Rebbecca, the Jehovah’s witness and me, the “chosen people”

I suddenly was hit with an epiphany.

I think that a lot of us more “modern,” “progressive” Jews cringe at least a little when we think about the idea of us being the chosen people. It doesn’t seem very fair and it does seem a little haughty. I’ve always had a little bit of an issue with this but this morning I was able to see it differently.

Yesterday I got back from two days away to find a hand-written letter from a Jehovah’s witness. They have a church nearby and took the liberty of sending letters to everyone in this block, so it seems. By block I mean the block between the main streets. So, hundreds of people (unless they were targeting Jews, which makes it only 10s, but that is doubtful since she didn’t even know my name).

Of course I find it a little annoying that they’re trying to sell me their religion. As usual I compared it to Judaism. One of the main things I’m proud of in Judaism is the fact that we specifically do not search out converts. How fast we should accept someone into conversion if they are interested, is a debate, but basically we absolutely do not missionize. We’re not trying to make everyone like us and it is not in our belief system that people need to be like us!

Probably most of the murder triggered by religion has been rooted in a religious group believing that everyone has to take on their religion and beliefs. And suddenly I realized. The beauty of Judaism is specifically in the fact that yes, we are the chosen people, and so we are just supposed to do what we were commanded to do. This is not a matter of being better or high and mighty. It is a matter of focusing on ourselves.

Why has no one ever pointed this out to me? The chosen people is the exact opposite of believing everyone has to follow one religion! The chosen people is the opposite of missionizing.

These are my thoughts. I’m wondering how you feel about the term “the chosen people,” and about conversion, missionizing and, of course, of my logic here.

Tonight is Shavuot, when we became the chosen people and received the Torah. I think it’s very appropriate that my epiphany came this morning. Thanks, Rebbecca, Jehovah’s witness, for the letter! Well, thanks but no thanks!

Chag sameach!

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14 thoughts on “Rebbecca, the Jehovah’s witness and me, the “chosen people”

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  1. I don’t cringe at the idea of being “chosen people” unless “chosen” means we are better than non-Jews. That thought makes me cringes, A LOT!

    I think your take on us being chosen people “The chosen people is the exact opposite of believing everyone has to follow one religion!” is a very soothing one. However, in the reality this isn’t what understood by being “chosen people.” In fact, there is a Jewish idea that at the end of days (think of a big huge Doom) people will come to realize that Judaism is the only way to go, which means they will either convert, or reject the notions of other religions, remain non-Jews who accept that Judaism as the only religion.

    Personally I think of “chosen” as “different”. Different in a sense that we are people who were willing to accept lots of obligations, and thus assume more responsibilities. And I find that to be a beautiful thing. Also, Judaism and Jews are different in that we don’t presume to push our will onto others, and force them to convert, as both Islam and Christianity are known for. We are different in that we discover our own light, it is good for us, we are happy to explain it to others, but we don’t hold knife to others’ throat, and force them to embrace our light.

  2. Nice job Deena!:-) It’s funny how people hate us for being “chosen” when if they really wanted to they could be chosen too (like Jewess stated, it’s really about taking on obligations and responsibilities). We’ve never gone around forcing others to convert and killing those who refuse yet we are far more hated than the ones who do – it’s bizarre!

  3. I also want to add – if it wasn’t true, and we really weren’t “chosen” then why do many people seem to get offended when we’re referred to as such? If someone who claims to be chosen comes up to you on the street and says – I’m chosen and you’re not, you would think they’re insane and just ignore them. They don’t pose a threat – they just seem crazy. Only when the claim has any kind of truth to it do people take offense to these kinds of things. This isn’t to say I’m so comfortable with the term chosen – I’m not really, but it’s interesting to see how people react to it. Maybe this is why missionaries feel the need to convert everyone, and why Jews are so often targeted by them – because they feel threatened. What do you think?

  4. My wise teacher and rabbi had me explore the idea of being chosen during my conversion. I like what she said. Today we all stand at Sinai. Today we have all been chosen to receive the revelation of G-d at Sinai. (how appropriate on Shavuot)

    Each of us stands in the wilderness. Each of us wanders around. We all have opportunities to encounter G-d. Some of us open up to this encounter and are chosen to hear the Torah, others of us do not open up.

    Everyone can be the chosen people, they just need to be willing to here the revelation of G-d.

    Here I am, a Jew, a chosen one – I stand at Sinai now too.

    1. mTp,

      I am troubled by implication that unless people hear Torah, then therefore they choose not to open up. I think there are ways other than accepting Torah to experience Godliness in our lives. I know a great number of people who aren’t Jews, and yet are more open to G-d’s revelation than me, who is a Jew, a chosen one….

  5. Yes, good point! I also think there are definitely many ways to experience G-d other than accepting Torah…

  6. OK, from the beginning… :)

    Jewess, So you’re saying that right now there is no forced conversion but in the future there will be. Well, I don’t know. I am not sure exactly how that future apocalipse will look but I do know what the rules are right now and basically, if the people of other religions are keeping the 7 mitzvot bnei Noach (the 7 Noahide laws), they’re good to go.

    As for the word, we always try to figure out what words mean. So in this case, you are saying that you like to think that “chosen” means “different.” But if that is what it means, why isn’t that what it says? So then I’m trying to think what words are used in Hebrew because often the English isn’t exact. I know we say העם הנבחר (ha’am hanivchar – the chosen nation) but I’m not sure this is a long-standing term. I have heard עם קדוש (am kadosh – holy/sacred/seperated nation) and that would work with your idea. Kadosh doesn’t mean exactly holy. I means seperate/different.

    Jewess and Melissa, the idea that anyone can become chosen if they choose to take on certain obligations, still doesn’t make it exactly fair – assuming that being chosen is a good thing (see Fiddler on the Roof for one of the best lines of all time, “Couldn’t You choose someone else once in a while?!”) – because I, and many others, were born into it, whether we take on the obligation or not. I actually cannot leave it!

    When I’m with my friends who are in the process of converting and I do something that breaks Shabbat, for example, I say, “It’s OK. I’m already an MOT.” (Member of the tribe) Of course it’s lame but there is definite truth there.

    Melissa, that argument about how, if they’re acting defensive it must be because there’s truth in it, isn’t totally convincing to me because it’s hard for me to believe that everything that we get defensive about is in any way true. Nachon?

    mTp, I do like the idea that we are choosing every moment to be chosen or not. Really it makes me wonder if, it’s not that we are the chosen but that we are the choosers. Especially today, we have the merit/zchut to really quite freely wander, search, contemplate, ask, do, not do and come to our own conclusions. What a blessing!

    Finally, there are definitely infinite ways in this world to connect to God. Avraham first connected through nature, right?

    Thanks people! So nice to read all your ideas here. Yay! :) (Yes, I say “Yay!” a lot.)

    Keep it coming, if you so… choose.

    Chag sameach.

  7. This is an interesting topic for me as a former missionary for my church. I realized as I became a missionary how completely annoying I was to people who wanted to be left alone. I felt that others thought I was forcing my religion upon them, when that was not the intention.

    Granted, we all know people who are a little too zealous about their religion and do not respect the opinions and beliefs of those around them. I’ll wager there are more than a few LDS or Jehovah Witnesses within that catagory.

    Religious battles and oppression of the past and present have made us skeptical of those who are religious and don’t just keep to themselves. Yet, I feel in an age of moral relativism, we’re far too eager to promote what we think is tolerance to the point that we don’t believe in anything or anyone.

    It comes down to how Jehovah Witnesses, and other religions (my own being LDS) see their duty to God and to those around them. If you feel you have something that would benefit mankind, would you really not share? And if you believe that something you have to share is more than a nice opinion, but is actually salvation–wouldn’t it be selfish of you to do anything else but share? Even with people you didn’t know?

    Granted, I’m not a Jehovah Witness, and so perhaps they should be the ones writing here, but I am of a faith that believes that while all religions contain elements of truth, that God has made one path that leads back to him, and that option is for all people, and the sooner (preferably this life) that they hear and accept, the happier they will be.

    There, I’ve stood on my little soap box. I understand why if you are a chosen people it doesn’t really make sense to go out and preach. Yet, for others, considering their doctrinal beliefs, any other way would just be selfishness.

    1. Rachel, I was hoping that either you or Ben would comment on this piece. When I wrote it I was very conscious of the fact that I have friends who have missionized who might read this and would possibly even comment. So thank you for sharing your thoughts here, eloquent as always.

      Believe me, as Jews, we are extremely sceptical, unappreciative and very, very wary of missionaries. It’s a feeling like vultures are swooping down on you – and I wonder if there are extra brownie points for “winning” a Jew – in order to try to change you.

      Yes, I, as a Jew, come from ancestors who’ve survived and struggled and worked hard to keep our tradition for thousands of years, and then someone is coming to tell me that I should stop living my wonderful tradition, that has helped revolutionize the world to become a much more moral place, and live something else.

      And, of course, there are Jews from many different places in the world that were forced to convert and/or leave their countries because of this belief that everyone has to accept Christ. Over and over again, the fact that Christians believe that everyone needs to be Christian, has lead to so much abuse and murder of so many Jews. People think that religion has lead to many wars and deaths but I would argue that it is the idea of “everyone has to be like me” that is the dangerous thought.

      If the violent repercussions of missionizing were experienced only once, then maybe we could say, OK, it was an extreme case. But it is not. When a religion believes that they hold the key to salvation for the whole world (as Islam also seems to believe), it seems, many times (and that is enough for me) that it leads to terrible things.

      I am wondering what your personal motives are when you missionize. I mean, we were in touch at the time and I knew a little about your religious journey, and you wrote about it a little here, but I’m wondering if you’d be willing to share here what you hoped to achieve through missionizing.

      Thanks so much for writing here. This is a really tough topic to talk to you about because we both feel very, very strongly about it, with opposite opinions. Basically, I feel major resentment towards the missionary idea. As far as I know, it has never been good for my people.

  8. Rachel,

    Share is a keyword. Yes, you can share, but forcing people to accept your ideas while you are holding a knife to their throat isn’t exactly my idea or sharing. Nor is it sharing when I politely ask a missioner to leave me alone because I am happy with my own truth, and yet the request is denied.

    And I am deeply bothered by missionary work done in Third World countries where people are mass converted, and where the good isn’t being done for the sake of the good, but for the sake of converting people. I have once asked my missioner friend if he would ever go to Africa to just simply help people there, without bringing Jesus into it all, and the answer was “No…”

  9. And let’s not forget that proselytizing strikes at the heart of free will. At the end of the day G-d wants an acceptance through free will, at least according to Judaism. In fact, I think while Judaism doesn’t always answer all my questions about free will, it still handles the issue of free will than for example Christianity does.

    Some Christian teachings hold that unless a person accepts J. as savior, than he or she are denied an entry to heaven, nevermind the fact that a person might have been righteous his or her entire life. So not only does a person get stripped of a freedom of choice, but the actual actions of kindness and good work aren’t being taken into consideration.

    Essentially, it appears that in this case G-d doesn’t care about someone’s hard work. Just working from a pure point of logic an idea of such G-d doesn’t appeal to me!

  10. The whole concept of ‘chosen people’ is deifnitely unsettling- no specifically only in negative ways, but in various ways, and for various reasons (okay, haughtiness being one of them). I like the idea of ‘chosen people’ = focusing on ourselves. It makes sense to me and doesn’t feel defensive or forced.

  11. In response to Deena:
    Though I had grown up wanting to go on a mission, a year before I was eligible, I decided I didn’t want to. I was not a very extroverted or forward kind of person, and the idea of talking to strangers about religion (when they probably didn’t want to talk about it) was not the top of my list of appealing things to do in life. Also that year I had my own questions about my faith.
    That year I had some of my questions answered, but even still it wasn’t until between semesters at college when I was reading The Brothers of Karamazov that something changed. It wasn’t necessarily what I read, but how I felt that changed my mind. I felt a new desire to be a missionary. Why? I suppose my motivation relates to what Jewess wrote.

    Jewess, I agree with you. Share is important. As a missionary for my church, I was instructed to “invite”. If that invitation was rejected, I left and looked for others who were interested. I held no knife, whether literally or symbolically. (As LDS missionaries we usually knocked on doors and talked to people in the street. If they were interested we went to their homes and taught them and their families.)

    As far as the chosen people, I believe the chosen people are not necessarily people that God has chosen, as much as people who have chosen God. That being the case, helping individuals be educated about their choices becomes essential. It’s hard to use one’s “free will” wisely to choose God, if one does not know what they are. I felt I was simply giving people a choice that they wouldn’t have if I didn’t invite them to hear. While I believe people do not necessarily have to pertain to one particular beliefs or religion to choose God, I do think that people who love God will want to know more and if I can help them know more, as others have helped me, I will gladly do it.

    I also agree with Jewess with the over emphasis on getting numbers, when temporal welfare is not taken care of. One of our scriptures reads “For if ye are not equal in earthly things ye cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things.” Thus our church has welfare missionaries that do not share the gospel and other programs. But even then, what is temporal help, without spiritual meaning?

  12. I was taught that “chosen” is not in the sense of “ha ha, the Coach picked me, because I’m the best/smartest/prettiest/strongest…” but more like simply “selected.”

    We were the ones who said “yes” to God when He asked if we wanted His laws, therefore He chose us to give the Laws to. We are chosen to tell the word of the One God, we are chosen to be the keepers of Torah.

    Chosen does not mean “haughty” or “special” – other people choose to apply those labels to us as one more way to delegitimize the Jewish people. Unfortunately, as frequently happens, we absorb those labels, apply them to ourselves as Jews, and then start to question and develop a distaste for what those labels have now come to mean.

    One comment on the end of days thing – if I remember correctly, it’s not that people will accept Judaism, rather that they will accept that there is only one God.

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