The Election of Israel: The Idea of the Chosen People
By David Novak
Cambridge University Press, 285 pages, $54.95
David Novak, deeply rooted as his writing always is in classical Jewish religious thought, here addresses the issue of religious identity in light of the challenge of modernity. While his sources and his response are quite specifically Jewish, his questions and his method of inquiry put before all believing people today fundamental issues of religious identity. Seeing this volume as the logical sequel to his earlier works The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism and Jewish–Christian Dialogue, Novak asks the fundamental question for the contemporary Jew who desires to live out in the world: What does it mean to be part of an “elected” or “chosen” people?
To answer this question, Novak examines the thought of Baruch Spinoza (Judaism’s first genuine modern thinker), Hermann Cohen (the German liberal thinker whose viewpoint was strongly influenced by Immanuel Kant), Franz Rosenzweig (the German Jewish philosopher who began a movement for the reappropriation of the Jewish tradition), and Michael Wyschogrod (the contemporary Orthodox Jewish philosopher who has reaffirmed Israel’s election as a central tenet in his book The Body of Faith: Judaism as Corporeal Election).
Novak finds none of the four perspectives fully acceptable, though he is most sympathetic to Wyschogrod, whose thought comes closest to meeting the threefold standard for authentic Jewish identity: (1) Israel is related to God because of her divine election; (2) Israel’s relation to God is a consequence of the divine revelation of Torah; and (3) In view of her election, Israel “enjoys” a certain separation from the nations of the world.
Spinoza, by inverting the biblical doctrine of election, claimed that it was in fact Israel who elected God, not vice-versa. Though Spinoza himself severed relations with the Jewish community as a result of his philosophical vision, Novak argues that Spinoza’s legacy has produced a crisis in Judaism. Modern Jewish thinkers came to believe that Spinoza had provided them with a way to deny any transcendent dimension to Jewish identity while remaining—unlike Spinoza himself—within the Jewish community. It is important that the Spinoza legacy be overcome, says Novak, if there is to be any genuine hope of restoring the classical doctrine of election.
Hermann Cohen stands as a good example of the modern, post-Spinozan thinker. God, for Cohen, is Being per se, in need of no further relation—and in fact incapable of engaging in relation. Cohen’s God does not make choices, according to Novak, and there thus cannot be any ultimate election of Israel. For Cohen the “election of Israel” makes sense only on moral grounds in the “pre-messianic” era. The separate existence of the Jewish people is necessary until the time when messianic unity is finally achieved.
As Novak interprets Cohen, Israel must safeguard monotheistic messianism until full realization. But this, Novak insists, results in the reduction of the doctrine of Israel’s election to the doctrine of the revelation of the Torah conceived primarily in terms of its moral content. The Noahide laws play a central role in Cohen’s approach to Torah because they are quintessentially moral. This approach runs counter, says Novak, to the basic thrust of rabbinic thought, which stresses the superiority of the revelation to Israel over the revelation to the world at large.
Novak’s analysis of Franz Rosenzweig is more appreciative but, in the end, still critical. Novak perceives Rosenzweig’s writings as marking a turning point in modern Jewish thought, keeping the original doctrine of Israel’s direct divine election as the leitmotif of all his work.
For Rosenzweig love of God has priority over human love because it represents a response to God’s initial act of love in revelation. This revelation, for Rosenzweig, must be social because the human person is social by nature. And the only “kinship community” that has constituted itself by an event of the communal experience of revelation is the Jewish people. To Christianity’s credit, it has been the only non-Jewish religion to recognize the significance of the revelation to Israel. Hence its task, according to Rosenzweig, is to gather all of humanity into that reality while Judaism’s mission is to preserve the purity of the original revelation. Christianity and Judaism ultimately need each other, the former to avoid paganism, the latter to escape marginalization.
Despite its attraction, Novak still discerns a flaw in Rosenzweig’s compromising the transcendence of redemption by depicting it as the culmination of a process in which Jews and Christians have a decisive role. Rabbinic teaching has always argued that the redemption of the world would be intimately linked with the redemption of the Jewish people. Jewish eschatology, as Novak understands it, ultimately involves the “judaization” of all humanity. But, unlike Rosenzweig’s contention, it will result from another mysterious act of God, not from human effort, Jewish or non-Jewish.
Novak makes the important, albeit controversial, judgment that the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” refers only to other Jews. Friendship with justice is required in relations with those outside the covenant, but covenantal love is not. Only God can, and will, one day bring Christians, Muslims, and others into the realm of covenantal love. Jews cannot do that on their own.
After examining the biblical, rabbinic, and two medieval views of election Novak turns his attention to the proposal of Michael Wyschogrod, a contemporary Orthodox Jewish scholar who, like Novak, has been significantly involved in the Christian—Jewish dialogue. Novak is quite sympathetic to Wyschogrod’s approach, which defines election primarily in terms of the special divine presence to Israel.
Novak finds Wyschogrod’s interpretation weak in important respects, however. Lacking a dialectic between a theology of grace and a theology of merit, Wyschogrod has subordinated the Torah to the Jewish people to a degree that is unacceptable: there must remain a balance in Jewish life between election and obligation. Wyschogrod’s position leaves Jews without a transcendent standard for governing their relationships with the nations of the world—and thereby risks a coercive dominance.
For Novak the election of Israel involves an altogether special relation with God that is central to cosmic redemption (even though we have no idea how that will happen). But election also involves application of the Torah as universal moral law. This second aspect of election counters any temptation to chauvinism and enables Jews to work with non-Jews on common human issues involving peace, justice, and righteousness.
Novak has written a challenging volume that brings the classical Jewish tradition into dialogue with the realities of modernity, and has done so in masterful fashion. Several of his conclusions are quite convincing: the primacy of divine initiative, the superiority of particular communal identity to vague universalistic attachment, the uncertainty of the final shape of the divine reign beyond the “extension” of Israel’s covenant to all of humanity, and the importance of Torah’s universal moral law as a point of unity between Jews and non-Jews.
In the end, however, I cannot accept Novak’s ahistorical approach to the understanding of Israel’s election. While it is a divine act, it can be apprehended only by human persons who are inevitably the subjects of history. The understanding of election must necessarily be affected by events in human history and by shifts in historical consciousness. Novak’s analysis suffers from a failure to grapple seriously with the Holocaust’s impact on our understanding of human and divine responsibility and with the issue of human freedom. In the Catholic community Vatican II has affirmed freedom as an integral part of a contemporary religious ethic, and Catholicism’s recent emphasis on human co-creatorship is at least indirectly a response to the post-Holocaust understanding of human responsibility.
I remain quite uncomfortable, perhaps even disturbed, at the potential implications of Novak’s interpretation of “love of neighbor.” The separation he makes between “convenantal love” and justice in terms of election is much too strong. It certainly runs counter to the Christian position put forth by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Redemptor Hominis, and whether it is true even to Judaism seems debatable.
Given his commitment to the betterment of relations between Jews and Christians, Novak needs to take greater account of the recent research both by Jewish and Christian scholars that suggests that the initial separation between Christianity and Judaism was far more gradual than we originally believed. Such an extended separation certainly does not easily fit the rather rigid inside/outside approach Novak has taken to understanding the covenant.
Despite these serious reservations, one must commend Novak for a truly provocative volume. He has asked the right questions in a clear, stimulating way, and for that we must indeed be grateful.
John T. Pawlikowski, O.S.M, Professor of Social Ethics at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, has been an active participant in discussions between Christians and Jews.