Chosenness: Privilege or Responsibility

God promises a special relationship with the Jewish people. That He will love and protect them, and ensure they are prosperous and safe. But is this relationship unconditional? Is it a privilege or is there responsibility that comes with these blessings?

Resource Ages: 15-18


Shemot Rabba 18:5
Midrash Aggadah to the book of Exodus; compiled 5–6th century in the Land of Israel.

Rabbi Nechemia said, “Come and see the love of the Holy One, blessed be He for Israel; as behold, the ministering angels – who are mighty of strength, doers of His will – the Holy One, blessed be He, made them guardians over Israel. And who are they? Michael and Gavriel, as it is stated (Isaiah 62:6), ‘Upon your walls Jerusalem, I have appointed guardians.’ And when Sancheriv came, Michael went out and smote them; and Gavriel, from the command of the Holy One, blessed be He, saved Chanania and his friends.”

אָמַר רַבִּי נְחֶמְיָה בּוֹא וּרְאֵה אַהֲבָתוֹ שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל, שֶׁהֲרֵי מַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת שֶׁהֵן גִּבּוֹרֵי כֹחַ עוֹשֵׂי דְבָרוֹ עֲשָׂאָן הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא שׁוֹמְרִין לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, וּמִי הֵם מִיכָאֵל וְגַבְרִיאֵל, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (ישעיה סב, ו): עַל חוֹמֹתַיִךְ יְרוּשָׁלָיִם הִפְקַדְתִּי שֹׁמְרִים, וְכֵיוָן שֶׁבָּא סַנְחֵרִיב מִיכָאֵל יָצָא וְהִכָּה בָהֶם, וְגַבְרִיאֵל  הִצִּיל בְּמִצְוָתוֹ שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לַחֲנַנְיָה וַחֲבֵרָיו

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Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • When is it appropriate to challenge the beliefs or values of society?
  • How does being Jewish affect what I do in my daily/weekly life?
  • What are the responsibilities of the individual in regard to issues of social justice?
  • How can literature serve as a vehicle for social change
  • What are the Jewish values (e.g., freedom, responsibility, justice, community, respect of diversity etc.) that should be honored in an ideal society?
  • How would we define a utopian society?
  • How can exploring the past impact our present?
  • How do Jewish texts help me grapple with questions of life, the universe and everything?
  • How is Jewish text a vehicle to help us access connections to God?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • What does it mean to be a “chosen people”?
  • Is being chosen by God a good thing?
  • Are the Jewish people passive in this relationship or do they have to fulfill a side of the covenant?
  • How can the experiences of Jewish history be reconciled with “chosenness”?
  • Can God have other “chosen people”?

Background for Teacher

Shemot Rabba 18:5 The privilege of special protection: This midrashic source speaks not of a conditional relationship between the Israelites and God, dependant on their loyalty and performance of Mitzvot, but rather an unconditional love that results in the apportioning of two angels, Michael...

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Shemot Rabba 18:5

The privilege of special protection: This midrashic source speaks not of a conditional relationship between the Israelites and God, dependant on their loyalty and performance of Mitzvot, but rather an unconditional love that results in the apportioning of two angels, Michael and Gavriel, as protectors and guardians over Israel. While this does not preclude the possibility of other guardian angels existing protecting other peoples (and therefore God having covenants with other nations) it certainly implies and leaves you thinking this is a special perk for the chosen people alone. 

Understand this midrash in light of dark periods in Jewish history: If we consider Jewish history and the trials and tribulations that have faced the Jewish people generation after generation, we could be left wondering where these guardian angels were during the darkest periods of our history. A closer reading of the midrash itself contains the answer to this question. The period of history it is relating to was indeed a dark and unstable period for the Jews of Eretz Yisrael. Sancherev was besieging Chezekiah’s Jerusalem, but the story as it is told in the Tanach has Sancherev suffering considerable setbacks at the hand of Israel’s guardian angels. While Jewish history has had long periods of suffering and darkness, the fact that the people of Israel are here today to tell the story, have survived, and ultimately thrived, is testament to God’s protection and love of His Chosen People. No other ancient people has survived exile and dispersion and still exists today to tell the tale. 

