Israel, God’s Chosen People?
The traditional blessing for reading the Torah, found in the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 11b), blesses God:
אֲשֶׁר בָּחַר בָּנוּ מִכָּל הָעַמִּים וְנָתַן לָנוּ אֶת תּוֹרָתוֹ
Who chose us from all of the peoples and gave us His Torah.
This ancient formulation is included in the new Siddur of the Reform Movement in Israel, published in 2020. In addition, the editors of the new prayerbook, Dalia Marx and Alona Lisitsa, have included two alternative versions, both of which employ the imagery of a God Who chooses. Each, however, offers a quite different kind of choice.
One modern formulation focuses on Israel’s mission, and blesses God:
אשר בחר בנו ליחד את שמו וקרבנו לעבודתו
Who chose us in order to single out God’s name, and brought us close to God’s service.
The third is more innovative, though based on rabbinic traditions from the Land of Israel found in the Cairo Genizah. It blesses God:
אשר בחר בתורה הזאת
Who has chosen this Torah.
The inclusion of more than one version is indicative of the challenge felt by many modern Jews by the implications of a claim made explicitly in the Hebrew Bible: that God chose Israel. Some have rejected this claim outright. Mordecai Kaplan (1881–1983), founder of the Reconstructionist Movement, made this explicit:
The idea of Israel as the Chosen People must… be understood as belonging to a thought world which we no longer inhabit… Nowadays for any people to call itself “chosen” is to be guilty of self-infatuation.
Yet, Israel’s chosenness is a core concept in the Bible.
God Chooses Israel: Deuteronomy’s Formulation
In the Bible, God is often portrayed as choosing. In some cases, particular individuals are said to have been chosen by God, in other cases, groups. While the precise phrase “ the chosen people” is absent from the Bible, Deuteronomy does make use of this same verb root ב.ח.ר, “to choose,” in describing YHWH’s relationship to Israel. For example:
דברים ז:ו כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה לַי־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּךָ בָּחַר יְ־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה מִכֹּל הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה:
Deut 7:6 For you are a people kadosh to YHWH your God: of all the peoples on earth YHWH your God chose you to be His segulah people.
As noted by Tikva Frymer-Kensky (1943–2006), late Professor of Assyriology and Biblical Studies at the University of Chicago, this statement appears within a series of verses containing “most of the components of Israel’s ideas about its special relationship with God.”
In addition to God choosing Israel, this verse notes that Israel is a kadosh people and a segulah people. These two terms come together again later in Deuteronomy, which instead of describing YHWH as choosing Israel, describes the reciprocal relationship between YHWH and Israel:
דברים כו:יז אֶת יְ־הֹוָה הֶאֱמַרְתָּ הַיּוֹם לִהְיוֹת לְךָ לֵאלֹהִים וְלָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכָיו וְלִשְׁמֹר חֻקָּיו וּמִצְוֹתָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו וְלִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקֹלוֹ: כו:יח וַי־הֹוָה הֶאֱמִירְךָ הַיּוֹם לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לָךְ וְלִשְׁמֹר כָּל מִצְוֹתָיו: כו:יט וּלְתִתְּךָ עֶלְיוֹן עַל כָּל הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לִתְהִלָּה וּלְשֵׁם וּלְתִפְאָרֶת וְלִהְיֹתְךָ עַם קָדשׁ לַי־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּר:
Deut 26:17 You have affirmed this day that YHWH is your God, that you will walk in His ways, that you will observe His laws and commandments and rules, and that you will obey Him. 26:18 And YHWH has affirmed this day that you are, as He promised you, His segulah people who shall observe all His commandments. 26:19 And that He will set you, in fame and renown and glory, high above all the nations that He has made; and that you shall be, as He promised, a kadosh people to YHWH your God.
The idea that YHWH has a special relationship with Israel appears throughout the Bible, but it is especially pervasive in Deuteronomy, whether expressed as a choice or, as here, as an affirmation.
