The Joys of Chosenness

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Dennis Prager had an op-ed in the LA Times this weekend indulging in positively volkish glorifications of Jewishness. Prager opines—this is not a caricature—that the Jews obviously are "the chosen people" (a term he never defines) and only a misguided atheist could believe otherwise. He pre-emptively combats any insinuation of racism on his part by observing:

[T]he claim of Jewish chosenness could not be racist because a) The Jews are not a race. There are Jews of every race. And b) Any person of any race, ethnicity or nationality can become a member of the Jewish people and thereby be as chosen as Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah or the current chief rabbi of Israel.

There was a time when many of the Jews' persecutors claimed that they would love and welcome the Jews, just as soon as they converted—which is one of the reasons that so many Jews have wondered for so long just what they were chosen for.

Several weeks ago, Louis Sigel, the former long-time rabbi of my synagogue, passed away. The New York Times profile of Rabbi Sigel noted his role in motivating Teaneck, NJ to be the first town to integrate its schools voluntarily:

A law professor who was a member of Temple Emeth stood and asked why the whole community had to be "disturbed" by a problem that he said black residents had created themselves by moving into one end of town.

"The temple's rabbi, Louis J. Sigel, rose," Mr. Damerell wrote. "His rich voice carried throughout the auditorium" as he narrated a story from the Talmud about a man who sees a fire in another part of town and asks, "What have I to do with the needs of the community?"

"Sigel's voice rose in emphasis, 'Such a man destroys the world!'" Mr. Damerell wrote. "Applause exploded through the auditorium."

Whole thing here.

Whether you believe an individual has an unavoidable responsibility to the community or not, there's a lesson here, and not just a rabbinical lesson. The special responsibility of the Jewish people, whatever it is, must have something to do with overcoming the sort of tribalism and racial exceptionalism Prager is peddling.

NEXT: The Gods Must Be Crazy

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  1. Well, race as a concept is highly dubious to begin with. Also, conversion to Judaism isn’t that easy as I understand.

  2. Amen, Dan.

    This is the same character recently sighted trying to convince us that the Federal Marriage Amendment was crucial because without it impressionable minds might get the idea that democracy didn’t go well with bigotry.

  3. Conversion to Judaism is definitely meant to be a non-trivial process, and as a very strong rule, converts are not sought. Those are two of the things I like about Judaism.

  4. If anyone can convert to Judaism, then Jews are chosen in the same way that atheists are chosen.

    So I guess, they could claim that they are chosen to be of the one true religion. But we learned during a South Park episode that the one true religion is Mormonism. All others will go to hell.

    Therefore Mormons are the true chosen people.

  5. Eric,
    I agree, the thing I like most about Jews is that they don’t try to convert others.

    If we could only get Christians and Moslems on that page, we would be a lot better off.

    If we could get the Atheists to shut the fuck up too that would also be cool.

  6. Emmanuel Levinas, I think in _Difficult Freedom_, identifies the meaning of “chosen prople” as “chosen for special responsibilities,” which is to say a Jew’s concern for what does not concern him, eg. injustice anywhere.

    The second part, which cannot be omitted, is that that is the situation of ethics in general for everybody – that it is constituted by just that concern for others that do not concern one.

    The third part is that every man a Jew, because it is the situation of ethics in general.

    Religion is the poeticization of morality, in general.

    So far there has not been a Levinas of Islam, as far as I know, and this is what is missing from it

  7. Seems like every 800 years or so some asshole in the Middle East gets too much ergot into his bread and after hallucinating his ass off goes and starts a religion. And each new religion is more annoying than the one before.

    Best argument for a strong FDA I’ve heard yet.

  8. I used to enjoy reading Prager’s columns, because even though I don’t agree with him they were usually thoughtful and well-written. Then, a few months ago, he apparently lost his mind; on his Website now he’s up to part FIFTEEN of a series titled “The Case for Judeo-Christian Values.” Fifteen! Give up on the columns and write a damned book if it’s that important to you.

