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May 13, 1983 - Image 64

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1983-05-13

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

Friday, May 13, 1983


Rediscovering C osenness: Shavuot Meditation


National Jewish
Resource Center

In the Book of Exodus, be-
fore the giving of the Ten
Comtnandments, God tells
Moses that by accepting Re-
velation the people of Israel
will become "a kingdom of
priests, a holy nation"
(Exodus 19:6). As American
Jews increasingly assert a
liberated Jewish identity —
one not afraid- to stand out
politically or culturally —
they are rediscovering the
classic doctrine of Jewish
Chosenness in its honest,
healthy, aboveboard form.
The fundamental asser-
tion of chosenness was one
of the first victims of exces-
sive Jewish modernization.
The longing for a "truly
equal status in American
culture" was the American
Jew's "deepest and most
messianic need" (Arthur
Hertzberg). As Jews per-
ceived that democratic
theory was against chosen-
ness, they dropped the doc-
In Reconstructionism, the
most thorough reformula-
tion of Judaism in the spirit
of modernity and democ-
racy, Mordecai M. Kaplan
decided to reject the doc-
trine and he eliminated it
from the Reconstructionist
prayer book. Kaplan's was a
moral/ethical rejection —
who are the Jews to set
themselves up a superior or
even to give that impression
to others?
In Kaplan's and others'
views, it is undemocratic

for one group to claim
special status or privilege
in the divine realm or the
democratic polity.
There was also a sociolog-
ical critique of chosenness.
One does not have to be a
Jew --or anything. Birth is
a statistical accident. To
elevati Jewish birth into a
prinaple is to fly into the
face of the randomness of
biological peoplehood.
Of course, Jews found it
difficult to give up their spe-
cialness. If there is nothing
different about it, why
bother being Jewish? So
even as they overtly gave up
the Chosen People doctrine,
Jews slipped it back into
their consciousness in dis-
guised fashion. Jews drink
less; Jews go to college
more; Jews achieve more —
all these claims become
code views for chosenness.
Hannah Arendt argued
that the belief that the
Jewish people had always
been the passive suffering
object of Christian persecu-
tions was really the hidden
claim that Jews are sinned
against but do not sin,
which is to say that Jews are
more moral. In Arendt's
view, secular and even as-
similating Jews' exagger-
ated antagonism and
critique of Christianity ac-
tually amounts to a prolon-
gation and modernization of
the belief in chosenness.
These "bidden" claims
of election are attempts
to fill the vacuum left by
the rejection of the
original, doctrine and the

demise of differences in
ways of living between
Jews and non-Jews! The
net effect was that often
nothing was left of
Jewish consciousness
except the convert and
unjustified conviction
that Jews were superior.
This was attacked bit-
terly by such people as
Philip Roth as a decadent
and arrogant assumption
which was often correlated
with vulgarity and an ex-
cessively materialistic way
of life.
In the afterinath of the
Holocaust and the rebirth of
Israel, Jews are entering a
post-modern phase. In the
Holocaust, Jews experi-
enced the reality of chosen-
ness in its most elemental
form — Jews were singled
out for a different fate. Mod-
ern universal categories
(citizenship, democracy,
liberalism) did not make a
bit of difference nor did the
democracies reach' out to
protect the European Jews.
So if modern culture de-
nies the legitimacy of
Jewish distinctiveness,
then it only proves its own
limitations. Every day,
Jews experience Israel's
standing alone, isolated at
the UN by the world coun-
cils, as another example of
the singularity of Jewish


The result has been a
steadily expanding will-
lingness to assert
Jewish distinctiveness
unapologetically. This
new view is spilling over


God's love for you and ob-
servance of His oath which
He swore to your fathers .. .
God chose you to be His
treasured nation . . ."
(Deuteronomy 7:7 and 8:6).
In truth, God's choosing
made the people feel their
own limitations as the ob-
jects of unmerited infinite
love; and the Bible candidly
showed Jews repeatedly
failing to live up to their
covenantal moral obliga-
On Shavuot, the holi-
day which celebrates the
Revelation at Sinai, the
rabbis instituted the
reading of the Book of
Ruth at that very occa-
sion. In telling the story
of a gentile woman con-
vert who became ances-
tor of King David and the
future Messiah, the rab-
bis made clear that Jews
should not get a swelled
head and assume that
their personal merit led
God to make them the ve-
hicle of Divine Revela-
tion. A gentile outsider is
held up as the human
model of faithfulneess
and dedication and of
love overcoming _death.

from the political realm
— unselfconscious battle
for Israel — into the
areas— price of Jewish
identity, search for
Jewish content, and open
affirmation of chosen-
In modern culture, Jews
were uncomfortable with
Gentile criticism of the
claim of specialness ("how
odd of God, to choose the
Jews"). They responded by a
disclaimer ("it was not odd,
they chose God"). But the
post-modern chosenness
doctrine is humbler and
more moral than its modern
ersatz forms. The claim that
Jews chose God, which was
intended to de-escalate the
Post-modern chosenness
claim of being special, de is truly modest in that it
facto exaggerated Jewish recognizes that divine cho-
greatness by making Jews
-senness is not restricted to
the source of God and of Jews alone. Out- of the
their mission.
recognition of the dignity
The authentic biblical and humanity of the others
statement of chosenness comes the insight that Jews
made clear that Jews are are a chosen people and that
not intrinsically superior. - God can and does choose
t`. . . you are the least of all
again. Therefore, all na-
the nations . . . But out of tions can have a special role