Vayikra (Leviticus) 26:3-20

The consequences for observing and disobeying the covenant: Toward the end of the book of Vayikra, the Torah reemphasizes the eternal nature of this covenant. The commitment of the people to God and the covenant between them cannot be broken. Therefore, any rebellion against God and disobedience of His commandments will lead to severe consequences (Vayikra 26:14-26 listed below). However, this initial section begins with the rewards and blessings that will result in loyalty and obedience to God and observing of the commandments. 

Chosenness as privilege: Taken on its own, this first section, focusing as it does on the promise of automatic blessings, feels like the special relationship between the Israelites and God is unconditional, and certainly a fait accompli if they are only loyal in the service of God. Chosenness seems to be a privilege here, and although the larger context of these verses emphasize the  conditional nature of these blessings, the bottom line (see below Vayikra 26:44-45) the covenant and bond is eternal and cannot be broken by either party.

Consequences for not keeping the Covenant: After the promise of blessings and a life of goodness if the Israelites fulfill the word of God, (see above inVayikra 26:3-13)  the Torah details the heavy punishments for the abandonment of the Torah and its commandments (Vayikra 26:14-43), an excerpt of which is found here (26:14-20). The Torah takes 30 verses to describe in graphic detail all the ills that the Israelites will endure if they are disloyal and abandon God and His Torah. Tragically, all of the retributions listed have befallen the Jewish people over the course of its long history, in its far-flung communities.

Chosenness implies Responsibly: With this broader perspective on this section, we can now see that the privilege of chosenness comes with stark responsibilities and disastrous ramifications if these responsibilities are not fulfilled. This responsibility is framed in a similarly powerful way in the next source.

Amos 3:1-2

Background to the text: Amos was a prophet called to prophecy during the reigns of King Uzziah in the south and Yarov’am (Jeroboam) II in the north, times of political stability and prosperity, accompanied by idolatry and corruption in the 8th century BCE. His is one of the books that comprise the Minor Prophets, minor reflecting the length of the books and not the importance of their teachings.

Chosenness as responsibility – being held to a higher standard: In this text, Amos implies that having been chosen by God comes with being held to a higher standard. If this is the case, one can understand why the Israelites might not have been overly excited about having been chosen (and why the talmudic rabbis imagined that the acceptance of this covenant might not have come out of a desire to be in a special relationship with God, but rather out of fear of death, as if a mountain was held over their heads – see Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 88a in the Block “Who Chose Who?”).

Vayikra (Leviticus) 26:44-45

The eternal covenant: This section ends, after the lists of reward and blessings for obedience and the punishments and curses for disobedience, God reaffirms that the covenant between Him and the Israelite nation is eternal and can never be broken. And so it has been throughout Jewish history. Despite some seemingly close calls, the Jewish people has survived generation after generation to this day.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Confrontation

The Universal and Particular mission of Jews: Soloveitchik sees chosenness as being complex in that it requires of Jews a dual responsibility: universal, inasmuch as all human beings descend from the first human, Adam, and particular, given that God chose the Jews to enter the covenant. The universal responsibility is to bear “the dignity of man,” to live in this world and to be of it, to embrace the “encounter with nature.” This responsibility is not that of the Jews alone, but is that of every human being. But Jews, unlike other people, are also “members of a covenantal community,” initiated by Avraham, seconded by Yitzchak, furthered by Yaakov and all his descendants, and grandly celebrated at the Revelation at Sinai. This membership comes with a burden, a task, to maintain the “sanctity” demanded by a covenant with God. In this, the Jew is different from other peoples, as the “mission” to preserve this sanctity is theirs alone.

For Rabbi Soloveitchik being chosen is not always easy, neither does it imply superiority. It calls for certain responsibilities, carries with it expectations of behaviors, and lays on Jews the burden of balancing the universal and the particular. 

Balancing the dual responsibilities: Soloveitchik’s concept of dual responsibility, of the need to balance the universal and the particular, is one that many Jews grapple with as they have integrated into society: when is one to be like everyone else and when is one to be different? Are these two separate parts of a person, are they to be actualized at different times, in different circumstances, or is there a way to integrate both without losing one or the other?

Video: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Chosen People

(1948-2020) British Rabbi and Jewish thinker, member of the House of Lords and former Chief Rabbi. 