  9. Isn’t it like way past your bedtime, Jennifer?

  10. Quite the opposite, Doug. The ungodly hour I have to get up in the morning is the only thing I dislike about my job.

  11. Whoops, I made a mistake–after checking his Website I see he’s up to part SEVENTEEN of his column-epic.

  12. Despite vast efforts by gov’t, Teaneck is still mostly segregated (now it’s three insular communities – black, Orthodox Jewish, and other) and virtually all of the same problems still exist.

    I was in the first (I believe) integrated class, which was sixth grade. There were no benefits that I discerned from being coerced to bus two hours a day (I just lost that time). To my understanding, there is still a “black door” at the high school, where white kids risk getting beat up if they dare to use it.

  13. If we could get the Atheists to shut the fuck up too that would also be cool.

    kwais – Is there an evangelical atheist campaign being waged somewhere that I don’t know about? I’ve had Jehovah’s Witnesses interrupt my Sunday mornings (it became a semi-regular thing once upon a time), but I’ve never had an atheist stop by to recruit me.

  14. “If we could only get Christians and Moslems on that page, we would be a lot better off.

    If we could get the Atheists to shut the fuck up too that would also be cool.”

    The first sentence is a precondition for the second.

  15. I’ve never had an atheist stop by to recruit me.

    Hello there, Adam. I see that you’re eating dinner, but why don’t you put down your fork long enough to let me tell you about how my life improved after I kicked Jesus out of my heart? It wasn’t the morality thing that bothered me so much as the way He kept playing His stereo too loud. Anyway, there’s no need to be born again because being born once is sufficient; if you tithe ten percent of your income into your own personal savings account you can get yourself a nice house after a few years!

  16. LONDON – Police raised the death toll in London’s atheist bombings to 52 Monday as forensics experts identified the first of the victims – a 53-year-old mother of two from outside London. Prime Minister Tony Blair promised a “vigorous and intense” manhunt for the atheists.

    As workers searched the twisted wreckage for more bodies, millions of Londoners rode subways and buses to and from work, tense but intent on resuming their routines four days after the atheist strikes.

    “We won’t let a small group of atheists change the way we live,” London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, said defiantly.

    In a somber address to the House of Commons, his first since Thursday’s attacks, Blair said it seemed probable that atheist extremists were responsible for what he denounced as a “murderous carnage of the innocent.”

  17. “But we learned during a South Park episode….”

    How did you learn anything from a “South Park” episode? Those voices are goddamned impossible to understand.

  18. Your parody would make for incisive satire, Ed, if it weren’t for the inconvenient fact that the word being replaced by “atheist” is actually “terrorist” — not “Muslim.”

    Unfortunately, the Western media is too chickenshit to call this stuff out for what it is. If we would stop toying around with all this “religion of peace”/”these are merely fringe extremists” stuff, and aimed for a little reality — i.e., that Islam is a cancer on humanity — the war on “terrorism” would already be half won.

  19. If we would stop toying around with all this “religion of peace”/”these are merely fringe extremists” stuff, and aimed for a little reality — i.e., that Islam is a cancer on humanity — the war on “terrorism” would already be half won.

    Victory Plan for War on Terror:

    1) Persuade the American public that a billion people are a cancer on humanity.
    2) ?
    3) Peace and harmony!!

  20. Fifteen to twenty percent of humanity isn’t a cancer; it’s something you must learn to co-exist with. (Not a Godwin but a legitimate comparison: Hitler referred to the Jews as a cancer on society too. That’s how ‘good Germans’ were able to murder them with a clean conscience.)

  21. Damn Muslims are too tribal and violent. We should kill them all.

  22. Adam

    No atheists don’t ring your doorbell and all that stuff. But they do whine about your christmas tree, about ten commandments being in the courthouse, they use a little daughter as a pawn to get “under God” removed from the pledge.

    Moslems, Buddists, and religios Jews understand that it is someone’s religion and let them have it.

