Who Chose Whom?

Chosenness has sometimes come with a steep price, leading some to question who did the choosing, the fairness of this covenant, and if the two partners in the transaction were equally free to accept the ramifications.

Resource Ages: 15-18


Pesikta Rabbati, 21
Composed around 845 CE, Pesikta Rabbati is a collection of aggadic midrash (homilies) on the Torah and Prophets.

[“And he said: The Lord came unto Sinai…” (Devarim 3:2). When the Holy One, Blessed be He, and revealed Himself to give the Torah to Israel, He revealed himself not only to Israel but to all the other nations as well.] At first, God went to the Children of Eisav. He asked them: Will you accept the Torah? They said to Him: Master of the universe, what is written in it? He said: “You shall not murder” (Shemot 20:12). They replied: Our very origin is from murder, and our father led us to rely only on the sword, as it says: “By the sword you shall live” (Bereishit 27:40). We cannot accept the Torah.

Then He went to the children of Ammon and Moab, and asked them: Will you accept the Torah? They said: Master of the universe, what is written in it? He said: “You shall not commit adultery” (Shemot 20:12). They replied: Our very origin is in adultery, as it says “and both the daughters of Lot were pregnant from their father” (Beresihit 19:36). ). We cannot accept the Torah.

Then He went to the children of Yishmael, and asked them: Will you accept the Torah? They said: Master of the universe, what is written in it? He said: “Do not steal” (Shemot 20:12). They replied: It is our very nature to live off only that which is stolen, as it says: “And he shall be a wild ass of a man, his hand shall be against every man” (Beresihit 16:12). We cannot accept the Torah.

Then he came to Israel. They said: “We will do and we will listen” (Shemot 24:7). 

 בַּתְּחִלָּה הָלַךְ לוֹ אֵצֶל בְּנֵי עָשׂוּ אָמַר לָהֶם מְקַבְּלִים אַתֶּם אֶת הַתּוֹרָה אָמְרוּ לְפָנָיו רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם מָה כְּתִיב בָּהּ אָמַר [לָהֶם] לֹא תִּרְצָח אָמְרוּ לוֹ וְכֹל עַצְמָם שֶׁל אוֹתָם הָאֲנָשִׁים לֹא הַבְטִיחָם אֲבִיהֶם אֶלָּא עַל הַחֶרֶב שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר עַל חַרְבְּךָ תְּחַיֶּה (בְּרֵאשִׁית כ”ז מ’) אֵין אָנוּ יְכוֹלִים לְקַבֵּל אֶת הַתּוֹרָה 

אַחַ”כּ הָלַךְ אֵצֶל בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן [וּמוֹאָב] אָמַר לָהֶם מְקַבְּלִים אַתֶּם אֶת הַתּוֹרָה אָמְרוּ לְפָנָיו רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם מָה כָּתַב בָּהּ אָמַר לָהֶם לֹא תִּנְאָף אָמְרוּ לוֹ וְכֹל עַצְמָם שֶׁל אוֹתָם הָאֲנָשִׁים אֵינָם בָּאִים אֶלָּא מִנִּאוּף הָדָא [הִיא] דִּכְתִיב וַתַּהֲרֶיןָ שְׁתֵּי בְנוֹת לוֹט מֵאֲבִיהֶן (שֵׁם י”ט ל”ו) אֵין אָנוּ יְכוֹלִים לְקַבֵּל אֶת הַתּוֹרָה 

אַחַר כָּךְ הָלַךְ לוֹ אֵצֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׁמָעֵאל אָמַר לָהֶם מְקַבְּלִים אַתֶּם אֶת הַתּוֹרָה אָמְרוּ לְפָנָיו רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם מָה כְּתִיב בָּהּ אָמַר לָהֶם לֹא תִּגְנוֹב אָמְרוּ לוֹ כֹּל עַצְמָם שֶׁל אוֹתָם הָאֲנָשִׁים אֵינָם חַיִּים אֶלָּא מִן הַגְּנֵבָה וּמִן הַגֶּזֶל הָדָא הִיא דִּכְתָב יִהְיֶה פֶּרֶא אָדָם וְיָדוֹ בַּכֹּל יָד כֹּל בּוֹ (שָׁם ט”ז י”ב) אֵין אָנוּ יְכוֹלִים לְקַבֵּל אֶת הַתּוֹרָה 

וְאַחַ”כּ בָּא לוֹ אֵצֶל יִשְׂרָאֵל אָמְרוּ לוֹ נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע הָדָא הוּא דְּכָתַב [ה’ מִסִּינַי בָּא וְזָרַח מִשֵּׂעִיר לָמוֹ הוֹפִיעַ מֵהַר פָּארָן וְאָתָה מֵרִבְבֹת קֹדֶשׁ] מִימִינוֹ אֵשׁ דָּת לָמוֹ (דְּבָרִים ל”ג ב’)

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Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • What can we learn from different generations?
  • How is the Torah story my story?
  • 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”?
  • Did the Jewish people have any say in the matter?
  • Do you have a say in the matter today?
  • Do you think God loves Jews more than other people?
  • Do you think the Jews love God more than other people?
  • Can God have other “chosen people”?

