I’ve had several in-person, online and email conversations during the summer with people who want to embrace Judaism. Most of the time they’ve already reflected long and hard about this choice and they’ve done some and even a lot of reading. And often they have questions about Jewish observance and about what it means for Jews to be chosen by God.
My usual response when I’m asked about Jews being chosen is to underline that being chosen is a task, and in a certain sense a burden. We have a special responsibility as Jews to live in the world in such a way that we inspire goodness and justice among others. We are challenged by our progressive tradition to keep ‘all these laws’ – repeated by Moses as our people prepare to enter the land promised by God – in an informed and mindful way. Observance and being chosen is then a choice we make each day anew, and in the last analysis it has to be a public choice because our chosenness has a purpose: we are to be a light to the nations.
So, instead of the traditional three rejections, I often ask people who want to become Jewish if they are willing to accept that responsibility, the responsibility of choosing to keep these laws every day anew, and to be a light to the nations. That makes their conversion a public choice, not a private reality to be lived within their own four walls, behind their closed curtains, just between them and the eternal, and maybe a few select Jewish friends.
In addition to forming an internal relationship with each other inside the community and for some with the Eternal, it’s also about sticking your Jewish neck out and exposing it, about being proud enough of being Jewish that you are willing to set aside your anxiety about the way others might react, especially today, as irrational and deceived anti-semites gain presence and voice in our ever twisting world.
Shortly after the broadcast of Shalom Allemaal, the Flemish documentary about the Haredi community in Antwerp, the media responded with incredible positivity. What a wonderful programme, beautiful people, what a wonderful commitment they have to their religion and to each other. What a beautiful religion Judaism is, with its fascinating if slightly weird rituals (I’m thinking of the image of live chickens being swung over people’s heads to transfer their sins to the chicken (kapparot), and some equally inexplicable rituals surrounding koshering utensils and kitchens) and its sense of inner commitment and support. The main character, Tulli Padwa (see photo below), an English immigrant, married to and divorced from his Antwerp wife, is struggling to resettle and find his way. He acquires the name knuffeljood in the media – like a harmless Jewish cuddly toy – and no one blinked, although many of my Jewish friends found it objectionable and an objectification. At one point I even thought of commenting in the middle of the flow of praise, that knuffeljood had negative connotations for (some) Jews, but to be honest I was afraid I would be trolled to death on the documentary maker’s Facebook feed. And after all, it was only a minor irritation in the midst of so much positivity.
Tulli is a very affable guy, and there’s even a programme being made about how he finds his new wife, which I will probably watch, but surely this programme was countering antisemitism, showing Flanders at least that the Jews are fine people, simple, honest, hard-working people who help each other, a little inward-looking perhaps, but really nothing to fear. A people you can cuddle! The social media was indeed aglow with praise for the filmmaker and the series. I was left feeling that somehow, I should be grateful for Shalom Allemaal. It had made the public domain, in Flanders at least, a little if not a lot safer for Jews. I could stick my neck out as a Jew. Then only a few weeks later the newspapers got hold of another story, about Tulli’s best friend Moshe Friedman, also featured prominently in the series and was equally cuddle-worthy. Moshe, according to the press, turned out to have a criminal record as long as your arm for fraud and tax evasion. The social media and the papers lit up once again like the proverbial ‘Blackpool illuminations’, but this time with a river of antisemitic insults, mostly the usual tropes we all know well: the Jews show their true colours, money grabbers all of them, criminals stealing our money, they control the banks, Shalom Allemaal didn’t fool me, it was a cover up, and many more disgusting tropes, conspiracy theories and wild fantasies. After all the positivity, the tables quickly turned.
I was reminded of an article about parashat Ki Tavo by Hillel Ben Sasson, a young professor of Israel studies at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, who drew connections between Jewish chosenness and white supremacism in the US. He was writing shortly after the marches of “[…] white nationalists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, and the repugnant images and voices from that weekend.” It made him wonder if hatred toward minorities in general and Jews in particular would ever go away, but it also drew him to reflect on whether our own idea of being a chosen people was still a trigger to those who hate Jews.
Parashat Ki Tavo seems to suggests that chosenness means, as Sasson states, “[…that] we are chosen over others, and assigned a status above and beyond all other nations.”
And the Eternal has affirmed this day that you are, as God promised you, God’s treasured people who shall observe all God’s commandments and that God will set you, in fame and renown and glory, high above all the nations that God has made… (Dt 26,18-19)
But Sasson insists that the ‘fame, renown, and glory’ is not quite so clear cut and invites us to look closer at the surrounding Torah, just two verses earlier…
The Eternal your God commands you this day to observe these laws and rules; observe them faithfully with all your heart and soul. You have affirmed this day that the Eternal is your God, that you will walk in God’s ways, that you will observe God’s laws and commandments and rules, and that you will obey the Eternal. And the Eternal has affirmed this day that you are, as God promised you, God’s treasured people who shall observe all God’s commandments and that God will set you, in fame and renown and glory, high above all the nations that God has made; and that you shall be, as God promised, a holy people to the Eternal your God. (Dt 26,16-19)
We choose first to keep ‘all these laws’ and the Eternal affirms our choice. So, when we reflect on the idea of being ‘above all the nations’ we have to conclude, with Sasson, that there is nothing automatic about this status. It requires us to choose to be a holy nation, and to choose to be a nation called to be holy as God is holy. What happens after that is a lifetime of choosing. And elsewhere in parashat Ki Tavo, Sasson reminds us, the Torah gives some content to our choosing: we are to choose to share of our abundance with those who are less well off, and this includes ‘the stranger in your midst’, those who are needy but not part of the community.
There are curses in Ki Tavo which focus on idolatry and sexual mores, but we shouldn’t get stuck here. The parashah continues:
Cursed be the one who insults father or mother.
And all the people shall say: Amen. Cursed be the one who removes a neighbour’s landmark.
And all the people shall say: Amen. Cursed be the one who misdirects a blind person on their way.
And all the people shall say: Amen. Cursed be the one who subverts the justice due to the stranger, fatherless, and widow.
And all the people shall say: Amen. (Dt 27,16-19)
Ki Tavo calls us, to quote Sasson, “[To] Beware! Being chosen does not and never will entail any kind of supremacy – racial, religious, social, or otherwise. It is a form of ongoing duty, a relentless aspiration to holiness, a lifelong commitment to following the footsteps of the divine – primarily in our interactions with those less fortunate, from within our people and outside of it.”
Choosing to be Jewish is choosing to be chosen in this way. It’s enough of a challenge, so there’s no need to reject those who aspire to make that choice, but it’s important that we all know what chosenness ultimately implies.