Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Is Am Hanivchar a racist concept?

A guest post by THE GODOL HADOR

Cross-Currents posts about the appalling editorial that appeared in a Norwegian paper, penned by a leading author questioning Israel's right to exist. While I have no doubts that the editorial was anti-semitic and one sided and should be condemned, it does raise an interesting point. Unfortunately Cross-Currents chose not to publish my comment there, hence this guest post on DovBear.

The problem is that in one point the article is correct. The notion of being a 'Chosen People' inevitably carries overtones of racism, ethnocentrism or similar. I know of all the usual spin that is put on this, for example 'chosen' not because we are superior but because we have extra responsibilities, or that we accepted to be 'chosen' whereas the other nations didn't (based on the famous medrash about God offering the Torah to the other nations), or that with chosen-ness comes added responsibilities and punishments (see the famous pasuk 'for you have I known best amongst the nations…' ref? [DB: I don't know it offhand]). But however you spin it, it still sounds bad.

And of course it gets worse the further right you go, with sefarim in Lakewood claiming Jews are in fact inherently superior, or FrumTeens claiming that Goyim are background players. Don't get me wrong, I'm under no illusions about Arab hatred towards the Jews, or inbred European anti-Semitism. But as Sam Harris writes in 'The End of Faith', to what extent are we also partly to blame for claiming to be the Chosen People?

Reform and Conservative groups have pretty much done away with the concept of Am Hanivchar, or re-interpret it to mean that we have decided to make tikkun olam our mission. But Orthodoxy still clings to this notion, and would find it very difficult if not impossible to discard it, seeing that it's a central concept in the Torah.

No doubt hard core fundamentalists will say 'So what? So it sounds bad. Tough! That's what God wants and that's the way it is'. But this kind of argument doesn't work very well on the world stage. Imagine if a religious group claimed God wanted them to wipe out the Jews (not too hard to imagine, unfortunately). Is this an acceptable position? Of course not.

Recently, I attended a lecture on diversity. The presenter made two contradictory points, though no one seemed to notice. On one slide, he talked at length about how we must all respect different religious beliefs. On the other slide, he talked about how we must appreciate diversity and that ethnocentrism (and similar) were very wrong.

But what if someone's religious beliefs are inherently ethnocentric? Do we respect that too? I don't know the answer to this question, but if the answer is no, then I think we have a problem here.

No comments: