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The Chosen People

Hilary Putnam

The Jewish Political Tradition, Volume II: Membership
Edited by Michael Walzer, Menachem Lorberbaum, Noam J. Zohar, and Ari Ackerman
Yale University Press, $40 (cloth)

8 The series to which this book belongs is unprecedented. Even though I myself contributed to the first volume, it was not until I actually saw that volume and the present one in print that the full scale of the intellectual ambition of the series' three editors and the magnitude of their achievement fully sunk in. What each of these self-contained installments attempts to do—and, in my judgment, succeeds in doing—is to represent ancient and medieval Judaism and its post-Enlightenment successors as not just a religious tradition but an evolving and dynamic political culture. The subject of the first volume, which appeared in 2000, was "authority"; the present volume deals with "membership" (which it subdivides into chapters on election, social hierarchy, gender hierarchy, converts, heretics and apostates, and gentiles), and forthcoming volumes will deal with "community" and "politics in history."

Because of the ever-present threat of anti-Semitism, the great majority of books by Jews about their own tradition have tended to be celebratory or apologetic. However, the editors of these volumes clearly believe that the best way to do justice to their tradition is to present it warts and all, stressing neither what Jews with post-Enlightenment sensibilities find inspiring nor what they reject. Rather than apologizing for the Jewish tradition or putting it on a pedestal (or, for that matter, trying to pull it down), the editors have chosen to stress its living and agonistic character and the way it deals with conflict, which, as they point out, must arise in every long-standing political culture. (In so doing, they show us how often what we find troubling today also troubled Jewish sages and leaders throughout history—although many of us will be disturbed by some of the solutions they chose.) That the tradition does not deserve either to be blindly worshiped or to be simply abandoned as irrelevant to current concerns brilliantly emphasized by the interspersing among the texts of commentaries written by contemporary philosophers, political theorists, and lawyers. As the editors explain, "The purpose of the commentaries is not to provide historical information . . . We have asked the commentators, instead, to join the arguments of the texts, to interpret and evaluate, to revise or reject, the claims made by their authors. Membership is a central issue today, in both the Jewish and the non-Jewish worlds, so it seems especially important not to treat the tradition as if it were merely ancient and venerable; it is contested and vital, and the point of the commentaries is to bear living witness to that fact."

To give an idea of how the tradition is "contested and vital" I shall describe the first chapter, the chapter on election (that is, the idea of the Jews as "the chosen people"). The editors begin the discussion by pointing out that "the claim to a universal mission, at least in any activist sense of the word, probably isn't a feature of the earliest election idea." (Even in the prophetic writings, it is only in "less than a dozen passages in second Isaiah" that this idea is stressed, according to Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist branch of present-day Judaism.) The main body of the chapter, however, is concerned with two medieval models of "chosenness" and with the subsequent debates, many of them continuing and indeed raging throughout the past century, about whether either of them can be reinterpreted so as to be acceptable, or whether the whole notion of a chosen people is an "anachronism" (the Reconstructionist position). The two medieval models that are the subjects of this controversy are the unique genetic endowment model of the twelfth-century philosopher Judah Halevi (which the commentators correctly characterize as "racialist") and, strongly opposing it, the rationalist model of Maimonides, according to whom Abraham was a philosopher (!), who discovered the truth of monotheism through pure reason, as did Moses later (!), and who founded a community based not on common descent but on a true knowledge of God. The unique genetic endowment model of Judah Halevi (the endowment in question is a "divine thing," which prophets in particular must possess) was, interestingly, most influential among the Jewish mystics and is found in an intensified form in portions of the famous kabbalistic work the Zohar. The Enlightenment, however, brought with it a powerful attack by Spinoza on the notion of election, after which the many Jews who were not willing to simply turn their backs on the Enlightenment and its ideals of reason and universal human equality struggled to find an acceptable interpretation—even if it was obviously a re-interpretation—of that idea.

Mordecai Kaplan, who, like Spinoza before him, thinks the concept of election has outlived its day, lists the following four possible interpretations of the doctrine of the chosen people:

1. Jews possess hereditary traits which qualify them to be superior to the rest of the world in the realm of the religious and the ethical.
2. Their ancestors were the first to achieve those religious and ethical conceptions and ideals which will, in the end, become the common possession of mankind and help them to achieve salvation.
3. Jews possess the truest form of the religious and ethical ideals of mankind.
4. Jews are entrusted with the task of communicating those ideals to the rest of the world.

Kaplan powerfully criticizes all four of these interpretations. To replace the doctrine of election he proposes a substitute doctrine of "vocation." He writes:

The place previously occupied in the Jewish consciousness by the doctrine of election will have to be filled by the doctrine of vocation. The whole course of Jewish history has been so dominated by religious motivation that Jews cannot be true to themselves, as a people, without stressing the religious character of Judaism. Jewish religion would have Jewish civilization make for the enhancement not only of Jewish life but of the life of mankind, and thus help to render manifest the cosmic purpose of human life. Jewish religion expects the Jew to live the civilization of his people in a spirit of commitment and dedication. To live thus is to live with a sense of vocation or calling.

