Chosen to Choose
My own theology is simple, and I have always struggled to give voice or language to G-d and to my relationship with the Divine. I have always believed in G-d, and perhaps that is true for nothing else but the cultural context in which I was raised; belief in G-d assumed, belief in G-d taken for granted. And yet, I know that my relationship to and understanding of G-d is dynamic, changing in ways I could not have predicted when I was a teenager, a period in my life when I was actually more traditionally observant than I am now. My relationship with G-d is just that, it is relational–it changes with me, and in response to the ways I am ever-changing. This personal theology of mine comes to bear as I consider my role as an American Jewish woman living in the diaspora, my place in a ‘chosen’ religion, and my personal relationship to halacha and the State of Israel. In this essay, I will carefully expand on each of these topics, particularly as they relate to, limit, and complicate my own sense of the Divine.
Emunah, belief in the Divine is a choice. While there may be moments in our lives that inspire us to believe, or stretch our conception of belief to be one that is strict, dependent, and sometimes disappointing, there is no universal moment when belief kicks in, nor is there any data to support why or how one may choose to believe. Religious people do not all experience the same moment of faith, we do not experience our faith in similar ways, and we certainly do not express or live out our faith in parallel. I am brought to life by this fact. I am also petrified by this fact. Here, we are presented with a paradox: is the practice of religion and belief in our, one G-d, a collective project, or an individual one? Can it be both?
When I was living in Boston, somebody once asked me why I believe in G-d. My answers included short vignettes about my adoption story, my parents’ experience with infertility, and the immense opportunity and privilege that I have been given throughout my life. The inquirer did not consider these answers sufficient. My answers did not actually address why, and certainly not how, I believed in G-d. In fact, my answers reinforced an idea of religion and belief that he had so fiercely clung to: that religion and faith fail because they are not data-based or driven by claims that can be proved, or for that matter, disproved by conventional logic or science. Honestly, I do not think these answers were sufficient, either. But I realized in that moment that there was no way to qualify or quantify my belief in G-d. Faith and G-d are not hypotheses to be tested and tried. Faith and belief cannot be proven, and yet, they are two unseeable things to which I desperately cling.
I have made a choice to believe in G-d. I have made a choice to see myself as infinite, and also so grandly small and maybe insignificant in relation to G-d. I have made a choice to live my life with and in relation to the Divine. The man who asked me why I believe in G-d rejects this concept of choice, and ultimately rejects the existence of G-d. I don’t find his question of why interesting, nor do I think it matters very much. If I make the choice to be a person of faith, suddenly the Divine is inextricable from my experience as a human being. And as such, I must decide the parameters and boundaries in which I will live and experience my chosen faith. If I choose to be a person of faith, that should be sufficient, because there is no scenario in which I will be able to prove why or how. The choice belongs singularly to me. This small philosophy of mine is closely linked to that expressed in Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson’s essay, BaDerekh: On the Way, A Presentation of Process Theology, and in Joy Ladin’s important piece, The God Thing. In both essays, the respective authors pinpoint and emphasize this idea that G-d is a choice. Belief in G-d and practice of that belief is a decision that we are empowered to make. And we are therefore left alone with the decision to create the theological universe in which we would like to live. Both Artson and Ladin convey a particular trope of empowerment and responsibility: If we are seeking space within our tradition, if we are begging to be seen by the convention of our religion, we must assert ourselves. We must carve out a moment, a text, a conversation within our canon that does speak to us, that is capable of holding us.
Here, I am presented with an interesting question: Can we choose to be a chosen people? How far can the empowerment model that Artson and Ladin explore, take us? Are we empowered such that we can shift or even amend our tradition, our notions of politics and history, to be more inclusive, to push boundaries, and perhaps expand the definitions of chosenness?
I believe in chosenness. I believe that the Jewish people were chosen to engage in a particular project of critical study, enduring and careful exploration of Jewish law and tradition, and exceeding commitment to justice. Chosenness binds me to our tradition. Chosenness ensures that my faith is not arbitrary, that my practice was not constructed or currently performed at random. Relationship is the product of chosenness. It is this relationship that secures me to centuries of stories, folklore, art, law, women, and tradition. This relationship gives me the context, the framework, and perhaps even the rules to participate in contemporary Jewish life and culture. In pursuing this relationship with G-d and the Divine, I am constantly and actively recommiting myself to what came before.
