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The chosen people

Delphine Horvilleur - The Tablet - Thu, Feb 25th 2021


The chosen people

A street festival marks the opening of a Jewish community centre in Potsdam, Germany
Photo: PA/DPA, Annette Riedl

A leading French rabbi explores the hatred of the Jewish people as seen through the lens of those who endure it, their sacred texts and rabbinical tradition

Anti-Semites frequently claim that the Jews’ chosen-ness gives them a justification for being angry. Just who are these people who think they are so special? Anti-Semites frequently allege that equality and justice support their opposition to the arrogant Jews, who stand in the way of human harmony and the ­triumph of the universal.

Judaism itself has never managed to give a precise definition of the “chosen-ness” that’s been hung around its neck. In the endless discussions of the term in the Scriptures, not one of the Jewish sages interprets it as granting Jews superiority over others.
Here is how the Hebrew word first comes up in the Bible. God says he is forming a ­special kind of bond with the Hebrews that he calls a covenant. He establishes a specific relationship with the Israelites, whom he calls his “favourite children”. An exclusive contract between a people and its god is not particularly unusual: there are many groups, tribes and clans who believe they have a special relationship with a divinity. Most of the foundation myths of ancient cultures contain a story about a contract with a divinity that provides exclusive protection to the original group.
However, through the mouths of the Prophets, the Old Testament hints that God has connections not only with Israel but also with other peoples: “To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians – declares the LORD. True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir” (Amos 9:7).

This passage is sung in synagogues whenever a particular part of Leviticus is read which deals with the separation of the Jews: “If you will obey me faithfully and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a separate people” (Exodus 19:5–6).

To be blunt: when Jews in synagogue say: “We are a holy nation”, what they are reading at the same time says: “Sure, but we’re not the only ones!”

The particular relationship between God and the children of Israel is therefore not easy to analyse. What does their particular mission consist of? It has been variously interpreted as a duty, a task to undertake, and as a responsibility falling on them as a collectivity, without an obligation to convert the rest of the world to that mission. In the Torah, the “chosen-ness” of the Jewish people is never defined as natural superiority.

Were the Jews picked – or lumbered? The Hebrew term am segoulah is translated into English as “chosen people” and in French as “the elected people”, peuple élu, but neither version represents the original meaning very well. The sense of it could be expressed as “treasure people”, “medicine people”, or even as “distinct people”, or “people capable of making distinctions”. As written Hebrew words typically have several meanings, these translations are all possible, but none is completely explicit. In what way could a people be a ­precious medicine or a cure? What is it ­supposed to heal, or distinguish? And, ­especially, in what way could such an attribute constitute a privilege?

Jews take the trouble to wonder what it means to be chosen, but oddly enough, anti-Semites are not so uncertain. They appear to take Jewish Scripture far more literally than Jews do themselves. Given their history, Jews are more likely to say: “If our being chosen really does give us a place in the sun, then it could hardly have been kept under wraps for so long!”

There’s a well-known story about two Jews sitting side by side on a bench reading newspapers. One of them suddenly realises that his partner is reading an anti-Semitic rag.

“How can you read such rubbish?” he asks.

“Because it really cheers me up,” his neighbour answers. “It says we have power and money and run the world. Now wouldn’t that be nice?”

The idea of the Jews being chosen often serves to support the image of the arrogant, over-confident Jew. Whatever their place in society, and however vulnerable they may be, Jews bear the privilege they are assumed to have, or that people believe their holy book grants them.

In the last analysis, the problem of the Jews being chosen isn’t really a Jewish problem at all. In 1938, Sigmund Freud wrote: “The jealousy which the Jews evoked in the other peoples by maintaining that they were the first-born, favourite child of God the Father has not yet been overcome by those others, just as if the latter had given credence to the assumption” (Moses and Monotheism). For the founder of psychoanalysis, the problem was not to find out what Jews believed, but to understand why some non-Jews give such credit to those claims.

Chosen-ness also raises the central question of Revelation. What did the first person hear, and why was he the only person invited to hear it? Judaism does not seek to make converts because, unlike Christianity and Islam, it does not claim to have a universal mission. This has given rise to a suspicion that Jews intercepted the message they heard in the desert and kept it for themselves. Why don’t they want to broadcast the good word to the whole world?

So why did God choose the Jews? Many rabbinical legends try to answer the question, and some of them even turn it into a joke. One such legend says that before God gave the Torah to the Jews, he knocked on lots of doors offering other nations a covenant with him, and the Torah, too. But there were no buyers: all shut the door on him, until at last he found the Jews. Those rabbis had the wit and the cheek to see their God as an old-­fashioned doorstep salesman trying to unload his Scripture as if it were an encyclopaedia that nobody really needs. That’s a long way from traditional images of piety!

Many poets have spun variations on the theme of a people who asked for nothing but had revelation shoved down its throat like a pill it could have done without. As the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (1924–2000) put it: “When God packed up and left the country, He left the Torah with the Jews. They have been looking for him ever since, shouting, ‘Hey, you forgot something, you forgot.’” A chosen people that never stops telling itself it could have done without the privilege is a far cry from the arrogance and condescension imputed to Jews by anti-Semites.

But we still haven’t identified what they were given. On that issue too, there are legends that say different things. According to ­tradition, revelation occurred in some ­indeterminate place in a desert lying between Egypt and the Promised Land. In Hebrew, the moment of revelation is called hitgalut, a word whose root, galut, also means exile. God thus revealed himself at Mount Sinai in an extraterritorial space, at a place that belongs to nobody and that no one can pinpoint on a map, and where the people are all on their way to somewhere else. God did not show himself in any people’s or person’s comfort zone, according to the rabbis, so that nobody may say it happened at our place, or that God spoke in my house.