In another contribution to this rich set of selections Judith Plaskow, writing in the late 1980s, criticizes the idea of election as belonging to the same circle of ideas as, and thus supporting, gender hierarchy (the subject of the third chapter of this volume) as well as other invidious forms of hierarchy. Among writers opposed to simply junking the idea, as urged by Kaplan and Plaskow, one finds, for example, the noted modern Israeli theologian, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who proposed that election is simply and solely a duty: the duty to obey the commandments (which for Leibowitz meant the whole of Jewish law, the Halakhah). He wrote, "The people of Israel were not the chosen people but were commanded to be the chosen people. . . . The Jewish people has no intrinsic uniqueness. Its uniqueness rather consists in the demand laid on it. The people may or may not heed this demand. Therefore its fate is not guaranteed." One also finds the voice of classic socialist-Zionism, in an excerpt from the famous speech given by A.D. Gordon to the 1920 gathering in Prague that formed the Zionist Labor Party. Gordon does not use the term election, but he does speak of "the path of our renewal and redemption":

We do not demand from [the nations] special rights; we demand human rights, the rights that they have denied us; and first of all—the right to be a working and producing people. They have a moral obligation to wield their influence and help us get back our land—of course, without displacing those who reside in it, of the Arab nation or others—and they are obligated to allow those of our people who reside in their lands to engage in productive labor, especially to till the land and to live by labor. . . .

That is the path of our renewal and redemption. We have no other path. Even should we wish to follow the path of the mighty, behold, we have no might. Our strength is that of the spirit, not a disembodied spirit, but rather a living spirit of labor and productivity.

Distasteful voices are also allowed to speak, as they must be, and the chapter includes a poem written in 1929 by Uri Zvi Grinberg in which, as the commentator Arthur Isak Applbaum points out, Grinberg celebrates "heroic murder-suicide." Applbaum's verdict: "Beware the powerful who still think themselves powerless: they desecrate the name of any political life humane enough to be worth defending, and this is no improvement over too-pious sanctification."

I suppose that as a practicing Jew my own attitude toward election resembles the attitude toward patriotism that Richard Rorty advocated in Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Harvard, 1998). In this book Rorty vigorously urged a revival of the "reformist left" and equally vigorously criticized the "cultural left." The alternative Rorty saw to simply abandoning the idea of patriotism to the right was struggling for a future in which our ideals of social justice will be realized. Such a move has the aspect of a "faith" (Dewey, who is one of Rorty's heroes, spoke of a "democratic faith"), but a faith that knows itself for a faith, for a project. We can be proud of our country because we see its best moments—and there have been moments when the cause of justice was furthered—as emblems of what could be. But this "could be" is not empirically verifiable; so what is its epistemological status? Rorty's answer is that its status is that of a moralizing story. In Achieving Our Country he describes the role such stories played in his own upbringing—tales of the achievements of great fighters for social justice, black and white, poor and rich, activists and legislators—to illustrate the power that stories of heroic struggles (and of their heroes) can have in shaping a social conscience and keeping it alive.

I do not think of Judaism simply as a movement for social reform (although it needs to be at least that) but also as a way—though not the only way—of passing on the experience of a connection with God. Judaism bears this singular experience, but there is no reason one cannot celebrate its religious and moral achievements without denying that other faiths and peoples also have religious and moral achievements. Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, recently argued in The Dignity of Difference that "as Jews, we believe that God has made a covenant with a singular people, but that does not exclude the possibility of other peoples, cultures, and faiths finding their own relationship with God within the shared frame of the Noahide laws. . . . God is the god of all of humanity, but between Babel and the end of days no single faith is the faith of all humanity." I venture to read this as saying that a people can think of itself as chosen—chosen for a vocation, perhaps?—without denying that other peoples and faiths have been chosen too.

*  *  *

I have described the chapter on election in detail to give some idea of the rich dialectical structure of these volumes. Every one of the chapters enacts a debate that should have a living resonance, not just for Jews, although obviously for them, but for everyone with a historical sense and a political conscience.

Nevertheless, some have complained that in the first volume (on authority) there was no Marx, Freud, or Derrida. That is true. The editors wanted—rightly, in my view—to present voices that respond to one another in an unfolding tradition, not just another anthology of famous names that happen to be Jewish. There are many such anthologies, but the present volumes are something quite different; if entered in the right spirit, they present a continuous tradition, one with not just a rich past and a lively present but—im hu yirtze (if He wishes)—a long and contentious future. <


Hilary Putnam is the Cogan University Professor in the department of philosophy at Harvard University. He is the author of numerous books, including Renewing Philosophy and Pragmatism.

Originally published in the February/March 2004 issue of Boston Review.



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