    Also I have heard from atheists crap like “if it weren’t for religion, there would have been less war in the world” Which I guess might be true, because it would mean there is a completely different species of talking ape running the planet.

    Also on this site you will hear atheits mock religion and talk to the effect of “these people are idiots, and they haven’t done the simple math problem that shows that there is no God”. Accept no God into your life and all will be OK.

    I mean I don’t really care, I am just pointing out what is out there.

  23. Jewish closeness and tribalism has generally served them well (it’s not their fault the nazi’s wanted to gas them). I really don’t see that there is much to warrent a hit and run entry here. I don’t believe non violent tribalism is much of a problem anyway (and violent nation statism is far worse than even violent triabalism).

    Jews have always had a strong sense of social conscience to begin with, so I really don’t see the issue there either. Leave the jews alone, in short.

    Now if you want to complain about say the actions of the state of Isreal, I’d be on the same page, but I don’t tend to equate that with Jewishness per se.

  24. SP,

    This question has already been brought up sort of by other posters, but;

    What do you do once you realize that moslems are a cancer?

  25. SP,

    If it were true that all muslims were terrorists, we’d have a hell of a time stopping them, considering that they’d outnumber Americans 3 to 1.

    Kwais,

    I guess he recommend radiation treatment.

  26. Atheists try to hit me up all the time. E.g., ACLU fund raising drives. Basically, what kwais said.

    As for liking Jews for not seeking converts, just a question: The position then is that if you believe you have found the true religion, which by definition probably means the formula for eternal life and salvation in some form or other, you should keep it to yourself and not share it with people who haven’t found it? Oh, that is selfless of you. Seems to me that position is selfish and not very neighborly.

  27. Islam is a cancer.

    I did not write that Muslim* people, collectively, are a cancer.

    Quit distorting my words, all of you.

    *(While we’re at it, could we at least agree on a single transliterative spelling of “Muslim”? There’s really no need for five or six different versions to be floating around.)

  28. Also I have heard from atheists crap like “if it weren’t for religion, there would have been less war in the world” Which I guess might be true, because it would mean there is a completely different species of talking ape running the planet.

    I’ve given this question a lot of thought after listening to both the “Soviet atheists killed x number of people.” and the “Millions have died because of religion.” camp. I’ve concluded that it doesn’t matter either way. We are a species with violent tendencies and will find excuses to justify killing one another in service of our needs. Religion and atheism are just two more excuses.

  29. My point (obviously) was that it’s religious fanatics detonating bombs and sawing people’s heads off, not irreligious fanatics.

    All religion is cancer. Some forms are simply more virulent than others.

  30. Revised Victory Plan:

    1) Persuade the American public that a billion people are suffering from a cancer.
    2) ?
    3) Peace and harmony!!

  31. I guess the point of my post is to ask SP how the war on terror would be “half won” if the American people accepted his point?

  32. Islam is a cancer. I did not write that Muslim people, collectively, are a cancer. Quit distorting my words, all of you.

    My bad. Just out of curiosity, could you explain to me the difference between “Christians are a cancer” and “Christianity is a cancer,” or the same thing for Jews and Judaism? To my atheist self, this is but the finest of hairsplitting; if the attitude “Islam is a cancer” became mainstream for our society, I think the results would be such that any observer would refuse to believe us when we said, “No, no–we don’t think MUSLIMS are a form of cancer!”

  33. Jennifer-

    Maybe the more important point is this: Regardless of what distinctions one wants to make, how will a massive embrace of SP’s statement get us 50% of the way toward winning the war on terror? What would the other 50% of the effort comprise?

  34. Thoreau-
    SP’s attitude will reduce our dependence on foreign oil: “YOU are not a cancer on society, but your religion is. If you renounce Allah and convert to a proper religion like Christianity we won’t gas your ass. Not willing to do it, eh? Then into the oven you go!”

    And once we do that, all we need to do is figure out how to make cars that use burning Muslims as fuel. Simpatico, huh?