Chosen to exemplify the dignity of difference: Rabbi Sacks begins by sharing the difficulties he has with the concept of Jews being chosen by God. Didn’t God create all of humanity and love them? Doesn’t God have a covenant with all of humanity? What does it mean to be chosen? He answers that the Jewish people were chosen to be different, in order to teach the world the dignity of difference. You can be different, and ‘other’ in society, and still be special and loved. God loves diversity, and that is why the universe has such diversity. 

Jews have always been the outsiders in society, they have wondered and never been at home for two thousand years, and this has brought at times suffering and persecution. Chosenness was less a privilege and more a responsibility – and sometimes a painful one. The responsibility that came with chosenness was to be different in order to demonstrate to the world that one can be different and still be loved by God. 

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
  • A fun trigger game that focuses on the things your class have in common (and therefore also the things they do not have in common is called “Gam Ani Call out something that you think applies to most of your students, that is also true about you. Examples could be “I have at least one sibling”,  “I have visited Israel”, “I am tired this morning”. Tell your student that if the statement applies to them, then they should stand up and call out “Gam Ani” (if this class is online, you can still achieve this effect by using the platform’s interactive tools, for example if you are using Zoom, students can use their symbols (hand up or clapping icons, etc.) to get the same impact) . This is a great way to wake your students up at the beginning of the class, but it can also function as a way to launch into a brief discussion about how it felt to be on the outside of the group in some of the instances (for example if the statement was “I am planning to travel abroad this summer”, and the majority of the class stood and said “Gam Ani”, ask the small number of students how it felt to be in the minority, and not have travel plans. For some of them this may not feel like a disadvantage, because they have plans that are even more exciting, which they can share. Being in the minority does not always feel like a disadvantage or misfortune, but it often does. Discussing this, as well as how it feels to be an outsider, is a good way in to the topic of this class.
     This game has often been known as “Me Too!” but as in recent years this has come to have other connotations it is best not to distract by using this name, and instead use this opportunity to use a hebrew phrase – גם אני (which means the same thing)
  • Video: Fiddler on the Roof (1971) American musical comedy-drama (this could be used as a trigger to the class, or as the first source considered in the class, depending on how you wish to frame it).

In this very well-known scene from both the movie and the Broadway production, Fiddler on the Roof, based on the stories of Shalom Aleikhem (Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, 1859–1916), Tevye – the milkman  (played by Israeli actor Chayyim Topol, b.1935) is

returning home from celebrating the engagement of his eldest daughter, and has just received news of an imminent pogrom. Hearing this news prompts Tevye to question the  honor of being a “chosen people”. He turns to God with the question, “can’t you choose someone else?” If being chosen comes with so many difficulties, with the Jews having such a difficult history of persecution, maybe, says Tevye, God could choose someone else occasionally. 

You could use this clip to encourage your students to evaluate if being chosen is in fact a good thing. You could use the following questions to explore this:

  • Why does Tevye ask God to choose someone else?
  • Does Tevye’s question to God resonate with you and your understanding of Jewish history?
  • Do his words still feel relevant today? 
  • Do you think Jewish history is a contradiction to the concept of chosenness or a support for it?
  • You could ask your students to write a response from God (you may wish to ask them to do this as a concluding activity at the end of the lesson or unit after they have considered some approaches to these questions.)