What does it mean to be an עַם קָדוֹשׁ (ʿam kadosh)? The first word means “a people,” while the second denotes holiness, sanctity, consecration, i.e., that which is set apart. Thus, in Deuteronomy, Israel is a people “holy” or “consecrated” to YHWH. The term is not simply a positive evaluation of the Israelites, but is used to explain Israel’s requirement to follow YHWH’s commandments.
In one case, the point is expressed in general terms:
דברים כח:ט יְקִימְךָ יְ־הֹוָה לוֹ לְעַם קָדוֹשׁ כַּאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לָךְ כִּי תִשְׁמֹר אֶת מִצְוֹת יְ־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וְהָלַכְתָּ בִּדְרָכָיו:
Deut 28:9 YHWH will establish you as His holy people, as He swore to you, if you keep the commandments of YHWH your God and walk in His ways.
In two cases, Deuteronomy uses this as an explanation for why certain laws must be kept:
דברים יד:כא לֹא תֹאכְלוּ כָל נְבֵלָה לַגֵּר אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ תִּתְּנֶנָּה וַאֲכָלָהּ אוֹ מָכֹר לְנָכְרִי כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה לַי־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ...
Deut 14:21 You shall not eat anything that has died a natural death; give it to the stranger in your community to eat, or you may sell it to a foreigner. For you are a people consecrated to YHWH your God…
דברים יד:א בָּנִים אַתֶּם לַי־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם לֹא תִתְגֹּדְדוּ וְלֹא תָשִׂימוּ קָרְחָה בֵּין עֵינֵיכֶם לָמֵת. יד:ב כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה לַי־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּבְךָ בָּחַר יְ־הוָה לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה מִכֹּל הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה.
Deut 14:1 You are children of YHWH your God. You shall not gash yourselves or shave the front of your heads because of the dead. 14:2 For you are a people consecrated to YHWH your God: YHWH your God chose you from among all other peoples on earth to be His segulah people.
The idea here is that certain behaviors, which are perfectly acceptable among other nations, are prohibited for Israelites because they violate the norms preferred by Israel’s God YHWH, who chose them as His people. Here again, the term kadosh people is coupled with the term segulah people, which is more enigmatic.
What Is a Segulah?
Based on a study of cognate terms in other ancient Semitic languages, as well as some biblical parallels (see appendix), scholars understand the term “segulah” to mean “property” or “treasure.” Thus,
שמות יט:ה וְעַתָּה אִם שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת בְּרִיתִי וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל הָעַמִּים כִּי לִי כָּל הָאָרֶץ:
Exod 19:5 Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be my treasure among all the peoples.
מלאכי ג:יז וְהָיוּ לִי אָמַר יְ־הֹוָה צְבָאוֹת לַיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה סְגֻלָּה וְחָמַלְתִּי עֲלֵיהֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר יַחְמֹל אִישׁ עַל בְּנוֹ הָעֹבֵד אֹתוֹ:
Malachi 3:17 And on the day that I am preparing, said YHWH of Hosts, they shall be my treasure; I will be tender toward them is a man is tender toward a son who ministers to him.
תהלים קלה:ד כִּי יַעֲקֹב בָּחַר לוֹ יָהּ יִשְׂרָאֵל לִסְגֻלָּתוֹ:
Ps 135:4 For Yah has chosen Jacob for Himself, Israel as his treasure.
In Deuteronomy, the term means something like “treasured people,” implying both that Israel is very valuable to YHWH, and at the same time they are YHWH’s possession. As the term segulah is used in Ugaritic texts to express that a given king is a vassal to a higher king (see appendix), this is likely also implied in the usage here in Deuteronomy; in other words, Israel is YHWH’s possession in the sense that YHWH is their beloved overlord and they his treasured and loyal vassal.
A Conditional Choice?
These verses from Deuteronomy express that Israel is in a uniquely important position with YHWH, but that this position may be conditional on Israel’s observance of YHWH’s commandments. At the very least, YHWH promises to punish Israel with unique harshness if they violate his commandments, though at the same time, YHWH promises that afterwards, their relationship will be reinstated.