  35. Jennifer-

    Instead of making accusations that SP should deny, maybe we should sit back and let him make himself look bad.

  36. Thoreau-
    Hopefully nobody will take seriously my snarky suggestion to end fuel dependence. But I seriously would like to know the practical difference between “Islam is a cancer” and “Muslims are a cancer.” Human nature being what it is, would it even be possible for any society to treat avoid mistreating people, despite the belief that THEIR beliefs are a cancer on society? I don’t think so.

  37. To me, it sounds like SP is making the argument that we have the means to win but not the will. If Americans would realize that Islam is a cancer to be irradiated from the body of the earth, we would have the will to use the means.

  38. I hope that never happens, David. We could certainly wipe every Muslim off the face of the earth, but after wiping out a fifth of humanity we would be, without exaggeration, the single most evil society in all of human history.

  39. Whoops- SP might want me to point out that we’re not talking about wiping out all the MUSLIMS; we want to wipe out all the BELIEVERS IN ISLAM. Biiiiiiiiiig difference, that.

  40. I’m going to give SP the benefit of the doubt and assume that he’s talking about something short of genocide.

    But since he says that a massive change of public attitude is the necessary first step, I assume that it will still be something dramatic. I’m tempted to assume that dramatic=draconian in this case, but maybe he can prove me wrong.

    SP?

  41. I hope that never happens, David. We could certainly wipe every Muslim off the face of the earth, but after wiping out a fifth of humanity we would be, without exaggeration, the single most evil society in all of human history.

    Not in the context of SP’s comparison, Jennifer. We’d be more like doctors treating a sick patient. And like a doctor needing to remove some surrounding tissues as a preventative, if we happen to kill some Jews, Hindus, Christians, etc. so be it. Besides, if we’re wrong they’ll all go to heaven anyway.

  42. The Talmud says one should pray for the welfare of the government because were it not for the government, men would swallow each other alive.

  43. kwais,

    But they do whine about your christmas tree…

    No, many contend that Christmas trees, creches, etc. shouldn’t be paid for by public money and/or put into public squares. I guarantee you though that next year when I am putting up a pro-atheist sign on the courthouse in Durham around X-mas I’ll get shit for it and it will likely be knocked down. Anyway, you can have all the Germanic pagan trees in your house that you want to.

    …about ten commandments being in the courthouse…

    Again, its government money spent for evangelism. The historical record simply does not support the claims that the Decalogue had any influence on American law.

    …they use a little daughter as a pawn to get “under God” removed from the pledge.

    Suggesting that man used his daughter is fairly offensive. The man honestly believed that his daughter was harmed by the language introduced in the 1950s into the Pledge.

    Moslems, Buddists, and religios Jews understand that it is someone’s religion and let them have it.

    That’s a laughable contention. Sorry, every religion has its prostelytizing element, even Buddhists and Jews (the Buddhist “Soka Gakkai” is well known for aggressively seeking converts for example).

    Anyway, we won’t shut up. Get used to it and stop whining about atheists exercising their rights. Or are you like Justice Scalia, and think that atheists are second-class citizens?

    js,

    Jews have always had a strong sense of social conscience to begin with…

    That I am afraid is a post-WWII myth.

    David,

    Atheism wasn’t the most important aspect of Communism, however. Collectivism was. Its the collectivist tendencies of religion that also lead to mass slaughter.

  44. Hillel, Now you’re just confusing things. How many times in human history, how many billions of times, has it been stated that it is religion, pick one, any one, which is the bulwark of civilization?

    Just kidding (a little). But hell, Hillel, wouldn’t just any old, nasty tyrannical regime suffice to prevent men from swallowing each other alive? Well, with the exception of the usual underclass that each society keeps for the sake of kicking around and occasionally swallowing.

  45. (Sorry, just back from some actual work.)

    OK. Since some here are apparently convinced I’ve actually advocated the extermination of Muslims, I suppose I have to spell this out.

