Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Eikev, deals in the question of Chosenness. Moses tells the people of the Israelite camp that if they obey all the commandments, then God will love them and bless them above all the other peoples of the Earth. In Ellen Frankel’s The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah, she offers an objection from “Our Daughters”, the feminine voice responding to the text: “Many of us no longer feel comfortable with the notion of Jewish chosenness … By what right do we hold ourselves above and apart from other peoples?”
This question has of course plagued men and women, daughters and sons, rabbis and laypeople for generations. The claim to Jewish chosenness and its perception from non-Jews has led to a lot of grief for our people. As Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof, “I know we are Your chosen people, but every once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?” But beside the antisemitism that Jews have suffered for this perceived insult against non-Jews, there is also the nagging question of what being “chosen” actually means. I don’t know any Jewish person who would claim any sort of Jewish superiority, though some might exist. Many rabbis and commentators have read into the covenanted language used when the Torah imparts the idea of God’s Chosen People to understand that Jews are only “chosen” when they choose to accept Torah, and that the act that we are chosen for is Tikkun Olam, to repair the world in the ways the Torah commands. In this reading, anyone who follows the ethical commandments and the teachings of the prophets is a part of this holy endeavor to repair the world, and can be considered chosen for such work as well.
However, even as some leaders of the Jewish community have offered this view on chosenness as an act of choosing, when it comes to their own power, they are blind to the need to be as open and inclusive. For example, this Torah portion also references the story of Korach, who challenged the authority and supremacy of Moses in a previous parasha. I think Korach was advocating for a similar broad sense of chosenness in his encounter with Moses, but Moses painted him as a villain and clings to his own authority, both in Parashat Korach and in this parasha. Korach insisted that it wasn’t just Moses who was chosen by God, for the Divine presence dwelled in the Israelite camp among all the people. I think we can extrapolate one step further and understand now that not only Jewish people who can be chosen for the holy work described in the Torah, but anyone who chooses to do it.
In last week’s episode of the podcast Judaism Unbound, co-host Lex Rofes discusses the idea of Korach in a similar way. Korach’s defiance of Moses wasn’t a defiance of Judaism or God, but rather it was offering another route into Judaism and a relationship to the Divine. Just as we are told in the Mishnah that the Torah is passed down from Moses to Joshua to the men of the Great Assembly and so on to the rabbis of the time, Lex suggested that maybe Korach passed down his own Torah to the destroyed and lost tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and then to Elisha ben Abuyah (The Other), to Baruch Spinoza (the First Secular Jew), and so on. People considered in their time to be heretics and sinners, but whose voices were still so thoroughly Jewish in their challenges to institutional Judaism that they refused to be silenced and washed away in history.
I’m excited to see who is the next inheritor of this Torah. I agree with the general sentiment of Judaism Unbound that the nature of institutional Judaism is changing in our time, and while this is mildly worrying to me as a professional rabbi, it’s also hugely exciting. I think Judaism is moving more toward decentralization, where lay people will feel empowered to create personalized rituals and communities will lean more on each other than on their leadership. Those doing the work to make Judaism more inclusive and personalized are the chosen people who want to choose Tikkun Olam even when it means challenging their own leaders and institutions. And by offering a Judaism that allows for that and has a big wide-open tent for variations on Jewish expression, decentralized Jewish movements will absorb many of those who would otherwise be lost to Judaism, the Korachs and the Elisha ben Abuyahs and the Spinozas, those who feel exiled by the leadership structures of institutional Judaism, but who are so thoroughly Jewish in their kishkes that they can’t be silenced or washed away from Jewish life.
These changes will not come tomorrow, of course, and as of now there is still great reason to be dues-paying members of the synagogue and look to your rabbi for support or learning. But it’s interesting to consider how Ner Shalom might be able to be ahead of this curve. How can we be more fully inclusive now? How can I empower you to take on meaningful home rituals and direct you in self-education? How can you support each other and teach one another the unique Torah each of you has to give? How can we show each other, the wider community, and God that we do indeed still choose Judaism and that we see the chosenness and Divine spirit in others? May we grapple meaningfully with these questions in the coming weeks, and let all who seek the Divine presence know that they too can be chosen for this community and for the important work of repairing the world.