Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!
God’s Kindness Has Overwhelmed Us: A Contemporary Doctrine of the Jews as the Chosen People
by jerome (yehudah) gellman
academic studies, 120 pages, $59

As German-Jewish philosopher Franz ­Rosenzweig observed a hundred years ago, Jewish chosenness is not one of the thirteen principles of faith enumerated by Maimonides, although it is surely at the heart of Jewish life and consciousness. More than any other doctrine, save for the singularity of the law God gave to Israel, it distinguishes Judaism from other religions. More than any other doctrine, it defies the universalism at the core of modern liberalism.

Jerome Gellman, professor emeritus at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, is a veteran analytic philosopher of religion trained under Alvin ­Plantinga. As Yehudah Gellman, he has occasionally brought his tools to bear on Hasidic thought, the mystical theology of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, and Kierkegaard. He now proposes a new “contemporary” understanding of Jewish election that combines both of his authorships, though my ears discern more ­Yehudah than Jerome.

In God’s Kindness Has Overwhelmed Us , Gellman wants to reciprocate revisions of Christian teaching on Jews and Judaism by re-examining Jewish sources in order to make their message more acceptable to non-Jews. He hopes to correct the common Jewish interpretations of chosenness that lead to “ethnocentric supremacy, cultural isolation, and the defamation of other religions.” Many like me, who disapprove of compromising one’s beliefs in the name of congeniality, find the motive ­compelling.

To this end, Gellman seeks to avoid any imputation of Jewish superiority or implication of the degradation of non-Jews, and he therefore excludes a wide variety of popular and sophisticated Jewish views on chosenness. He rejects, for example, views according to which God chose Israel for its supposed moral superiority before or after they were chosen. 

He is unenthusiastic about two popular modern views of chosenness. One especially favored by enlightened Jewry in the nineteenth century treats Israel as a “light unto the nations,” a pedagogue to the world, bearing the distinctive message of ethical monotheism. Against this, he tartly observes: “Judaism, as a religious practice , has not contributed much to world-mending.” 

The second view, which Gellman ascribes to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, regards the message of Judaism in the persistence of one small nation, bearing the divine imprint, against the ­seemingly irresistible pomp and forcefulness of worldly power. Again, ­Gellman does not see Jews, as a people apart, having this kind of impact on the modern world, mainly because most contemporary Jews are indifferent to their religious vocation. 

Gellman also criticizes efforts to explain chosenness in terms of natural or acquired superiority. His objections to such ­approaches are obvious. Yet the two master thinkers Gellman discusses in this context, Rabbi Judah Halevi (twelfth-century Spain) and Rabbi Kook (early twentieth-century Europe and Palestine), combine a biological perspective on Jewish uniqueness with a strong affirmation of the majesty of the human species. 

Nobody who knows their work in its entirety would see them as persecution-­scarred xenophobes driven by the desire to demean other cultures. The most sophisticated non-Jewish intellectual life they were exposed to and took seriously—Arab medieval culture and evolutionary science, respectively—made room for racial thinking. In struggling to make sense of a sui generis theological phenomenon, they did their best with the most accessible concepts available.

Does Gellman’s aggressive rejection of merit or inherent superiority have a basis in classical Jewish sources? His most significant scriptural citation is Genesis 12: God appears to Abraham and tells him to abandon his father’s house to go to the land God will show him, with no prior indication of Abraham deserving such attention.

To be sure, much of the ensuing biblical narrative is about Abraham’s faithfulness when tested. Rabbinic literature fills in the pre-Genesis 12 gap with stories of Abraham’s witness against idolatry. For example, ­Maimonides, whose view on the matter Gellman omits, built his theory of chosenness on Abraham’s faithfulness. Despite the weight of this tradition, Genesis 12 ­undeniably does not begin with Abraham’s merit.

The omission is even more striking, I would add, in the light of the Torah’s account, only a few chapters earlier, of Noah, whom God chooses as the instrument of universal salvation because he found him righteous in his generation. The intrinsic complexity of the biblical narrative can be read in the way Gellman proposes.

Denying Jewish superiority is also plausible, Gellman observes. Even in biblical times, the Jewish relation to God was marked by moments of disobedience and rebelliousness. The contemporary Jewish collective is not free of vice, and traditional Jews do not surpass others conspicuously in their achievement of and aspirations toward the progressive social values that enlightened contemporaries identify with moral and spiritual excellence. He has reason to push against a superficial, self-congratulatory Jewish ethnic pride.

Gellman is least convincing in his arguments that a contemporary view of the Chosen People cannot agree “that God loves the Jews more than God loves the Gentiles” because this implies superiority to the Jewish people and degrades non-Jews. But is the logic sound? What is meant by loving Israel more ? At issue here are love’s preference for the beloved and the qualities of the beloved that evoke love. 

