My Jud@ism – The Choosing People
I was born a Jew; I will die a Jew.
My mom was Jewish and I was raised Jewish in a world where the word “religion” usually means “Christianity” and most people lump in my faith with that one and Islam, despite the philosophical differences between them. It’s questions of faith that I’ve spent a lifetime debating, arguing, exploring, and trying to make sense of and I’m still grappling with a lot of what I believe. I want to explore that in public a bit because I feel that my faith is misunderstood so very much of the time and I’m tired of people telling me what my faith is and isn’t.
I’m not a rabbi, I’m not a priest. I’m from the tribe of Levi, the son of Dana and Bob, a Canadian who has been to Israel and would rather live in Canada. I’ve read and studied Torah, the Midrash, Talmud, the Sefer Yetzirah. These essays are going to be about my understanding of my faith, not about what other people do or should believe. I’m going to touch on things that interest me, things that are important, and if people have questions they can ask them and I will do my best to answer – the best way to learn is to teach.
So let’s start with something very simple: the Chosen People.
It’s a title that gets applied to the Jewish people as a whole. The popular viewpoint from without is that Jews believe that they are the Chosen People of God and that means… something. No one seems to be very clear on what because it doesn’t make sense and is based on a misunderstanding of what Judaism is.
To be a Jew is a choice.
Yes, you can be born a Jew, but one of the things that Judaism teaches right away is doubt. Our passage into adulthood is called a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, which loosely translates into “a good decision.” It involves reading and coming up with an interpretation of scripture, showing an understanding of that scripture to a gathering of family and friends that can then be discussed and argued.
Within scripture, our heroes are flawed peoples doing their best. Inevitably, they make mistakes and have to take responsibility for them with varying degrees of success. Uniquely, none of them are divine and none of them get away with anything, not ever, but they never stop trying to make the world around them a better and more inclusive place.
To be a Jew, then, is to try to understand and live up to scripture while applying it to a modern context.
To be a Jew is a choice to try and do good for one’s community while keeping in mind what that community is and how it could be better and to change it so that it can be. The guidelines for what is better are based around ten concepts that are simple enough to be understood by anyone but elastic enough that their meaning can be debated and applied to a changing world.
So, we’re not the Chosen People.
We’re the Choosing People.
Where does the misunderstanding come from? Sloppy Translations by the Ancient Greeks, mostly. The Ancient Jews sang a language called Aramaic that does not translate well into anything else, and the old idioms and axioms that are a part of that language did not make much sense to the Ancient Greeks when they were codifying Jewish lore under the auspices of Alexander. That’s led to a lot of pain over the ensuing millennia, but we’ll get to that in a bit. Let us stay with the concepts of “Choosing” and “Chosen” for now.
What does that single verb in different tenses mean in this context?
“The Choosing People” implies that we were given a series of laws to live by and are given the choice to either accept or reject them. There is no outside reward or punishment for either choice, but one does have to live with the consequences of one’s decisions. This choosing applies to an entire lifetime and means that Jews are always responsible for their actions and have a series of laws that they can look to for guidance when needed, but are free to choose as necessary and to change their minds as they grow and experience.
“The Chosen People” is such a Christic concept that it’s almost insulting: it implies that we’re part of an exclusive club and are set apart, rather than having been set apart. That God chose us for some purpose and now we have no agency in what happens, when that agency has been and will always be ours. The word chosen strips away autonomy, the need for thought, for understanding. The “Chosen People” moniker is about as far from Judaism as it is possible to be, a twisted mockery of what we are supposed to strive for, but it is a mislabelling that too many modern Jews have taken to heart because they don’t know any better.
We choose to follow God’s Laws, one generation to the next. We make mistakes often but we keep trying to make this world a paradise for everyone to enjoy equally and justly because anything less leads to misery for all and we choose to be better and you can, too. In Judaism, everyone goes to heaven if that is their choice.
We are the Choosing People, and some of our choices are bad ones. We can choose to be better.
And we have to be better than this.