Pre-Modern Precedents for Reconceptualizing Election
Core biblical concepts of election have been understood in different ways throughout Jewish history. The complexity and uncertainty of this perennial theme was expressed in Sifrei, the Tannaitic commentary to the Book of Deuteronomy (§312):
ואין אנו יודעים אם הקדוש ברוך הוא בחר לו ישראל לסגולתו ואם ישראל בחרו בהקדוש ברוך הוא
…the matter still remains unclear, since we do not know whether the Holy One, blessed be He, chose Israel to be his own segula, or whether Israel chose the Holy One, blessed be He…
The midrash goes on to offer scriptural proofs for both of these possibilities. It is clear from Deuteronomy 14:2 that God chose the people, while a verse from Jeremiah is adduced to prove that Jacob chose God.
Over a millennium later, the Renaissance Italian-Jewish philosopher and exegete, R. Obadiah Sforno (1475–1550), addressed a philosophical problem raised by the notion that the God of all has a specific preference. In his gloss on Deuteronomy 33:3 he interprets the expression חובב עמים, “lover of peoples,” as evidence that God regards all humanity as a segulah.
אף חבב עמים – ואף על פי שאתה חובב עמים, כאמרך "והייתם לי סגלה מכל העמים" (שמות י"ט:ה'), ובזה הודעת שכל המין האנושי "סגולה" אצלך, כאמרם ז"ל: 'חביב אדם שנברא בצלם' (אבות ג':י"ח), מכל מקום כל קדשיו בידיך – הנה אמרת שכל קדושיו של "קדש" של "אש דת" הם "בידיך" כצרור הכסף, שהם חביבים משאר המין, כאמרו "ואתם תהיו לי ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש" (שמות י"ט:ו'), כאמרם ז"ל: 'חביבין ישראל שנקראו בנים למקום' (אבות שם).
“Lover indeed of peoples” —Even though you love peoples, as it says (Exod 19:5), “you will be a treasure from all the nations,” with this you indicate that all of humanity is a treasure to you, as the Sages said (m. Abot 3:18), “beloved is man for he was created in the image [of God],” still “their holy ones are in your hands,”… like a bag of silver, that they are more beloved to you than the rest of their species, as it says (Exod 19:6), “and you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” and as [the Sages] said (m. Avot 3:18), “beloved is Israel, for they are called the children of God.”
While Sforno denies the claim that God does not treasure other peoples, he still clings to the idea that God prefers Israel to others.
This contrast exemplifies Sforno: On one hand, he was a universalist, with a broad general education. He knew Arabic and Latin and studied together with Catholic clergy. His philosophical work אור עמים, “Light of the Nations,” was meant for both a Jewish and gentile audience, and he even translated it into Latin, and dedicated the Latin edition to King Henry II of France (ruled 1547–1559). On the other hand, in some of his Hebrew works, that were meant for Jewish consumption only, Sforno polemicizes against specific Christian doctrines; this is true of his commentaries on the Bible, especially that of Psalms.
While Sforno in the 16th century is not bothered by Israel being “first among equals,” a century later, the doctrine is challenged by a much less traditional Jewish thinker.
Spinoza’s Reaction to the Chosen People Claim
The Dutch Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), may be the first Jewish commentator to take issue with the claim of Israel’s election. Well-versed in the classical sources of the tradition from which he had been excommunicated, he did not offer an outright rejection of those verses in Deuteronomy that suggest that God holds Israel in a special proximity. Rather, in Chapter Three of his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, he argued that such assertions were not to be understood literally. Moses made these claims to his audience to persuade and motivate them, but not as an expression of Truth.
Spinoza’s God is synonymous with Nature. A God who makes any choices or has any preferences is not God, because God/Nature is, but is not subject to whims and wants. To say that the Jews are elected is no more than to say that conditions of nature and history have dealt them a special hand. Others throughout history have also been convinced of their own manifest destiny, and to assert it is no more and no less than saying: thank God that things are going well. When they stop going well, the claim of Divine preference would simply wither.
Spinoza deployed a number of Biblical verses including Psalm 145:18 to demonstrate that the Hebrew Bible itself acknowledged that God’s grace is bestowed upon all humanity,
תהלים קמה:יח קָרוֹב יְ־הוָה לְכָל קֹרְאָיו לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאֻהוּ בֶאֱמֶת.
