When Jews say they are the chosen people is this racism?

08/31/07

Hello rabbi I would appreciate your help with some questions. I'm a convert to the religion of Islam and I love to study all world religions especially Judaism. As I'm sure you know yourself our religions have much in common, the Oneness of G-D and teaching of virtues and piousness. We don't agree on everything in religious matters but, G-D willing, we can as two communities work together to live in love and respect with one another. My question regards a religious topic I've always wondered about. I know Jewish people view themselves as the "chosen people". As a Muslim I believe that so many great, pious Prophets have come from the great Jewish people like Abraham(PBUH), Isaac(PBUH), Moses(PBUH), David(PBUH), Solomon(PBUH), etc. But when Jewish religion says Jews are the "chosen people" is this in a racial sense? What I mean is does Jewish religious beliefs hold that Jews (regardless of their beliefs or personal conduct), as a people, are more innately loved by G-D then all gentiles or other such people? Because lets say you have a pious gentile who is a believer in the Oneness of G-D and treats others with kindness, and then on the other hand you have an individual born into a Jewish family but who later on adopts Zionism and lives a largely atheistic life. Would this pious gentile God-fearer not be more beloved to G-D then someone who, although born Jewish, rebelled and became a Zionist and possibly atheist?

Also on this topic I want your your explanation dear rabbi on these verses in the Tanakh.
First, Amos 9:7- Are ye not as the children of the Ethiopians unto Me, O children of Israel? saith HaShem. Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and Aram from Kir?

and
Isaiah 19:23-25
23 In that day shall there be a highway out of Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian shall come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria; and the Egyptians shall worship with the Assyrians.

24 In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth;

25 for that HaShem of hosts hath blessed him, saying: 'Blessed be Egypt My people and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel Mine inheritance.'

So in Amos 9:7 it says that though G-D brought the Jews out of Egypt, he also brought the Philistines from Caphor and Aram from Kir. And G-D says "Are ye not as the children of the Ethiopians unto Me, O children of Israel?" So G-D treats and judges his creation due to piety and justice, correct?

Also Isaiah 19:23-25 beautifully has G-D telling of how the Israelites, Egyptians, and Assyrians though once enemies will love each other and worship G-D together, correct?

I think I remember hearing a lecture from a rabbi a while ago saying that when the Jewish religion says Jews are the "chosen people" all it means is that many of the great, pious Prophets came from the Israelite bloodline and you have a duty to enjoin worship of G-D alone and enjoin piety and justice to all mankind. So there is not meant any hint of racism, correct. G-D has chosen all mankind for important tasks, like all certain races or peoples have been given their gifts to bring to mankind.
Thank you rabbi.
Abdul

Dear Abdul,

Thank you for your excellent questions. Yes, you are correct that a gentile who fears G-d and does not worship idols is more beloved than a Jewish atheist. The "chosen people" means that the Jews were chosen for a mission and for many responsibilities, the commandments of the Torah. A Jew who rejects that mission and denies G-d is not beloved by G-d. However, he has the ability to repent.

The only reason people connect the concept of the "chosen people" with a race is that historically, 99% of practicing Jews are descended from the original people of Israel in the Bible. The number of converts is very small, since the Jews never made it an ideal to search for converts. This is in contrast to Christianity and Islam, which from the start were made up of many different nations and racial groups who joined those religions. So in summary, although the chosen people are essentially the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in theory it is not limited to that race; in practice, however, it has mostly been that way.

The Torah says, "G-d chose you to be His treasured people from all the peoples on the face of the earth." (Devarim 14:2)

Anti-Semites sometimes claim that Jews are racists and supremacists because they refer to themselves as the chosen people. But this defining of Jews by race is an error and in no way reflects the true Jewish belief. Membership in the Jewish people is not dependent on race. For the Jews, peoplehood has always been defined only by acceptance of the Torah. In the words of the famous philosopher Rabbi Saadiah Gaon (882-942), "This people is only a people through its Torah."Any Jew who rejects the Torah is not part of the Jewish people. Any individual of any race can become a Jew and be part of the Jewish people. Thus it is clear that the term chosen people is a misnomer and a more proper rendering would be chosen religion.

But this still leaves much to be explained. What is the chosen religion? What was G-d's purpose in choosing a particular group of people who had particular beliefs?

Judaism teaches that man's purpose in this world is to recognize G-d as his Creator and to thank G-d for creating him. Before He created man, G-d already had angels who sang His praises, but He chose to create humans, who despite being hampered by their own physical needs and surrounded by a world of distractions, and despite not perceiving His existence directly, would believe in Him and praise Him. The world is like a factory full of amazing machines, each one with a purpose in keeping the factory running. But what gain, what profit does the factory Owner get out of it? Those people who believe in Him and praise Him.