    No, I don’t advocate the extermination of Muslims. Also, I didn’t advocate the extermination of Muslims, in my earlier posts or during any time in my life. And I will not advocate the extermination of Muslims at any point in the future.

    Clear enough?

    There are ways to eliminate Islam without eliminating people who practice Islam.

    That help?

    I wrote that the war on terrorism would “already be half won” if we were to properly call out Islam. Here is the reason I wrote that: I think that our efforts during the past four years against Islamic terrorism have been hindered by our dancing around semantics. We call it “terrorism,” but we omit the “Islamic” part.

    Our political correctness (sorry, that shark-jumped phrase is still the only one that fits) has rendered our efforts inefficient. To properly fight the war, we must properly identify the war. That includes acknowledging the inherent problems with Islamic beliefs.

    Human beings are born with kneecaps, toenails, fingerprints and various other stuff. No human being is born with Islam. It doesn’t have to be here. Nothing will be hurt if it’s not here; in fact, the world would be helped quite a bit.

    Islam is a backwards belief system that is at odds with modern liberal civilization. That should be said aloud in every mention of an Islamic terrorist attack.

    To close with an ad hominem (and a haphazard psychoanalysis):

    I find it interesting, Thoreau, that you purposefully chose to misread my post and respond with shrill hyperbole. You typically go to great pains around here to present yourself as That Reasonable Guy — sticking both fingers in the air during a debate to determine which way the opposing winds are blowing, then stepping into the middle to exhibit your Admirable Ability to see Both Sides. Beneath the display of humility lurks a quiet pride in being viewed as the voice of measured calm.

    But this was one of those cases in which you’re willing to temporarily drop the veil, to show that you can be as passionate as the next poster. I mean, Get a load of this guy — he wants to exterminate Muslims! It does, after all, serve the same self-righteous instinct.

  46. There are ways to eliminate Islam without eliminating people who practice Islam.

    Such as? Conversion at gunpoint doesn’t have a pretty history.

  47. SP-

    I never accused you of wanting to exterminate Muslims. In my satirical posts I left step 2 as “?” My point was that you never really said where you think we should go after accepting your premise, and that it seems difficult to envision any decent measures that (1) rely on your premise and (2) lead to a better world.

    In other words, you need to think carefully about the implications of your post. I really don’t see how widespread acceptance of your notion will lead to a victory in the War on Terror, or how it will keep us away from any slippery slopes.

    Indeed, I’m still not sure I understand what you want to do. You clearly want to end the practice of Islam in this world. You make it clear that you don’t advocate mass murder, and I won’t accuse you of that. But I don’t see how your proposal is feasible. Even if we tried draconian measures we still wouldn’t be able to eliminate a religion. Christianity spent a long time underground, for instance.

  48. Atheism wasn’t the most important aspect of Communism, however. Collectivism was. Its the collectivist tendencies of religion that also lead to mass slaughter.

    Hakluyt,

    My point was that there is always a reason that people can find to kill each other. It can be applied to any -ism. Therefore, I feel the various -isms have less to do with it than humanity’s tendencies to organize into exclusive groups(tribes, cults, nations, cultures, religions, forum thread posters) with hatred of outsiders.

    SP

    I don’t think that it’s fair to say that all Islam is the backward version that Osama would see practiced. No more fair than saying that Fred Phelps and Jerry Falwell represent all Christianity.

    Followers of every belief system can be backward, antimodern, illiberal, and violent. Not all are, so most of that has to come from the tendecies of individual sects and their members.

  49. I’d still like to know how to wipe out Islam without wiping out the people who practice it. And as an atheist who would love to see the end of all religion but doesn’t approve of murder, I’d like to know if this can be applied to ALL religions.

  50. SP Said:
    “Islam is a backwards belief system that is at odds with modern liberal civilization.”

    Uhmm…I think you could replace Islam with Christianity and your statement would still hold just as true.

