The Pathology of “Choseness” and its Discontents (1/29/2010)

The Jewish theologian Mordechai Kaplan was one of the first Jewish thinkers to downplay the idea of a “Chosen People” because of its shadow side (to borrow a metaphor from Jung). “Closeness” is often used as an excuse to subordinate those who are not “chosen,” reducing outsiders as it were to a second-class status of human being. While I may not necessarily agree with Kaplan’s definition of “choseness,” I do believe he makes a valuable point.

Just look at the amount of blood that has been shed over the last 2100 years in the name of God and His “chosen” servants. The record speaks for itself.

As they say in French, “Houston, we got a problem here …”

This is precisely the problem that Western societies are combating—the idea that some people are superior by virtue of their religion. Islam is not the only faith that struggles with this kind of primitive mentality; Judaism suffers continues to struggle–perhaps to a lesser degree–but the mindset of “choseness,” is exactly as Kaplan wisely warned.

It is one thing to say that every people has its defining characteristics and passion. To use a few examples: the French are known for its innovative philosophers and passion for romance; the Italians are appreciated for their love of culture, cuisine, and ancient architecture; the Chinese are famous for its ancient history; the Hindus are famous for their gifts of meditation and spirituality; certainly the Jewish people are driven by a belief in tikkun olam, “improving the world.” This is all fine and good. However, the belief in a “Jewish soul,” carries certain overtones that perilously border the idolatrous—because it often inspires the kind of  zealotry against its enemies that has historically harmed our people.

The French philosopher and Holocaust philosopher Emanuel Levinas explains that morality has an asymmetrical quality; just because someone acts inhumanely toward you, doesn’t give you the right to act inhumanely toward the Other. Obviously, many folks may find such an ethical demand unrealistic or even unfair. However, believing in a moral code demands that we be true to our higher selves and not let the lower impulses urging us to retaliate in the manner of a tit-for-tat. Justice has to be carried out through just means. God always speaks through the human face, and the human face demands without words that we treat our neighbors justly.

When Jews  carry out violent acts against non-Jews, or against Jews who think differently, such issues pose a serious moral problem. If we say nothing, then we are condoning unethical behavior. Jews burning down mosques is not the answer. If we act like our enemies, we are no different from them. Advocates for a tallionic justice (“an eye for an eye”)  represents a retrogression to the worst kind of parochialism of the past. I believe that Judaism did not evolve over the millennia in so that we might once again believe in such a pernicious doctrine. Can we do better than that? As President Obama is fond of saying, “Yes we can!”

Unlike the ancient traditions of Egypt and other peoples of antiquity, the Bible democratized the idea that all people are cast in the image of God—and not just the kings, or the Pharaohs, as the ancients once believed. Just as this was a radical idea in times of antiquity, the concept that every person is made in God’s image still threatens the religious fanatics of all faiths who believe that only they bear the image of the Most High God.

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