Ps 145:18 YHWH is near to all who call Him, to all who call Him with sincerity.
The Deuteronomic claim that God holds Israel in special regard, therefore, should not be understood as evidence of capricious Divine choice, but rather a descriptive statement relating to a particular time and place.
Modern Approaches to Jewish Election
Modern Jewish thinkers have constructed a variety of strategies for responding to the challenges set down by Spinoza in his condemnation of the doctrine of election when understood literally. In some quarters, election is synonymous with triumphalism; in others, it is understood as part of a demanding network of laws and commitments.
Some philosophers, such as Mordecai Kaplan and Judith Plaskow, reject a hierarchical and supernatural notion they cannot support, and search for alternative models. Others, such as Jon Levenson, Will Herberg and Michael Wyschogrod, remain comfortable with a God who loves and demands a particular people (as well as all peoples), and insist that any future of dignity and honesty between peoples demands embracing our particular embodied identities.
A third strategy calls for reinterpretation of this key concept. In his reading of the Deuteronomy passages, for example, doyen of contemporary Israeli Jewish thought Eliezer Schweid uses the term as the basis for a communitarian Jewish political philosophy.
Whichever strategy is adopted, the Deuteronomic terms ‘am segula and ‘am kadosh offer a rich basis for teasing out the delicate relationship between equality and uniqueness.
The Term Segulah in its Ancient Near Eastern Context
One helpful indicator of the meaning of the term segulah is the cognate usage of its root in other Semitic languages.
Literal Usage—In Akkadian, the verb sakālu means “to acquire, hoard,” and the noun form, sikiltu(m) means “acquisitions, (hoarded) property.” So, for instance, Laws of Hammurabi §141 addresses a case in which a woman is planning to run away from her husband and sikiltam isakkil, “she appropriated the possessions.” In Ugaritic, a language very close to Hebrew, the term sglt means “treasure, private property.”
A translation of “wealth” or “property” works well in two late biblical sources. In Chronicles, when King David and Solomon are gathering the resources needed for Solomon to eventually build the Temple, David announces to the people:
דברי הימים א כט:ג וְעוֹד בִּרְצוֹתִי בְּבֵית אֱלֹהַי יֶשׁ לִי סְגֻלָּה זָהָב וָכָסֶף נָתַתִּי לְבֵית אֱלֹהַי...
1 Chron 29:3 Besides, out of my solicitude for the House of my God, I gave over my segulah of gold and silver to the House of my God…
Similarly, in Ecclesiastes, which is written to reflect the voice of an Israelite king, the speaker says:
קהלת ב:ח כָּנַסְתִּי לִי גַּם כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב וּסְגֻלַּת מְלָכִים וְהַמְּדִינוֹת...
Eccl 2:8 I further amassed silver and gold and the segulah of kings and provinces…
Metaphorical Usage—The term also has a long history as a metaphor. In a seal impression found in Bronze Age city of Alalakh (in modern-day southern Turkey), the owner is referred to as “the servant of Adad, the beloved of Adad, the sikiltum of Adad.” Possession here has a positive valence, something like “treasure.” This is likely the meaning of the personal theophoric name Sikultu-Adad, “treasure of Adad,” also found in Alalakh.
Like the Akkadian term, the Ugaritic term can be used metaphorically, and it may express a vassal relationship. Thus, in the 12th century, the Hittite King writes to his vassal Ammurapi, king of Ugarit (RS 18.038):
Now you also belong to the sun your master, a servant indeed, his possession (sglt) you are.
Based on this comparative evidence, scholars suggest that when applied by God to the Israelites, the term also means personal property, with the positive connotation of something very valuable, thus “my treasure” or “my treasured people.”
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Dr. Rabbi Michael Marmur is Associate Professor of Jewish Theology at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. He holds a Ph.D. and M.A. from Hebrew University and a B.A. from Oxford. He is the author of Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Sources of Wonder, and his most recent publication is American Jewish Thought Since 1934: Writings on Identity, Engagement and Belief, co-edited with David Ellenson (Brandeis 2020).
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