Choices over 'chosenness'

By Martin E. Marty
26 Aug 2010

The grand theological themes don’t fade or disappear from headlines or prime time in the US. “Being chosen,” as in the case of biblical or modern Israel, is the grand theological theme today.

My clippings and blog-printout file bulges with records of renewed debates over what it means to be a “chosen people,” and whether Israel today should make use of the concept. Perhaps the most widely-known recent controversy was inspired by Michael Chabon’s 'Chosen, but Not Special' op-ed in The New York Times (published on 6 June 2010).

Identified only as author of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Chabon spends no time on the biblical concept. His theme is the Yiddish word seichel, which, he says, means “ingenuity, creativity, subtlety, nuance.”

Seichel has helped Jews as a people to survive, but Chabon thinks it has been lacking in recent highly-publicised actions by Israel.

No self-hating Jew, Chabon does say that “we Jews” are not always comfortable living with the consequences of the myth of seichel.

Now to the point: This is “the foundational ambiguity of Judaism and Jewish identity: the idea of chosenness, of exceptionalism, of the treasure that is a curse, the blessing that is a burden…To be chosen has been, all too often in our history, to be culled.”

Chabon does not mention it, but I recall a grimly humorous or humorously grim prayer by a rabbi who thanks God for having chosen Israel but then, reflecting on “the burden” that goes with this, asks God next time to choose some other people.

Plenty of other people have seen themselves as chosen. Most theologically nuanced was Abraham Lincoln’s word for Americans: “an almost chosen people.” Of course, there are no biblical roots for calling citizens of the United States a “chosen people,” nor were there for the English, from whom Americans, including many of our founders, inherited the myth.

Such myths, like Lincoln’s word about the United States being “the last, best hope of earth,” can be empowering and ennobling, but they can also issue in arrogance, imperial swaggering and destruction.

Back to Israel’s issue: We non-Jews do not have to settle the debates internal to Judaism and Israel on this subject. But non-Jews such as the almost-chosen Americans do have much at stake. The Jewish paper Forward on 21 May 2010 published John C. Hagee’s 'Why Christian Zionists Really Support Israel.'

Evangelist Hagee was a counsellor to Presidential candidate John McCain’s team for five minutes during the 2008 election campaign, until the team leaders caught on to the consequences of any Hageean embrace.

Hagee assures Israel that it can count on Christian Zionists, no matter what it does: “Our support for Israel starts with God’s promises in the Hebrew Bible,” which many of this school of thought translate to the idea that the United States must help assure that Israel will own all the land within some boundaries mentioned in 'the Hebrew Bible.'

Non-Jews will not understand Jews who have a sense of history unless they understand how central 'the Land' is in their thought. But they can chafe – as many of us confess to have done years ago – when chided for not believing that Israel’s chosenness had to be an article of Christian belief today, and that non-belief was anti-Semitism.

Chabon repeated the many reasons for identifying with Israel that are political, moral, strategic and empathic. But such identifying does not need to become credal, as it does in the world of Christian Zionists and their more moderate allies. “Get over it” is part of Chabon’s message, and then “get on with it” implies more pragmatic consequences.

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(c) Martin E. Marty The author is a leading US commentator on religion - and the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.

With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.

Keywords: anti-semitism | jewish | jews
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