"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 holy nation." God speaks these words through Moses to the people, as they prepare to receive the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai.
Reconstructionist Jews have always struggled with the notion of "treasured possession." The idea that Jews might be chosen has felt elitist and unrealistic to many in the movement.
Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, writes in his opus Judaism as a Civilization: "From an ethical standpoint, it is deemed inadvisable, to say the least, to keep alive ideas of race or national superiority, inasmuch as they are known to exercise a divisive influence, generating suspicion and hatred."
He was concerned both about the outside attitude a stance of chosenness would engender, and about the feeling of superiority it might breed among Jews. He considered the concept an outdated method for aiding the morale of the Jewish nation throughout the ages of persecution that Jews experienced.
Kaplan was not alone in questioning chosenness. The Sefat Emet, a Chasidic commentator, addressed potential discomfort at being God's special nation in a commentary on Yitro, this week's portion. He quotes Jerimiah: "The Lord is my strength and my stronghold, my refuge on the day of trouble; unto You nations will come from the far corners of the earth," commenting: "God has chosen the children of Israel as His own portion."
One might think that this would make for a greater distance between God and the other nations. But actually, just the opposite is true. This was God's deeper plan: to bring all nations near to Him by means of Israel. This is one way to understand chosenness — we are chosen to help other people know God.
I worry about the superiority being chosen implies, but I also find a deep sympathy for the concept. I believe that we all have a special calling in this life; that we are chosen for something. Everyone feels special when singled out for praise, for love, or for a special responsibility.
Many of the traditional metaphors Jews have used to conceptualize our relationship to God depend on this special feeling. God is a parent, ruler, lover, and we want to be chosen by these people. Why not by God?
The biblical text itself cautions us not to let chosenness lead to superiority. The designation of the Jews as a treasured possession comes after an exemplary interaction between Moses and his father-in-law Jethro, a non-Jew. Jethro visits the people in the wilderness and Moses receives him with great honor. They speak to each other with respect.
Jethro observes Moses in his role of judge and problem solver for the people, and he offers advice for how Moses can delegate these duties to lessen his own burden, saving his strength for other leadership tasks. Moses listens to Jethro, taking his advice. They part as equals.
The story of Yitro reminds us to understand chosenness in the context of excellent relations with people of other faiths, whom we must see as our own family. We must be able to take advice from them, and to share what we know. Whether we choose to call ourselves chosen or not, our actions will speak louder than our words.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: email@example.com.