I am also aware of the many ways chosenness comes into conflict with our contemporary liberal values of inclusion, theological doubt and criticism, racial and religious equality, and above all else, egalitarianism. While we may seek and embrace chosenness, we must not do so at the expense or dismissal of others:
This ‘choosing’ of (or by) Abraham does not imply the rejection of others as G-d’s children. If reality ‘reveals’ itself to Abraham, this by no means implies that it does so for him alone. Abraham’s search becomes our doorway into the mystery; we have no need to deny the existence of other doors. Abraham and Sarah’s wide-open tent flaps point to an intent to convert as much of humanity as they encounter to the monotheistic vision, but not to ‘Judaism’ in a specific sense. Future Christians and Muslims can easily find room for themselves in the original big tent that our first ancestors worked so hard to create…In standing up for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham challenges God not for members of his own tribe or faith community, just for fellow humans…(Green, 135).
While the Jewish people may be chosen for a specific project, we have not been chosen above or in rejection of people of varying faith traditions. Our collective truths are no more ‘true’ than those of any other religious or secular community. Our chosenness demands that we honor the ‘other,’ that we maintain a sense of humility in the presence of the myriad faiths and practices that exist around us.
Although Judaism has unique insights to offer the world, Jews do not hold the exclusive right to understanding God and truth. We must take a partnership perspective with other religious groups in order to reach a deeper understanding. The Jewish people are not G-d’s chosen people in the sense of being superior to other faiths, yet we are ‘chosen’ in that we choose to engage with Judaism as one good path, (Rose).
In his essay, Longing to Hear Again, Rabbi Leon Morris addresses the phenomenon and perhaps dilemma that is driving my Boston friend’s question, as well as the central critique of chosenness. Morris addresses the moment in which our conventional and liberal understandings of culture, politics, and history rub up against our readings of our own tradition. Rabbi Morris also addresses the fact that our modern conceptions of faith and tradition are often insufficient toward expressing or creating a true or authentic Jewish experience of the Divine, or practice of ritual. The question remains, how do we seek or create meaningful Jewish practice for ourselves that is both authentic, true to our texts and traditions, and also rapidly in line with our contemporary values of politics, justice, and pragmatism?
In this moment, we can envision a world in which Rabbi Artson’s Process Theology is at the center of Jewish life. As our contexts shift, so does our call to religious participation and practice. As our current political reality nearly forces us to abandon some of our canon’s most central arguments, we remain with the questions of relevance, authenticity, sustainability, and survival. It often feels as though we have to make a decision that resembles the ultimate sacrifice: Do we maintain our liberal ethic or identify ourselves as authentic practitioners of Judaism? While this scenario resonates with me, and I do find its calculus deeply painful, I do reject it. Our conception of chosenness must compel us to constantly create a tradition that is substantial, inclusive, and honest about the ways it conflicts with our contemporary values. In these moments of tension, we do not need to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. We need not completely reject our canon or tradition to arrive at new and innovative conclusions about Judaism and G-d.
This discussion of chosenness and honesty leads me to the question of Israel, diaspora, and the Jewish future. I am a Zionist, and I believe in the Two-State Solution. I am Zionist, and yet I believe that Israel’s current policy of occupation is not only harmful to the Palestinian people, but to our own endurance and survival. We are a people of the book, and we are people of the land. I believe in Israel’s right to exist, and I believe that Israel should be the democratic homeland for the Jewish people. And yet, my sense of chosenness, my sense of G-d, and my deep love for the Jewish people becomes increasingly complex as the political reality in Israel worsens. As a Jew living in the diaspora, who cares deeply for the persistence and survival of both the Jewish people and the State of Israel, I am often left feeling helpless, and betrayed by notions of Judaism that have come so far, only to pervert the idealized, essential, and aspirational senses of Judaism and Jewish practice that we claim to pursue.
My fear is that chosenness has been misunderstood, that there has been a glitch. I have seen how desperately the concept of chosenness has been taken advantage of to allow for gross misbehavior, isolation, and oppression. When I think about the political and theological tool that Israel has become, I panic for the future of the Jewish people. I fear that we have forgotten not only our own history, but our direction.
We are chosen, and have been given an immense gift. We have been chosen to choose. We may choose to be better, we may choose to create innovative and inclusive Halachik practice and ritual, and we may choose to survive.