One of the major theological problems faced by many modern liberal Jews is that of chosenness. כי בנו בחרת ואותנו קדשת מכל העמים — “For you have chosen us and sanctified us from among all of the peoples” (recited in the Kiddush twice each Shabbat). To many of us, it rings hollow to strive to be a light unto the nations while ascribing to the view that we, as Jews, are somehow called to this work in a way that others are not. Personally, this line of argument is questionable because I did not arrive at the conclusion that I should devote my life to helping others through Judaism alone, but also through engaging with the culture and values of those “other peoples” from among whom Jews were supposedly chosen. As such, I feel that it is important to find another way in which to interpret this aspect of Jewish self-understanding in the modern world.
Fortunately, this problem has plagued many Jews over the centuries, among the first of them Paul (Saul) of Tarsus, a former student of Rabban Gamliel. In the New Testament book of Romans (a letter Paul sent to the newly formed church in Rome), Paul is at pains to explain why Jews are not so different, in God’s eyes, from their Christ-following Gentile neighbours. He states:
“For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short by his [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus…For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works [mitzvot] prescribed by the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised [Jews] on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.” (Romans 3:22-30)
I am the simplest of beginners in understanding the text just quoted, but I see this as Paul’s explanation for equating Jews and Gentiles before God even though the emerging church does not mandate the following of all the laws that Jews followed. While I have by no means discovered the whole meaning behind his words, I think Paul is arguing that since all humans, and not just Jews, have fallen short of perfection — namely by sinning — God, by keeping any humans alive, must be favouring Jew and Gentile alike with the blessing of continued life, with the attendant possibility of increased righteousness. Today I might articulate that point by saying that all people, not just Jews, can make the world a better place. It is therefore our task to tap into our tradition for the wisdom and cultural language and backing needed to do such work, just as it is the prerogative of each individual so inclined (I would be the last to claim that all people are called to any one path in life) to consult their culture, faith tradition, or mentors for similar strength and support. This, too, is the message behind the changing of the Jewish liturgy by liberal denominations, from a language of “chosen from the nations” to one of “chosen to do x.”