After creation, G-d waited for the right people to come along, people through whom He could teach the world about its purpose. At first there were enlightened individuals - Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - who understood on their own that the world must have one all-powerful and benevolent Creator. G-d appeared to them and spoke to them.

But this was not enough. G-d wanted to give His law to a large group of people, who would then live by this law and thereby teach the world about G-d's greatness. He chose to give His law to the Israelites, the descendants of Abraham, who had been the first to proclaim G-d's existence to the world. Abraham's descendants continued to believe in what their ancestor had taught, and they stuck with it despite the adversity of Egyptian slavery. G-d called them the "people I have created for Myself, so that they might speak My praise" (Isaiah 43:21). This was their function on earth.

However, no one should make the mistake of thinking that G-d was choosing one race and their descendants for all time, for better or for worse. The Jews in ancient times were a very numerous nation. What happened to all descendants of those Jews? The answer is that many Jews have gone lost - left the Torah behind and assimilated into other societies and cultures. They may have Jewish blood, but when we speak of the Jewish people we do not mean them.

Just as many have left the Jewish people, many have joined. Some of the greatest names in Jewish history have been converts: Zipporah, wife of Moses; Rahav, wife of Joshua; Ruth, great-grandmother of King David; and Onkelos, compiler of the most authoritative Aramaic translation of the Torah. Great Talmudic sages such as Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir were descended from converts. The Talmud even says that the entire purpose of the Jews' exile and dispersal over the face of the earth was so that converts should join them.

So we see that the Jews can really be defined as those individuals who chose G-d, not a race or ethnic group chosen by G-d. To those individuals who chose Him, G-d gave laws and teachings to show them how to spread His word and His praise in the world.

Many people know about Biblical verses like the one quoted at the outset of this article, which proclaim that G-d chose the Jews from all the nations. What they might not know is the following verses, which show that the choosing is a two-way street:

"You have chosen G-d today, to be your G-d, to walk in His ways, to keep His statutes, commandments and ordinances, and to listen to His voice. And G-d has chosen you today to be a treasured nation for Him, as He has spoken to you, and to keep all His commandments." (Devarim 26:17-18)

Let the anti-Semites clarify their position. If they are against a particular race, let it be known to them that Jewry is a religion, not a race. Those of Jewish extraction who do not practice Judaism are not to be considered Jews at all. They may use their Jewish identity or even parts of the Jewish religion to further their own agenda, but they are not Jews, neither are Jews responsible for their actions. Thus, for example, the Bolshevik revolution may have been led to a large extent by men who were born Jewish, but since they were atheists who fought ruthlessly against their mother religion, they were actually not Jews. They were even further from Judaism than Christians or Muslims, who believe in the Creator.

On the other hand, if their complaints are directed at the Jewish religion, they have a legitimate right to make their arguments heard and receive substantive answers from Jews. But that is no longer anti-Semitism - hatred of particular people. It is a religious doctrinal debate.

Anti-Semites often allege that Jews are greedy and money-hungry. Of course such people exist among all races and creeds, but those among the Jews have been mostly weeded out. Why? For centuries, Jews lived under Christian persecution, and were forbidden from having all but the most menial occupations. Any Jew who was greedy by nature had only to convert to Christianity in order to move up in the world. And there were many who did - otherwise we would have a much larger number of Jews today. Given the Jewish people's large numbers in the ancient world, there should be billions of us today. But Jews today are those who chose G-d - not those whom G-d chose - and chose Him above all other material concerns.

Another common anti-Semitic tactic is to focus on the Zionist movement, criticize it and then lump all Jews together with the Zionists. This distortion is particularly painful because Zionism has embraced some of the key concepts of anti-Semitism: that Jews are incapable of coexisting with gentiles around the world, and that Jews must therefore have their own country. In fact, true Judaism teaches the exact opposite: Jews are to be loyal citizens of their countries and must live in peace with all their neighbors. Zionism is a departure from Judaism and it is wrong to hold traditional Jews responsible for what Zionists do.

The meaning of the verse in Amos: Hashem was rebuking the Jewish people at the time of the sinful kingdom of the Ten Tribes. He said, "Why should I refrain from punishing you for your sins? Just because I was kind to you in the past, when I brought you out of Egypt? I have been kind to other nations too, such as the Philistines and the Arameans, and yet I did not make them My chosen people. My choosing of you as My people is a two-way street. You have to live up to My expectations for you in order to deserve it. At this point, you are violating the Torah and worshipping idols, and therefore I will send you into exile."

The verses you quoted from Isaiah refer to incidents that befell the kingdom of Judah in Isaiah's time. Egypt and Assyria were considered world powers, but Judah was considered weak and negligible. Sanecherib, king of Assyria, laid siege to Jerusalem. But G-d sent an angel and wiped out his entire army of 85,000 in one night (see Isaiah chapter 37, near the end). After that, the remaining Assyrians learned to respect and worship the one true G-d, and Egypt learned from them.