological views of Christianity and Islam, both of which were influenced by the Jewish belief in one God.

Moses and Mount Sinai

Another aspect of chosenness has to do with the receiving of the Torah by Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai. For this reason Jews recite a blessing called the Birkat HaTorah before the rabbi or another person reads from the Torah during services. One line of the blessing addresses the idea of chosenness and says, “Praised are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the World, for choosing us from all the nations and giving us God’s Torah.” There is a second part of the blessing that is recited after the reading of the Torah, but it doesn’t refer to chosenness.

Misinterpretation of Chosenness

The concept of chosenness has often been misinterpreted by non-Jews as a statement of superiority or even racism. But the belief that Jews are the Chosen People actually has nothing to do with race or ethnicity. In fact, chosenness has so little to do with race that Jews believe the Messiah will be descended from Ruth, a Moabite woman who converted to Judaism and whose story is recorded in the biblical “Book of Ruth.”

Jews do not believe that being a member of the Chosen People gives them any special talents or makes them better than anyone else. On the topic of chosenness, the Book of Amos even goes so far as to say: "You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth. That is why I call you to account for all your iniquities" (Amos 3:2). In this way Jews are called to be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6) by doing good in the world through gemilut hasidim (acts of loving kindness) and tikkun olam (repairing the world). Nevertheless, many modern Jews feel uncomfortable with the term “Chosen People.” Perhaps for similar reasons, Maimonides (a medieval Jewish philosopher) did not list it in his foundational 13 Principles of the Jewish Faith.

Different Jewish Movements' Views of Chosenness:

The three largest movements of Judaism – Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism and Orthodox Judaism – define the idea of the Chosen People in the following ways:

  • Reform Judaism views the idea of the Chosen People as a metaphor for the choices we make in our lives. All Jews are Jews-by-Choice in that every person must make a decision, at some point in their lives, whether or not they want to live Jewishly. Just as God chose to give the Torah to the Israelites, modern Jews must decide whether they want to be in a relationship with God.
  • Conservative Judaism views the idea of chosenness as a unique heritage wherein Jews are able to enter into a relationship with God and effect change in the world by helping create a compassionate society.
  • Orthodox Judaism views the concept of the Chosen People as a spiritual calling that ties Jews to God through the Torah and mizvot, which Jews have been commanded to make a part of their lives.
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