All the Hebrews of the time – a whole generation of emancipated slaves – gathered at the foot of the mountain, but according to trad­ition they were not alone. It is said that not only were the living present at Sinai, but also the absent: the vanished generations and the generations to come, souls departed and yet to be born, were all at the ­rendezvous. The entire intergenerational community of the Hebrews aspired to hear and receive the Law.

But then things get murky. The Scriptures that deal with this central event, at the very heart of Jewish thought, are as clear as mud. They contain no official version and no clear exposition of what was given or revealed on that day in the desert. The huge mass of ­writing on the revelation does not tell us exactly what was in it, leaving the full scope of what was heard by the Hebrews in ­permanent ­suspension.

There are many theories. Did the Hebrews receive the written Torah in the form in which it continues to be read, passed on and studied, as a set of scrolls to be kept safe in synagogues? Other scholars take a more modest line. The people heard only what are called the Ten Commandments. Other scholars say all we heard at Mount Sinai were the first two out of the Ten Commandments … and others say that what reached us was only the very first: “I am the Lord thy God which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”

But that’s not quite right either, according to other interpreters of Jewish tradition. The Hebrews gathered at the foot of the mountain, they claim, heard only one word. Just one. The first word of the first sentence of the first of the Ten Commandments: anokh’i, “I am”. But, Kabbalists object, the people at Mount Sinai might have heard only a single letter. Just one: the first letter of the first word of the first sentence of the first of the commandments in the Decalogue. The Hebrews gathered at the foot of the mountain, they claim, including the generations of the deceased and the not yet born, heard only one sound, and it is really key, because the first letter of the word anokh’i is the aleph. And aleph is ... a silent letter!

So at Mount Sinai people gathered for the greatest revelation in all the history of the Jews and they heard: nothing. A silence. The greatest silence of all time, the silence that echoes around the world. A fine privilege for a chosen people, to have been the only ones invited to listen to ... nothing!

All the same, says Gershom Scholem, a great master of Jewish mysticism, the aleph is not completely silent: “In Hebrew, the consonant aleph represents nothing more than the position taken by the larynx when a word begins with a vowel. Thus the aleph may be said to denote the source of all articulate sound …” Put this way, the revelation at Mount Sinai was neither a sound nor a silence, but a potential sound, a word not yet articulated. So, at the beginning, in an indeterminate place that belongs to no one, where all the generations can be gathered together and united, an indeterminate gift was made to the Hebrews: the seed of all that could ever be said. The starting point was the revelation of the infinite potential of language and interpretation, of the residue of speech. The unsaid thus returns to Mount Sinai all who adhere to the continuity of the word, who know that the word comes from him, from an Other who is far greater than they can be.

In short, revelation says that “everything” has not been said. That lies at the root of the chosen status of the Jews and of the hatred it arouses. People have never stopped asking Jews: why do you keep the Word to yourselves? Why have you not wished to share it? Why were you the first to receive it and to do so like miserly Jews, on your own?

The most mystical and the most secular of Jews have replied in the same way, but with equally little effect: “We can assure you that we heard nothing – we just got a silent aleph!” That answer doesn’t make the cut, because it leaves in suspense the question as to why it was only they and not everyone else that got the silent aleph. What obsesses anti-Semites is the “not everyone else”.

Many are the causes – empires, universal religions and humanist beliefs – that rely on the idea of a redemptive totality that is their Truth or their path to salvation. The Roman Empire, Christianity, Islam and the Enlightenment are all partly built on just such a dream of a universal account of everything, for everyone. Almost inevitably, however, at some point in their history they eventually stumble on what Jean-Claude Milner calls “the noun Jew” as the name of the impossibility of completeness. To rescue their respective totalities, they often find themselves obliged to treat the bearer of the non-total as an exception. The Greek philosopher Archilochus is said to have said: “A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.” It seems that anti-Semitic hedgehogs can’t abide a Jewish fox.

Jewish thinkers maintain they heard ­nothing but the infinite in the words of a god who told them: “Not everything has been said,” but: “There is everything still to say.” They claim that only a particular exception can save the dynamic of universalism from a totalitarian nightmare. They whisper to all and any who listen that Truth is never the “whole” Truth. Truth is either fragmented, or else it can lead to crimes.

Any universal ambition that does not pay attention to its own fractures and flaws, to the exceptions from which it is made, risks succumbing to the temptation of totalitarianism which, in order to save wholeness for everything, makes an exception of the Jews. Hatred of Jews is always constructed as a fear of everything and a dream of a totality that requires Jews to be excepted from it. “Except the Jews ... ” is what allows anti-Semites to be “safe and sound”.

That is why the chosen-ness of the Jews will always excite the emotions of anti-Semites. It separates a group that anti-Semites have already chosen to set apart in order to define themselves.

• The granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Delphine Horvilleur is the co-leader of the Liberal Jewish Movement of France and a rabbi of one of its two Parisian synagogues. She is the author of Eve’s Costume: Feminism, Modesty and Judaism (Grasset, 2013), and How the Rabbis Make Children: Sex, Transmission and Identity in Judaism (Grasset, 2015). Her most recent book, Anti-Semitism Revisited: How the Rabbis Made Sense of Hatred, translated by David Bellos, has just been published by MacLehose Press at £14.99.

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