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

    • If you didn’t use the video clip from Fiddler on the Roof (see the “Hook” section), as the trigger for this class, you may wish to use it here as the first source to encourage your students to think about whether the ‘chosenness’ we refer to when we speak of the Jewish people being a Chosen People, is a positive element of Jewish existence, or if it comes with aspects that sometimes it feels like we could do without. See above for suggestions on how to use the video in the lesson.
    • Shemot Rabba 18:5 and the first 11 verses from  the second source (Vayikra 26:3-13)  both present two different aspects of chosenness that feel like privilege. The verses from Vayikra present all the blessings due to the Israelites if they are loyal to the covenant, and the midrash from Shemot Rabba describes God’s guaranteed protection through the agency of the angels Michael and Gavriel. Using the following questions, you could encourage your students to consider chosenness as a privilege (and evaluate whether their understanding of Jewish history and their own experience of being a Jew supports this understanding of chosenness):
      • Are the blessings listed in Vayikra conditional on anything?
      • Is this a fair price to pay (is this a good reward)?
      • Could God have this kind of relationship with any other nations? Do you think God does?
      • What special relationship between God and the people is described in the midrash?
      • Is this conditional on anything?
      • According to your understanding of Jewish history, has God fulfilled the promises listed in Vayikra, and has God protected the nation in the way described in the midrash?
    • The verses in Vayikra (26:14-26) as well as the source from Amos 3:1-2 give us a very different perspective on chosenness, one of responsibility. God holds the“Chosen People” to a higher standard, and if they fall short, then disaster can befall them. These questions may help your students explore this aspect to chosenness:
      • What do you think Amos means that God holds Israel to a higher standard?
      • Does God forgive also?
      • If God is forgiving, then why do you think God sends such awful punishments for the sins of the people?
      • How does this second aspect of the covenant change the way we understand Jewish history?
    • The final two verses of the section from Vayikra promise the covenant is eternal and will never be broken, however far Israel strays. Like a parent who will never cease to love their child, or dissolve their relationship with their child, yet will continue to use discipline for their own good to promote their development and growth, so God promises He will never fully reject the Jewish people, despite the punishment they receive because they have strayed. These questions will help your students explore this powerful idea:
      • What is the point of the blessings/rewards and curses/punishments, if the covenant is eternal and unbreakable?
      • How is this relationship like one between a parent and a child?
      • How does this promise relate to your understanding of Jewish history?
    • Rabbi Soloveitchik sees Jewish chosenness as a dual responsibility to both humanity (the universal) and to the community (the particular people we are members of – the Jewish people). God has given us a “particular” way to live and be in a relationship with Him, and this is an extra responsibility that non-Jews do not have to worry about. These questions consider this idea:
      • What makes you the same as your non-Jewish friends and neighbors?
        What makes you different?
      • How has God made us different? 
      • Why do you think God has made us different?
      • Is there any benefit (or privilege) for our chosenness according to this approach?
    • Finally, Rabbi Sacks’ approach is firmly in the “responsibility” camp, one that brings with it challenges and difficulties. He says that God has asked the Jewish people to model “otherness” and being different, to encourage an appreciation of the Dignity of Difference. If the Jewish people can live through thousands of years of history being the ‘other’ in society, yet still be a testimony to God’s love, then the world can understand that being different is not a bad thing. We need to respect and celebrate differences, because God loves difference and diversity. These questions help your students navigate this idea:
      • How have Jews been different throughout history?
      • How has this affected their lives?
      • The previous sources in this lesson have provided an approach to understand the pain and suffering experienced in Jewish history. How does Rabbi Sacks explain it?
      • Is the chosenness of the Jewish people a privilege or a responsibility according to Rabbi Sacks?
  • Exploring the texts: Split your students into the following groups (if you want to keep the groups smaller you can have more than one of each group)
    • Group 1: vayikra 26:3-13/Shemot Rabba 18:5
    • Group 2: Vayikra 26:14-26/Amos 3:1-2
    • Group 3: Rabbi Soloveitchik
    • Group 4: Rabbi Sacks
    • Ask each group to learn their sources together and answer the following questions (you can also include some or all of the questions listed above for each source or use them when the class returns as a whole to discuss the sources):
      • Do these sources suggest being chosen is a privilege or a responsibility (to do or be something)?
      • Can you think of an example from Jewish history or current times (or your own life) to illustrate this?
    • Bring the groups back together to present their sources and their examples from Jewish history or their own lives. 
    • If this lesson is being delivered online you could use the Gallery Walk technique. Once students have finished viewing the sources, debrief the activity together. You can ask students to share their impressions or what they learned in small group breakout rooms or with the whole class, oir the texts can be allocated to small groups in breakout rooms..
    • Finish the class by looking at the final verses from Vayikra 26:44-45 and discuss the message of the covenant being eternal. 
  • Other learning techniques to help your students analyze these texts could include:
    •  Rapid Fire Writing (which helps students unpack their responses to a text or video using a structured protocol that requires alternating between thinking and writing.)
    • Reader’s Theater (Students create a performance that conveys a text’s message, theme, or conflict.)
    • Stations (Interacting with Multiple Texts in small groups of students move from station to station to read, watch, and interpret a variety of resources.)
    • Learn to Listen, Listen to Learn (Structure a discussion that uses journaling and group work to strengthen students’ listening skills.) Also works with online/remote learning. See here for suggestions.