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Sunday, September 10, 2006
Chosen people: a status, not a rank
I'd been mulling over my head the Israelites' claim to be the people whom God has chosen. The late John Strugnell, chief of the Dead Sea Scroll scholars, argued in an interview that the Jewish expression of this claim is "racist".
Strugnell had confused two sociological terms: status and rank. Status, respective to others, is a position within a mutually agreed constitution. Rank, again respective to others, is simply preference: "A is better than B". The Jews' claim to being "chosen" is a claim of status, subject to God's constitution for the world (the Torah). It is not a rank.
Some Jews do see themselves as high-ranking and so are racist, but most don't and aren't. I would say that Joseph Lieberman has proven by his actions that he believes in equality for all races under American law. At the same time he affirms that God has chosen his nation over all others. Pace Strugnell, these aren't contradictions.
I propose an understanding by which a group of people might be able to hold both views: "God has chosen my ancestors" / "all men are created equal".
Central to Jewish treatment of outside nations is the notion of "Noachide law". The Torah holds that today's humanity descends from Noah whose ark docked in the Armenian mountain country of Urartu. God then commanded Noah and his "Noachide" children: that they must follow God (alone), multiply, hold dominion over other animals, do good, and avoid evil. In the Priestly conception, which Baruch Spinoza has separated from the rest of the Bible: the sons of Noah should also recognise that their Creator had rested on the Seventh Day which the English call Saturday; and they should avoid unclean animal flesh (as Moses would later define it).
God's decision to select a Chosen people came later. This status has never conferred any favouritism upon the nation of Israel just for existing. There would be blessings for Jews who followed God's law, but there would also be blessings for non-Jewish "nations" ("gentiles", or goyim) if they treated the Jews well and (as fellow Noachides) didn't sin otherwise. In "the world to come", whether this be on Earth or in Heaven: righteous Jews and righteous gentiles both have "a share"; bad Jews and bad gentiles both don't. All Jews get out of the deal is a feeling of purpose, which all people get when they know what to do and how to do it; and even that's not a feeling which God provides directly.
Whether or not the Biblical account is true, the Jews have from it a means by which they may coexist with other Peoples of the Book who accept it. Chief among these self-described Noachides, today, are the Christians. However, higher-critics and Muslims who deny the holy nature of the Sabbath, eat unclean meat, and/or doubt the universality of the Flood may also count as "righteous" in Jewish eyes if they respect both the Jews' God and the rights of observant Jews to live as they choose.
The Jews' purpose in this world isn't just to sit around being Jewish. Through a prophet who possibly named himself after the first Prophet Isaiah, after the return from Babylon, God set the Jews upon a new mission: to be "a light to the nations" - gentiles included. This "second Isaiah" further called out the Persian king Cyrus as a "messiah" whom God had anointed as his regent on Earth.
It is best, I think, to understand observant Jews as analogous to a Christian monastic order. An order is populated by men and/or women whom God has chosen, although I vaguely remember that they prefer the term "called". They obey laws which they don't expect outsiders to follow. They admit that they have no guarantee of a share in the next world should they fail in their duty. They admit that outsiders will have a share if they believe in the monks' God; respect the monks' lives, freedom, and property; and do good amongst themselves. Again, all monks get out of it is the feeling of purpose. By this analogy, even the Jews' heredity - meaning, exclusivity in marriage - should have no more bearing than celibate monks' own exclusivity by not marrying at all.
Strugnell's argument, to give it more respect than it likely deserves, does point to a dark side of the Bible's teachings. A Jew thinking of himself as a natural elite might show favouritism to fellow Jews against others. If infused with ideals of social justice, another Jew might sign up to the "reform" programs of a Cyrus. Especially if the Jew has rejected certain "outdated superstitious details" of his faith, he might even commit crimes on his Cyrus's behalf. This is what Trotsky and other secular Jews did on behalf of Lenin. Such abuses of power are a temptation which, the Gospels assert, the Satan presented to the Jew Jesus; although Jesus then rejected these blandishments. I expect that there are similar stories in Rabbinic literature.
I have argued against the Torah's claims, against enshrining the Torah's laws into this nation's laws, and even against this or that Jewish person if s/he deserves it. If a Jew - or anyone - sees himself or herself as a ranking person, then that one - whatever he professes - needs to learn humility. As a counterpoint, if someone doesn't accept the Torah, then he's free to say that Jewish status is meaningless to him.
But by that same meaninglessness, he shouldn't bother arguing against this status; and as a fellow human being, he shouldn't insult random Jews as racists. I'm not going to argue against the Jews' status within their own accepted literature. The Torah says what it says, the status it has conferred upon Jews is internally consistent, and this status doesn't affect me. This just doesn't bother me and it shouldn't bother you, either.
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