The Chosen Peoples

My thanks go to Simon & Schuster for sending me a review copy of Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz’s new book, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election (2010). Briefly, the book traces the origins of the concept of being a chosen people in both Israel and the United States. This concept is then shown in relief with those who are “unchosen.” The authors conclude by highlighting the national sense of mutual goodwill between Israel and the United States. The full text of this review is on the Full Essays page of this blog.

I read this book wearing multiple hats. Since the first chapter traces Israel’s sense of chosenness from Biblical times to the present, I began by wearing my Biblical Scholar hat. Many of the questions asked and raised about the Bible reveal a naivety about traditional claims of biblical authorship. Although certainty cannot be achieved, biblical scholars have applied textual and literary techniques to the text for well over a century now, and many of the claims simply accepted by Gitlin and Leibovitz simply do not stand up. This may seem a minor flaw, but since Abraham is foundational to this outlook, it is essential to at least consider his lack of historical attestation. Gitlin and Leibovitz assume that Genesis, with its stories of Abraham, predates the books that follow. This is not a safe assumption to make, and using this background as a foundation for further analysis might well lead to structural problems with the argument later on.

Wearing the hat of an historian, I noticed how much of the force of the argument of the book is interwoven with the idea that God has actually chosen Israel. I have told my students for many years now that historians do not make claims on God or God’s alleged activities. Texts that narrate God’s actions tend to be classified as myths rather than history. The concept of chosenness, which Gitlin and Leibovitz are reluctant to relinquish, is based on the premise that God has indeed done the choosing. An historian would be extremely reticent to make such a claim. Having noted this concern, the authors do a fine job of providing a brief, readable history of the founding of modern Israel without recourse to what God was doing in the twentieth century. When the authority of the Bible is needed, it is quoted here in King James English, hardly the most accurate translation available.

Gitlin and Leibovitz suggest that chosenness is more a curse, at times, than a blessing. The reasoning seems to be that the concept of chosenness leads inexorably to Zionism. The ideas interact on a much more subtle level than that, although certainly the Zionist movement has owed and continues to owe quite a heavy debt to the concept. The generalizations here are a bit broad – political motivations may not receive their full due. Toward the end of the chapter the ideology of messianism is engaged and brought into the discussion. It is not clear that messianism is the same as chosenness; the two ideas both emerge in Judaism, but do not always overlap. When the authors state that Zionism has always been messianic at heart (p. 57), that may be correct, but it does not necessarily reflect chosenness. Gitlin and Leibovitz are very good at pointing out the inconsistent application of the idea of messianism in the formative stages of the modern state of Israel.

Please see the Full Essays page for the remainder of this review.

Chosen Ones

Religious dominance has been so much in the news lately that when my wife pointed out the review of Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz’s The Chosen Peoples in today’s paper my mind once again fastened on the issue. I have not read the book; today’s review is the first I’ve heard of it. The salient point, however, is the continued evidence that monotheism is a tremendous burden on society. Most rationally considered analyses of western religious traditions recognize that the same “base God” is recognized in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These three religions are so deeply intertwined in their influences and theological commitments to the singularity of God that such a convergence is inevitable. Nevertheless, three religions sharing a God is like three children sharing a lollipop. Each wants to claim exclusive ownership.

The issue becomes more complex when ethnic identity is tied to religion. Given the nature of religions, this is, however, another inevitability. Religious thought and practice develop among populations separated, in Darwinian fashion, and those who lived in the original arenas of religious development were probably closely related. This is evident in the easy blending of Judaism as a culture and a religion, as well as ethic Orthodox Christianities that maintain a strong cultural component, and in Middle Eastern descent and Islam. People accept the religion of their own people. Monotheism then takes over with the demands of exclusive rights to chosenness or theological correctness. Religion itself contributes to its own fractionalization.

Those who are excluded protest: who wants to be left out of the chosen ones? If there is one God, who wishes to be the second or third or fourth favorite? If we (whoever “we” may be) are those legitimately chosen, are we not in some measure better than other believers? This logical crux slices through all theological niceties for those who examine the issue honestly. Many religions and one God. Chosen people abound. Perhaps it would be less dangerous if God could be divided among the many: one God, divisible, and available to all.