in the redemption of the
world. Out of infinite love,
God chooses without re-
pudiating the first love
which expresses itself in
Jewish chosenness.
The ultimate irony is that
those who denied chosen-
ness out of democratic con-
cerns failed to 'see that elec-
tion is ultimately the most
powerful confirmation of
democracy. If the only valid
categories are uniform and
universal then all humans
end up being the same -
-thus democracy leads to its
own nemesis: homogeneity
and totalitarian democracy.
The stubborn Jewish in-
sistence on maintaining a
distinct existence thus is
the early warning test of a
culture's capacity to accept
pluralism or to turn to-
talitarian. America's abil-
ity to accept the special
Jewish ways of living and
special relationship to Is-
rael is the best sign of its
societal health.
In the face of the pow-
erful centralizing forces
of modern culture, the
Jewish reassertion of
chosenness affirms that
birth or group member-
ship is no accident to be
wiped out. Rather, each
person and group is
called to their special role
and existence even as
they become part of one
Chosenness validates
pluraliSm and the variety of
religion and culture as the
will of God and the glory of
humanity. -

The U.S. Army Approves of Shavuot and Sukkot


Chaplain, Sinai Hospital

The United States Army
doesn't lose many battles
but this story tells of one
that it did —to the benefit of
all Jewish personnel as-
signed to VII Corps
stationed in West Germany.
An Army corps usually con-
sists of several 19,000-man
divisions so one can see that
the Jewish contingent was a
sizeable one.
In my capacity as staff
chaplain to the European
Command Support Activity
(under the overall command
of the then General Alexan-
der Haig), I was responsible
for, among other things,
supplying the significant
dates and times of major
Jewish Holy Days to the Ad-
jutant General. These
would then be incorporated
into a periodic command di-
rective and issued to all
lower echelon commanders.
In essence, the orders ad-
vised that all Jewish per-
sonnel should be allowed to
observe their major days of

tion. When they finally
saw the Jewish chaplain
and his assistant hard at
work, during Hanuka,
that decided the matter.
But we still had quite a
job to do. The mission was to
teach the Army about two
other major feasts of obliga-
tion in the Jewish calendar
— Shavuot (the Feast of
Weeks) and Sukkot (the
Feast of Booths). And what I
originally thought of as just
a simple religious lesson
turned out to be a battle-
royal with the sergeant
major of the Adjutant Gen-
' eral's Office.
religious obligation (within
I entered his office and
the exigencies of the par- mounted the attack:
ticular military situation).
"Sergeant Majorhave
The holidays so recognized the information" you need
by the Army were: Rosh for the annual religious
Hashana; Yom Kippur,
command directive activi
Hanuka and Passover.
ties," I said.
Since the Army re-
"Thank you sir," hesajj
garded Hanuka as the
as I handed him the papers.
Jewish equivalent to "By the way, chaplain,
Christmas, it took us what's this Shavuot and
quite a while to convince
Sukkot business? I never
the authorities that it was
heard of those before."
not a Jewish feast of
"I figured as much" I
major religious obliga-
mumbled to myself.

"What did you say, Sir?"
"Er . . . nothing, Sergeant
Major. These two holy days
are just as important as
"That reminds me Chap-
lain, do I get my matzot
again this year?"
"You can bank on it,
Sarge. Now let's get
Shavuot and Sukkot into
that directive shall we?"
"First I have to know
what this Shavuot is all ab-
out, Sir."
"It's one of the three pil-
grimage festivals, Sarge."
"Pilgrimage? Where to?"
"Jerusalem and the
Holy Temple of course," I
"What special food do you
eat on that holiday?"
"Mainly dairy dishes."

"I thought pilgrims ate
turkey," he joked.
"If you don't stop the
fooling around, I'll see
that you eat crow," I mut-
tered under my breath
"Pardon me, Sir?"
"Nothing . . . nothing at
all. What's holding it up
now Sarge?"
"Why dairy dishes Sir?"
"Because Shavuot
commemorates the giv-
ing of the Law to Moses
on Mount Sinai. Prior to
that, the Israelites we-
ren't too familiar with
laws pertaining to prep-
aration of meat, so to
celebrate the momentous

event, the Jews featured
"What's that, Sir?"
"Cheese delicacies."
"Like cheesecake?"
"Sort of," I said.
"Will you see that I get
some of that when this
Shavuot rolls around,
"Sure, if you'll only put
Shavuot into the directive
"Consider it done, Chap-
lain. But what gives with
this Sukkot? Is that a pil-
grim's holiday too, Sir?"
"Of course, I told you that
before. It's also called the
Feast of Booths. It lasts nine
days all told."
"Nine days?" Who'll fight


for the Army if all the Jews
are at chapel, Sir?"
"The Jews will finish
any war long before that,
Sarge. Didn't you ever
hear of the Six-Day War?
Jews have to get the job
done quickly these days."
"But what about these
booths, chaplain? Do you
vote in them?" he guf-
"Yes," I answered. "We
vote for God and his teach-
ings on how to live life cor-
rectly and compassion-
"Okay, Chaplain, I'll see
that they both get into the
directive. It'll be the longest
one that VII Corps ever is-


I left this land a child
To liberate the Dead,
I returned to strangers
For who could read my mask.

Those who tended to a sapling
Joyful as it towered
Proud and strong,
And in its growing, loved them in return,
Disappeared from chimneys
In the land they left.
From where they smile at me
No dark curtain hides the sun.

Is there such a Land?
I could not weep for them
As I could not for their Kin,
For the millions of the Doomed.
I will weep for forty clays
And forty nights,
And the world will be reborn.

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