Do you feel chosen?

One of the issues Jews have been struggling to deal with since the dawn of the modern age is how to reconcile traditional Jewish teachings about chosenness with the Enlightenment ideals of equality and universalism. Since time immemorial Jews understood themselves to enjoy a unique relationship with God, based on the covenant established between God and the Jewish people. This point of view was all well and good in a time when religious claims to exclusivity were quite common and the disagreement tended not to be about whether chosenness made sense as a religious concept but about which religious community, the Jews or the Christians, were the true chosen people of God. As the Enlightenment dawned, however, a new set of ideas began to enter onto the European scene – ideas of pluralism and religious tolerance, of ethical values based on reason alone rather than revelation – and these ideas soon became so widespread that they could not help but have an impact on the Jewish community.

The dilemma faced by Jews was this: The Enlightenment values of universalism and tolerance seemed to hold out the possibility, virtually unimaginable in the pre-modern world, that Jews could be accepted into the wider European society and recognized as citizens on an equal footing with their non-Jewish neighbors. On the other hand, these ideals were difficult to reconcile with the idea that the Jews were a special people chosen by God to bear witness to the Torah and live in accordance with its laws. If we were a chosen people, then what about all the other people who weren’t chosen? So long as Jews l tended to live in largely self-regulating communities made up exclusively of other Jews, these questions didn’t seem particularly pressing. Once Jews began to enter into the broader society, to study, live and work alongside non-Jews, they became much more immediate and perplexing.

I won’t go into the history of the debate. Suffice it to say that a number of solutions have been proposed to this dilemma, but that it remains a relevant issue in our own time. It is certainly possible to say, in accordance with traditional Reconstructionist thinking, that the idea of chosenness has outlived its usefulness. And yet, in the absence of chosenness, we are left with the tricky question of why it is that we continue to practice Judaism. Is it really enough to say that Judaism is the religion of our ancestors, and that this in itself carries with it a certain kind of obligation? This position is hard to maintain in the modern world, especially in a society like that of the United States in which so many individuals change religious affiliations at least once in their lives. Furthermore, it does not address the experiences of Jewish converts, of whom there are a growing number, who elect to cast their lot with the Jewish people. As a Jew-by-choice with no known familial connection to Judaism, it is hard to frame my decision to convert in terms of “heritage” and “peoplehood.” These have become factors in my life, of course, but they were not there from the start. Something else was required to bring me through the doors of that Oklahoma synagogue back in the winter of 2007.

That “something else” is difficult to define, but one way of describing it might be “spiritual learning style.” The idea that students have different learning styles is now widely accepted in the world of education. For example, a student who learns visually may pick up a lot more from a helpful diagram than they ever could from reading a chapter in a book. I believe that these pedagogical learning styles have their parallels in the spiritual world as well. People, by virtue of some combination of natural inclination and upbringing, tend to be more inclined to connect spiritually in some ways than in others. Furthermore, just as some teachers tend to be better at engaging with certain learning styles than others, so too some religious traditions are better at engaging certain spiritual “types” than others. That these spiritual learning styles are at least partially learned is clear from the fact that so many people throughout history have tended to remain within the religious tradition of their birth. That they also have deep underpinnings in the psychological and even biological temperament of the individual is shown by the fact that there are so many individuals who, following their own mysterious inner calling, abandon the tradition they were raised in for a new one.

This language of “spiritual learning styles” is a helpful way for me to frame the ways in which I do and do not feel “chosen” as a Jew. As a child of the modern world, it is impossible for me to identify with the idea of chosenness as it has traditionally been understood. In my life I have encountered many different people from diverse religious backgrounds and found that each had their own invaluable Torah to share. It simply doesn’t make sense to me to try and establish a hierarchy when it comes to all these people’s relationships with God. At the same time, however, it is impossible to deny that the Torah of my adopted people calls out to my being in a way that feels uniquely right for me. In this way, I can say that while I do not feel that Jews or Judaism are uniquely chosen, I do feel strongly that I am uniquely chosen to be Jewish, as are all those others, converts and non-converts, with whom I share this community.