Surely he is right that God’s preferential love of Israel cannot decrease what is available to others, as if God becomes oblivious, as it were, of the rest of humanity. However, love is not only—not primarily—a matter of promoting the welfare and interests of the beloved. Love is best measured by wanting to spend time together. It leads to preoccupation with the ­beloved, thinking of her, planning for her. 

Gellman seems to allow for just this sort of preferential love. He defines “God’s chosen people” as having an irrevocable, unique relationship “of supreme value relative to any type of relationship God may have created or will create with any other specific nation.” If this is not preoccupation, I don’t know what is. By Gellman’s definition, then, God does love the Jews more than any other nation.

And what of the lover’s attention to qualities of the beloved? Gellman concedes that human love responds to “intangibles.” For that reason, we do not speak of human love as a pure choice unconnected to the attributes of the beloved. He argues, however, that we ought not to think of God’s love this way; it is impossible, in principle, that God has a reason to choose Israel that derives from some attribute of superiority. God’s choice of Israel is without any reason that we discern.

Either for the sake of attributes or for no reason at all? This is a false dichotomy. Human love defies explanation either as a rational decision based on the attributes of the beloved, or as an unmotivated act of choice. The lover who lists reasons to love or, alternatively, ascribes love to overwhelming whim seems to misunderstand what love is about. Rather, love involves some mysterious alloy of objective appraisal and the lover’s subjective bestowal of value. The motive of love is somehow bound up with the beloved’s attractive qualities but not reducible to those ­qualities. 

It is not surprising, then, that the Bible does not account for God’s choice of Israel by virtue of any superior quality, even while implying that some element of merit plays a role. The choice of Israel is inscrutable, even paradoxical, not only because God’s will is inscrutable, but because all profound love is mysterious.

Gellman seems to think that translating the notion of “greater love” into unique love and ­decoupling God’s choice from any superior quality prevents the doctrine of Jewish chosenness from demeaning non-Jews. Here I’m not convinced he succeeds on his own terms. 

The very fact of election bestows a special status in the eyes of God. If it is unearned and does not derive from any natural or acquired superiority, that may diminish the danger of Jews nurturing negative feelings towards Gentiles and of resentment on the part of Gentiles. By the same token, having a unique relationship with God of the intensity and importance that Gellman describes may engender smugness and arrogance precisely if taken as a pure and unearned gift. Unchecked by the burden of moral desert and responsibility, it can provoke the most bitter and murderous jealousy in turn.

I also differ with Gellman on theological method. Every theologian inevitably creates his own synthesis of the sources, placing some ideas at the center and some at the periphery or beyond. For Gellman, it is sufficient to have some support in the sources. One is not responsible to the sources in their full richness, ­multifariousness, and complexity. 

I feel constrained to make room for a wider range of traditional Jewish sources. The fundamental elements of our faith are too enigmatic to be explicated fully by one set of moral or philosophical considerations. This is certainly true for the chosenness of the Jewish people. Thus our tradition has not come up with a cogent, succinct formula that would capture what the singularity of the Jewish people is all about, because, like love, this singularity defeats ­rationalization. 

The heart of Judaism, for ­Gellman, is the quiet, intimate, humble commitment to the life of Torah. The outward expression of Jews toward the Gentiles should be what the halakha , the Jewish law, calls Kiddush ha-Shem , sanctification of the divine name: “You are my witnesses” ­(Isaiah 43:10). Through history, witness has often taken the form of surrendering one’s life for God. 

This conception of chosenness is aptly expressed in the book’s title, taken from Psalm 117: “Praise God all nations . . . for his loving kindness has overwhelmed us.” How else can Jews respond to God’s election, which encompasses us with his commandments and engrosses us in its study, other than with gratitude and wonder and a sense of elevation? Devotion to the Torah, Gellman rightly fears, “can become idol worship if not subsumed under a primary relationship to God.” Nonetheless, it is devotion to the Torah to which God summons the Jewish people and in which we glory. 

Here I am very much in sympathy with Gellman’s larger project. He rightly insists that a religious outlook must “place God at the center.” Our situation demands a greater emphasis on the divine initiative in the election of Israel. 

Most secular or traditional theories about Jewish chosenness, by positing some element of Jewish superiority, risk placing the nation, instead of God and his service, at the center. In an age when God is often sidelined and self-­worship is often conducted under the aegis of nationalism, it is particularly important to take every opportunity to call attention to the dignity and value of all human beings, and in particular to the universal ideas of the Torah.

Though Gellman’s partiality in his selection of sources and his consequent lack of interest in engaging the full range of Jewish tradition and its interpreters keep him from leading us deeper into the mystery of Jewish particularity, this concise, sincere book does much to advance our confrontation of its source: divine election. His efforts to keep God at the center and to counter facile ethnocentric approaches are particularly welcome.  

Shalom Carmy is co-chair of the Jewish Studies Executive at Yeshiva College and editor of Tradition , the theological journal of the Rabbinical Council of America .