22 marzo 2011

Israel, a chosen people?


Written by Claude Joseph Goldsmid Montefiore, A British Liberal Jewish teacher, in 1918

     And what of Israel itself? What of its duty and  its destiny ? Here, too, do we not build and rest  upon the highest of the Old Testament utterances ?  " Ye shall be unto me a Kingdom of Priests." " Ye  are my witnesses ; thou art my servant : with his  stripes we have been healed." Our theory of Israel s  mission of the religious charge entrusted to the  Jews for the benefit of the world goes back to the  Babylonian Isaiah. Perhaps it is here that both the  religious and ethical trouble are by some most acutely  felt. I have dealt with the ethical trouble at con  siderable length : here I can be briefer. It cannot  be denied that the peculiar relation of Israel to God  and of God to Israel is of the very kernel of the Old  Testament. And it also cannot be denied that the  relation is often unethically presented : it may even  be said that there are very few Old Testament writers  and passages which are wholly free from a certain  measure of particularism. Moreover, the trouble is  that this particularism is most marked and most  awkward just when the God idea has become most developed and most clearly monotheistic. It was far  less disagreeable in the earliest times than in the  latest times. Hence we cannot say, " This is merely  one of the primitive imperfections of the Old Testa  ment. The later writers are free from it." Nor can  we say, " The Prophets are clear of it. It is only  one of the compromises which had to be taken up in  the Law." Law, prophets and psalter share it alike.  That in primitive times Yahweh should be specially  concerned in the welfare of his people is reasonable  enough. For Yahweh starts as a just, but as a tribal,  God. He cares for Israel, as Chemosh cares for  Moab. But that the God of the spirits of all flesh,  the one and only God, creator of heaven and earth,  that He should have a chosen people, that He should  be more concerned in the prosperity of Israel than  in the prosperity of Edom, that He should have  enemies, simply because Israel has enemies, all this  seems to be a doctrine utterly inconsistent with ethical  monotheism, utterly inconsistent with our modern  ideas whether of morality or of religion. And I fully  agree that it is ! The only limitation but it is an  important and crucial limitation that I would make  is that, while I accept the doctrine of the chosen  people, I interpret it to mean, not favouritism and  presents, but discipline and service. Liberal Judaism  holds, not that God cared more for the Israelites  than for the Edomites, but that he entrusted Israel  with a charge, a task, a mission. This task is  not for ourselves, but for humanity, not for our  benefit, but for the world's. The education for,  and the (very imperfect) fulfilment of, this charge  did not mean, and has not meant, more prosperity,  but less prosperity, not lessing, but more  suffering. 

     That this is not the usual conception of the Old  Testament, that this is not its usual and predominant  interpretation of the "chosen people," is obvious. To  maintain that it was would be hopelessly uncritical and  absurd. But two points must be noticed. The first  is that any other interpretation entirely conflicts with  the ethical monotheism of the Old Testament itself.  We must, therefore (as in other instances), correct  and refute the Old Testament by the Old Testament.  The second point is that though this interpretation  is not the prevailing or the usual interpretation of  the doctrine of Israel s election, a very fair, if incomplete, form of it is found in a few Old Testament  passages which we can legitimately combine and draw  out. Thus we have, to begin with, the famous verse  in Amos, " You only have I known of all the families  of the earth : therefore will I visit upon you your  iniquities." God will deal more strictly with Israel  than with " the nations." This general prophetic  conception characteristic, at least, for the prophets  of the eighth and seventh centuries gave a deadly  blow to the idea that it was God s province and duty  to shower special favours and presents upon Israel,  His people. Next we have the prophetic hope of a  world religion, a universal acknowledgment of the  one true God, arising in the future as the final result  of Israel s life and teaching. " From Zion shall the  Law go forth and the word of the Lord from  Jerusalem." " The earth shall be filled with the  knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea."  " God s house shall be called a house of prayer for  all peoples." "Yet will I gather others unto him  besides his own that are gathered." More definite  even than these passages, and more significant, is the  conception of the Servant in the Second Isaiah. " Ye are my witnesses." Israel has been elected that  God s salvation may spread to the ends of the earth.  This conception culminates in the famous fifty-third  chapter, which the consensus of critics now regards  as the confession of the nations concerning the mis  judged and maltreated Israel. Through his stripes  patiently and voluntarily undergone they have  been healed. Nothing can well be in greater con  tradiction to the old doctrine than this. (It has to  be sorrowfully admitted that it made little headway  or impression.) Lastly, we can quote the conception  in Exodus of " the kingdom of priests," which seems  to point towards the idea of a mission. Priests  hardly discharge their office for themselves : they  discharge it for others. Modern exegesis has  shown that it would not be quite fair to quote  Genesis xii. 3 and its parallels, but that the uni-  versalist interpretation was making itself felt and  becoming known, even within the Old Testament  period, we may gather from the rendering of the  Septuagint. 

     Now the doctrine of Israel's election as interpreted  by Liberal Judaism to-day (and I imagine that  Orthodox Judaism interprets it in the same way) may  be true or false. The immense majority of mankind  would say that it was false, or, at all events, that the  only " mission " Israel had was to produce Christianity,  and that its election terminated, therefore, with the  birth of Christianity s founder. I have not to argue  the question here. My point is simply that, whether  true or false, the doctrine, as we interpret it, is not  unethical. It does not conflict with the moral perfection of God. It need cause us no " trouble."  Further the doctrine, in its main outline, is to be  found in the Old Testament, so that here, too, we stand by, and cling to, the Old Testament at its  highest and its best. 

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