Background for Teacher

Pesikta Rabbati, 21 Context of the Midrash: This famous legend from the midrash is an explanation of the somewhat puzzling response from the Israelites to Moshe when he read them the Torah. They responded with the words נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע – na’aseh venishma – we...

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Pesikta Rabbati, 21

Context of the Midrash: This famous legend from the midrash is an explanation of the somewhat puzzling response from the Israelites to Moshe when he read them the Torah. They responded with the words נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע – na’aseh venishma – we will do and we will listen. The story has it that God was looking for a nation to accept the Torah and commit to a covenant and special relationship with God, He revealed himself to four of ancient Israel’s closest neighbors (who were also enemies): Eisav, Ammon and Moab, and Yishmael. Each time He made the offer to one of these nations, they inquired as to the contents of the covenant, and found something in the Torah they could not live by (because it was antithetical to a core part of their identity) and rejected the offer. However, when God came to the Israelites, not only did they not qualify their response by asking after the content of the covenant, but they accepted the Torah without qualification or condition. This explains the order of the phrase na’aseh venishma – we commit to observing the Torah, and only later will we hear what the content of the covenant is. 

Chosenness reflects the Jewish People’s active acceptance of the Torah: This midrash strongly suggests that the “chosenness” of the Jewish people is based on their own choosing. God was open to having this relationship with other nations but they rejected him. The Israelites accepted the relationship unconditionally. 

It is important to note that this midrash is clearly polemical, and a clear criticism of the character and values of the surrounding biblical nations that were often in conflict with the Israelites. This historical context is important to take into account when considering the messages behind the text.

As is well known, there are often conflicting narratives found in different midrashic texts (and midrashim are not to be taken as texts teaching historical fact, but rather pedagogical truths), and aggadic telling of these events found in the next source directly contradicts this notion of the origins of the chosenness of the Jews.

Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 88a

Context of the text: This aggadah (Talmudic story)  presents a troubling picture of the origins of the relationship between the Israeliates and God at Sinai when they were given the Torah. The gist of Rav Avdimi’s teaching here is that God felt the need to threaten the Israelites with utter destruction if they refused to accept the Torah, the terms of the covenant with God. There are many approaches to explaining this difficult passage. For example, some suggest that it was not an actual threat; Rav Avdimi was only imagining the great trepidation that must have been felt there at Sinai at the time of the giving of the Torah. The great noise and trembling may have created for the people the impression that they had no choice, and that if they did not accept the Torah, they were doomed (some presents you have no choice but to accept!) 

Drafted into a covenant without free-choice: However, the simple understanding of the story is that it presents the possibility that despite the great “privilege” of concretizing the covenant with God, the awesome responsibilities that go with it may have been more than the nation was able to consciously accept out of their own freewill. The responsibilities that accompany being the “Chosen People,” according to this interpretation of the events, may not have been attractive to all parties involved in the acceptance of Torah, and to this day there may be those who actually perceive these “privileges” of Jewish life as burdensome. In a sense, according to this aggadah, the Israelites at Sinai were “drafted” into “chosenness against their will.” It is interesting how Rav Acha understood the implications of this situation: should this have been the case, then every Jew to this day should have an acceptable excuse for not following the terms of this forced covenant!

Commitment to the covenant despite persecution: However, the aggadah continues, indicating that no matter what the situation was at the time the Torah was given, ultimately, in the days of Esther, Mordechai, and Haman, the people did demonstrate their great desire to accept the Torah willingly. Far removed from the Land of Israel, the Jews of Shushan (Persia/Iran) – victims of the Babylonian exile – stood up for their lives and bravely made public their Jewish identities. Rather than hide their Jewishness, they boldly wore it on their sleeves and by doing so iterated their desire to be bound by the terms of the covenant. Again, this might easily be understood as a metaphor: Jews have throughout the ages found themselves living under oppressive circumstances. And yet, despite the persecutions and even threats to life and limb, many remained committed to Torah – the terms of the covenant. This ongoing reaffirmation was embodied by this aggadah in the Book of Esther and based on a proof text found therein. The important willful national acceptance of Torah to which the Talmud here alludes is perhaps the feature that serves as the basis for the ongoing validity of the covenant to this day. 

Golda Meir, My Life

Context of the author and text: In her autobiography, describing her early life and the role religion played in her childhood home, Golda Meir gives her perspective on the concept of the Jews being a “chosen nation” (a concept obviously well-known and a significant element of the identity of Jews she knew in Russia during her formative years.) Even in these early years she describes being uncomfortable with the faith of her parents, and challenged many aspects of their beliefs, including this one.

The Jews chose God: She shares in this quote an alternative understanding that she arrived at, that sat better with her world outlook. Rather than God choosing the Jews for a national mission or because of an inherent superiority to other nations, for Meir the chosenness was in fact on the side of the Jews themselves. They were early adopters of ethical monotheism when they “chose God”. This was and is the only source of their uniqueness in the family of nations. 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity

God chose the Jewish People to enter a unique relationship: Heschel emphatically disagrees with Meir’s approach to Jewish chosenness and teaches that God did in fact choose the Jews. However, he stresses that the impact of being chosen is not felt beyond the relationship the people have with God. Being chosen vis-à-vis God does not tell us anything about the status of the Jews relative to other peoples. Thus, this concept implies no superiority of one group over another. Heschel thus rejects the position of the Kuzari found in the block “Why were the Israelites chosen?” who saw a “divine quality” in the people themselves when he writes that being chosen does not signify “a quality inherent in the people” (and it is well known that Heschel’s religious beliefs led him to take an active role in the Civil Rights movement in the United States of the 1960s, which lies comfortably with this world outlook of equality among people). 

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Nineteen Letters, Letter 15

Chosen to exclusively  serve God: In the final source in this unit, Hirsch gives us a further approach to chosenness. He admits that we do believe God chose the Jews, but not to the exclusion of other relationships with other peoples (however from the perspective of the Jewish people, their relationship with God must be exclusive, and are forbidden from relationships with other gods). Just as a parent has a unique love for each of their children, the love they have for any individual child does not mean they cannot have other unique relationships and love for their other children. The chosenness of the Jewish people does not imply any superiority inherent in the Jews, or that the relationship or even a monopoly of divine love. Only that it is a unique relationship, and not necessarily to the exclusion of other covenants and relationships with other peoples. For all people are His creations.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
  • Write in large letters on the board/a poster/project on the smartboard: 

How odd of God to choose the Jews 

(attributed to the British journalist William Norman Ewer)

Not at all odd, the Jews chose God


Ask for responses to these two statements. You may find these questions helpful to direct the discussion:

  • Why do some people think it is odd?
  • Do you think it is odd (either that He chose the Jews or chose any nation)?
  • Is this statement antisemitic?
  • What do you think the response means?
  • Is it a good response?
  • If this happened, when?
  • Do you think being Jewish is a voluntary choice today?
  • If so, what do you choose? Why?

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

  • The first two sources are contrasting descriptions of what may have happened at Mount Sinai when God gave the Israelites the Torah and began the covenantal relationship between God and His “chosen people”. The spirit of the two texts contradict each other. Using the following questions you could encourage your students to explore the implications of both approaches to the establishment of the covenantal relationship between the Israelites and God:
    • Do you find anything troubling about either (or both) of the stories?
    • Which story resonates more with you?
    • What are the consequences of the covenant being forced or freely chosen?
      • Why would God need to force the Torah on the Israelites?
      • Do you feel forced to be a Jew or do you feel that you choose to be a Jew?
      • Do you think God chose the Jews or the Jews chose God?
      • Golda Meir clearly feels discomfort with the concept of chosenness, and believes that the only thing that makes the Jews unique is that they were the first to choose God (not to the exclusion of others choosing the same God in a different way/with a different form of covenant). The following questions will help your students to explore her approach:
        • Does Golda Meir believe God chose the Jews or the Jews chose God?
        • Why do you think she feels more comfortable with this position?
        • Why does she describe this choice as “revolutionary”?
        • How did it make the Jews unique?
        • Do you believe that is the only thing that makes Jews unique?
        • Which of the two stories of the giving of the Torah do you imagine she would be more comfortable with?
      • Heschel’s position is in opposition to Meir’s. He doesn’t believe there is a concept of a “chosen God” but rather God chose the Jews. Yet he shares Meir’s discomfort that this could be construed to mean a superiority of the Jews. He is clear that he does not believe this. These questions can direct your students to explore his position.
        • Does Rabbi Heschel believe the Jews chose God or God chose the Jews?
        • Which of the two stories of the giving of the Torah do you imagine he would be more comfortable with?
        • How are the Jews a “chosen people”? Chosen for what?
        • Does this make them superior according to Heschel?
        • What do you think Heschel would say about God’s love for other nations?
        • Can you love two people equally? Can God?
      • Hirsch doesn’t really deal with whether God chose the Jews or the Jews chose God in this quote. BUt he takes a similar approach to Heschel, allowing the possibility of God having equally unique relationships with other peoples, by emphasizing the exclusivity of the chosenness of the Jews, is they can only worship one God (while God could have relationships with more than one nation, or all nations). Using these questions your students could evaluate how they feel about his approach:
        • Does Hirsch say who chose who?
        • How is Hirsch’s position similar to that of Heschel in the previous source?
        • Is it fair that the Jews have to be exclusive to God, but He does not have to be exclusive to them?
        • Do you think Hirsch believes God’s love for the Jewish people is more than for other people’s?
        • What do you think?
  • You may wish to present the texts in this lesson as a Gallery Walk, either physically in your classroom, or virtually online. 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.
  • Ask your students in small groups to write an investigative journalistic report (either a newspaper/magazine article or a video report for television) on who chose who, God or the Jews. Use the talmudic/midrashic texts as primary sources to quote, and the three personalities as witnesses to interview, based on the quotes found here.
  • The two aggadic sources (Pesikta Rabbati, 21 and Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 88a) lend themselves well to artistic expression (either visual or linguistically through poetry/prose/song). A possible assignment could be to ask your students to show the two versions of the giving of the Torah through art.