Is the Term “Chosen People” Racist?

Dear Rabbi Fried,

How can we claim that we were chosen by God to be his special nation without saying it’s a racist idea? Conceptually how is this any different from Hitler saying the Germans are the pure race or any other race or religion claiming they are the “special ones”. Granted we are not out there murdering those who don’t believe as we do, however it seems impossible to claim that we don’t see ourselves as better. I never felt comfortable with this concept and never got a satisfactory answer.


Dear Matisyahu,

In order for the concept of the Chosen People to be racist, claiming we are racially superior, we would need to be a race. We certainly could not claim to be racially superior, since every possible race is counted among our ranks! There are Jewish Asians, Europeans, Scandinavians, Ethiopians, Caucasians and Orientals, all whom are equally part of the Jewish nation! Jews cannot possibly be defined as a superior race, as our people are as diverse as all of mankind!

What, then, does it mean to be the “Chosen People”?

Let us attempt to understand the deeper meaning of the concept of “chosenness” and we shall see this important idea has no racial undertones.

While the term “Chosen People” does not connote racial superiority, it does imply a uniqueness attached to the Jewish people. This uniqueness is defined in the Torah by our distinct relationship with the Almighty defined by our unique set of obligations; “…for you are a holy nation unto the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a treasured nation from all the other nations upon the face of the earth. Not because you are greater than all the nations has God desired you and chosen you, for you are the smallest of the nations. Rather because of God’s love for you…, and that you shall observe the mitzvah, the statutes and the laws that I have commanded to you today to fulfill them.” 

The unique love relationship between God and the Jewish people was predicated upon their loving acceptance to fulfill His will and their eagerness to spread their recognition of God to the world. This relationship entails a mission, rendering us a “light unto the nations”. 

Was this privilege unfairly bestowed upon us, showing favoritism? That would have been so if the opportunity to accept this special mission was not offered to the other nations as well. The Torah relates that, in fact, the Almighty offered the Torah to the other nations of the world before he offered it to us. They, however, all turned it down as they felt it entailed too much obligation. 

When the nations rejected the offer to accept the Torah and the Jews agreed, they assumed the role of ambassadors of God to the world. 

Furthermore, receiving the Torah necessitates infusing the massive spiritual energy within the Torah into the souls of the recipients. In order to facilitate that, the Jews were endowed with expanded souls – fit to be receptacles for that holiness and Godly energy. Anyone born Jewish, or who properly converts and becomes Jewish, receives a “Jewish soul” which is an expanded “Sinai soul”, fit to be a receptacle for Torah. It is custom made to receive and understand Torah and to radiate the light within it to the nations as a “light unto the nations”. 

The membership in this “club” is a privilege which comes with 613 categories of obligations, the mitzvos. When those obligations are fulfilled, the Jewish souls radiate their light to the nations of the world. When they don’t uphold their responsibilities that light is greatly diminished. 

To illustrate this idea, consider a light bulb. A bulb is a receptacle for electric energy with the purpose of providing illumination. Multiple sizes and types of light bulbs are available, based upon the intended use. If you want a night light for your hallway or bathroom you need a very small bulb; it doesn’t need to receive much energy since it’s not intended to provide much illumination. If you intend to light up your living room you need a larger receptacle for the greater energy needed to cast a stronger light. Another league of bulb entirely is needed if you want to illuminate a stadium at night!

Although all the bulbs mentioned above are of multiple sizes and give off various amounts of light, none of them are “better” than the other. As a matter of fact, it would be quite counter-productive to connect a high-intensity flood light in your bathroom or a night light in the stadium! “Different” doesn’t mean better or worse, it just means different.

As we find different purposes to light bulbs, we also find different purposes for nations of the world. Every nation, Jewish or gentile, as well as every individual, has a Divine mission to fulfill in the world. 

My mentor, the esteemed sage Rav Shlomo Wolbe ob’m, once delivered a profound discourse which punctuated this idea. He enumerated unique lessons we Jews are to learn from our diverse host nations during the period of exile. He explained that we are to fuse these lessons into our broader national consciousness and our understanding of Torah. When the period of Diaspora is complete and we will merit the final ingathering of exiles to the Land of Israel, all the “sparks” of these teachings will be combined into the great fire of Sinai which will again burn brightly. This will bring our role as a light unto the nations to its completion.

When we were assigned the mission as a “light unto the nations”, it would not suffice for us to dimly illuminate our immediate surroundings, like a night light. When the Torah was presented to us at Sinai it was intended to be an instruction manual for all of mankind. This does not mean everyone needs to be Jewish and fulfill all of Torah. There are, however, lessons in the Torah as to how God intended the gentile nations should conduct themselves as well. These lessons are contained, mainly, within the “7 Noahide Laws” which are incumbent upon the nations to fulfill. (The details of those laws are a subject on its own right). 

It is incumbent upon the nation the Torah was given to directly, the Jewish people, to be the “high-intensity flood light”; to conduct themselves in an exemplary manner serving as a role model for the entire world what living with a relationship with God entails. 

As we see, being a “chosen nation” is a lot more about responsibility than about “being better”! (And, for better or worse, the Torah also outlines in no uncertain terms what is coming to us when and if we don’t live up to that responsibility, as we have sadly experienced with the trials and tribulations we’ve experienced throughout our Diaspora history). 

This is not about racism, it’s about responsibilities!

May we live up to our responsibilities and truly serve as an inspiration for all of mankind!


Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried

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