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The Chosen People in America / Arnold M. Eisen

This important work by Arnold Eisen examines the ways in which American Jewish thinkers dealt with the dilemma of the “chosenness” of the Jewish People within a society that emphasizes universal values. Almost thirty years after the book’s original publication, Stuart Schoffman writes, the subject of “The Chosen People in America” retains its significance for the Israeli reader.

This important work by Arnold Eisen examines the ways in which American Jewish thinkers dealt with the dilemma of the “chosenness” of the Jewish People within a society that emphasizes universal values. Almost thirty years after the book’s original publication, Stuart Schoffman writes, the subject of "The Chosen People in America" retains its significance for the Israeli reader.
At first glance, the recent appearance of a Hebrew translation of Arnold Eisen’s important book, “The Chosen People in America: A Study in Jewish Religious Ideology,” is puzzling. It was published in English in 1983, the work of a young religious studies scholar who many years later, following an impressive career at Stanford University, would be appointed Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the position he has held since 2007.   The book has not been updated for the Hebrew edition, and its introduction even retains the following lines, expressed in the present tense: 
“This study is concerned with the ways in which American Jewish thinkers of the past two generations have coped with that dilemma, fashioning a new self-definition for their community through the reinterpretation of the idea of Jewish chosenness. It is this new understanding of self which continues to guide American Jewry in the 1980s.”
Why was this Hebrew edition published in 2010, without revision? Are the opinions of American Jewish leaders and thinkers – mostly rabbis in non-Orthodox denominations who were active from 1930 to 1980 – relevant to today’s Israeli reader?
Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is yes. Apathy and ignorance regarding the nature and variety of the American Jewish community are widespread in Israel, and any attempt to remedy this state of affairs is welcome. Professor Eisen’s book, read today as a work of history, may still provide an informative window for Israelis who may wish to understand the success of their overseas brothers and sisters in shaping a unique and vigorous Jewish identity. Almost thirty years after it was written, this work offers useful insights (possibly prophetic, possibly ironic) concerning the challenges facing the international Jewish community in the age of the “new anti-Semitism” and the Internet.
The figures who populate Eisen’s book grappled with a fundamental problem: how to reconcile the self-definition of the People of Israel as "chosen" with the new reality of the American melting pot that gathered immigrants from all corners of the earth and granted them a new identity. The problem was exacerbated in the 1930s, Eisen points out, when writers in mainstream American publications, including Fortune magazine and the liberal Protestant journal The Christian Century,criticized Judaism as a religion lacking a universal dimension.
“The issue could not have been stated more clearly,” writes Eisen. “A Jewish ethnic identity was illegitimate in democratic America; in clinging to the illusion of chosenness which demanded such an identity, Jews brought their sufferings upon themselves.” As the Conservative Rabbi Milton Steinberg cleverly observed in 1934: “Only a people of acrobats could preserve a semblance of poise on a footing so unstable.”
The Israeli reader may indeed experience a measure of vertigo as he or she navigates among the dozens of thinkers quoted here, and the many theological and ideological nuances that characterize their quest for an American Jewish identity. Nevertheless, from within this detailed and sophisticated mix, various notions stand out as food for thought in Israeli society.   
First of all, American Jewish thinkers and leaders pointed to a basic ideological partnership between the two nations, the Jews and the Americans. From the days of its Puritan founders in the seventeenth century, “America, too, saw itself as elect, and when articulating that election depended heavily on the symbols and concepts of the Hebrew Bible.” Americans have long viewed themselves as a beacon of rectitude in the world, and Reform Rabbis formed a concept of Jewish chosenness that stressed the special moral mission of the Jews. A Reform conference in 1950 “called on Jews to implement their ideals ‘by supporting every progressive endeavor seeking to establish social justice in cooperation with all men of good will.’” 
The problem was to maintain a concept of Jewish uniqueness on the basis of universal religious and moral values, especially when – in the case of Reform Judaism — there was no longer a commitment to halakha. The great religious thinker Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement, solved the dilemma by rejecting the idea of chosenness. Kaplan sought to build a new and rational Jewish civilization, freed of the supernatural, which would, in his words, foster the ability “to live a sense of vocation or calling, without involving ourselves in any of the invidious distinctions implied in the doctrine of election, and yet to fulfill the legitimate spiritual wants which that doctrine sought to satisfy.”
“It is thereby surprising,” says Eisen of Kaplan, “that his notion of vocation, the most original definition of Jewish identity proposed in his generation, died stillborn. Virtually no one inside or outside the rabbinate adopted it, and other movements, no more convinced of Israel’s literal chosenness than Kaplan, chose to reconstruct the belief rather than reject it.” (Today, perhaps two percent of American Jews belong to the Reconstructionist movement.) 
The Orthodox, of course, were able to ignore comfortably the entire conflict regarding chosenness. They “blessed chosenness in silence when the other movements covered it and re-covered it with debate.” Conservative rabbis were paramount among those engaged in such discussions. Regarding their efforts to preserve tradition and to minimize as much as possible the compromises which modernity demands, Eisen wrote:
“A position on chosenness consistent with what they believed to be true about God’s relationship to Israel and other nations, neither presuming too much nor promising too little, just could not be discovered. Caught in the middle, on uncertain ground, Conservatives responded as one does in such a situation — with indecision, eclectic borrowing, and no little evasiveness. It is doubtful, given the constraints under which they moved, that much more could have been achieved. Equivocation had its logic, and it triumphed.   Religious ideology would perform the task which a coherent theology – rarely formulated by the movement – could not accomplish.”
This important observation is still germane almost three decades later. Ultimately, as Eisen summarized in 1983, “Jews could or would not simply cast off the claim to election, even when it proved problematic in the context of American pluralism. The Jews are those who are never not the chosen people.”   This is because “that identity is not merely ethnic. It has built into it religious claims which defy those who would seek to ‘melt’ into the future.”  
Chosen – both for good and for bad. Throughout the book, Eisen brings up the tragic and calamitous dimension of the Jewish people’s chosenness. After the Holocaust, he writes, “to choose chosenness, Jews knew well, had been for their cousins in Europe a choice not of life but of death. Yet not to choose it was to opt for the less painful death which comes of disappearance and forgetting.” 
The typical Israeli reader will naturally see Zionism as the ultimate solution for all the complexes of chosenness. And yet, Zionism is hardly discussed in this book, but rather is mentioned only in passing, and in brief discussions of the writings of the philosopher Horace Kallen and the Zionist journalist Ben Halpern. In any case, it is worth remembering that the concept of chosenness in its Israeli-Zionist incarnation entails no small measure of contradictions and problems of its own. Before we Israelis adopt well-worn assumptions regarding our historical role or our moral superiority (“the most moral army in the world”), perhaps we should listen to the words of Rabbi Daniel Silver from Cleveland – the son of Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, one of America’s great Zionists – from an article he wrote in 1968, which the author quotes near the end of the book:
“If we want to think seriously about the question of Jewish identity, we must put aside that favorite ego trip which relates everything Jewish to categories of ultimate significance and cosmic purpose. Let us put aside all pretensions of our being indispensable to civilization.”

In other words – maybe the era in which we Jews served as a light unto the nations is finally over. Our contribution may now be a more modest illumination – the recognition that each and every nation must have its own electrician.



Stuart Schoffman, journalist and translator of Hebrew literature, is the editor of the Institute’s English periodical, Havruta: A Journal of Jewish Conversation, and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. The Hebrew version of The Chosen People in America: A Study in Jewish Religious Ideology is published by Tel Aviv University (2010). It was translated into Hebrew by Ben Zion Herman.


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