    Also, No human being is born with religion at all. Humas are indoctrinated with religion based on their parents beliefs and their religion. So I dont see the relevance when you say “No human being is born with Islam. It doesn’t have to be here” No religion HAS to be here. Are you trying to argue that Islam is bad Christianity good simply because you say so??

    I don’t want to call you a bigot, but your statements reek of of prejudice.

  51. “Collectivism” is a term you people throw around in the same way some religious folks throw around the term “sin.” A less doctrinaire approach would improve the clarity and level of your thought, but that is probably too much to ask.

  52. Hillel,

    How about I give you an example?

    There once was an Anabaptist named Dr.Balthasar Hubmaier who came to a town named Nikolsburg (now named Mikulov) who was on the run from the authorities in Zurich for his humanist ways. Soon he was setting up churches throughout the town and its environs; however, because of his own past intolerance to Jews and others, and the lessons he learned from that, Hubmaier did not forgo the practice of infant baptism for those who wanted it. He stated that, “I am weak for the sake of the weak for now until things improve.”

    What Hubmaier was creating in the tiny province was in was the first and only Anabaptist state church; but one which was tolerant of other viewpoints. This threatened the Hapsburg order, which was allied with the Catholic Church, and viewed those involved in the Reformation as treasonous. The Haspburgs in this story are the collectivists. The Hapsburgs forced the Count who controlled the territory to surrender Habmaier, who in turn was tortured and burned at the stake. Hubmaier is famous for shouting the following as they rubbed gunpowder into his bear and hair: “Oh salt me, salt me well!” His wife, who was given a chance to forsake him, was weighted with a stone and thrown to her death into the Danube.

    This was part of a intense persecution that Anabaptists would suffer through for the next hundred years.

    Anyway, I think you can see clearly what I mean by collectivism; its the sort of power exhibited by the Holy Roman Empire against individuals who merely disagreed with the Empire.

  53. Hakluyt:

    I’ll bet if you thought beyond your slogans and dogmas, you could come up with beneficial collective actions. Try thinking about it. The exercise might even stave off dementia.

  54. Judaism may not seek new recruits, but they’re not to nice to those who leave the fold. It’s about as sexist as most stripes of christianity.
    It also runs about even in the dumb rule department.

  55. Jeff:

    There are and always have been many Judaisms, so generalizations are almost always wrong. The rules of bridge or chess will seem strange to anyone who doesn’t play.

  56. The atheist equivalent of “chosen” is “unique.”
    Even identical twins are unique.
    Any groups are likewise unique. And I don’t mean just on the micro level. Groups are unique because of a complexity pattern which emerges automatically.
    Sex constantly works as a blender against uniqueness, but, again, thanks to complexity we don’t yet understand, there will never emerge perfect homogeneity.

    Because of uniqueness, it must be assumed that somebody or some group has the shiniest golden key to a better future. For that reason, we must respect all individuals and all groups.

    That said, it’s obvious evolution–the mechanism that got us this far–knows nothing about respect. It also knows nothing of precision–echoed in decisions from our Supreme Court–so let’s not get hopes too high for the concept of “respect.”

  57. SP,
    Islam is the one true religion. Jesus will tell you that when he comes back to earth. Throwing moslems to the lions will only strenthen the religion. But it will be good entertainment value, and it will make up for the fact that there was no way to record it when it was done to the Christians.

    Thoreau,
    There seems to be two schools of thought out there. One is that we are too much of a warmongering people and that we only need to prosecute these villains in a Kerry sort of way. The other school of thought seems to be a “kill them all” use nukes or whatever sort of way.

    I am in the minority in that I think that both those schools of thought are wrong and will fail. I think we make a lot of mistakes but the policy we have going is the best one. I know there are failures. There was Abu Ghraib, there was the case in Afghanistan where they tortured and killed the innocent guy. But over all we are on the right track.

  58. Hakluyt,
    It may be offensive to say that the man was using his daughter as a pawn. But any objective outside observer would see it to be true.

    ” Sorry, every religion has its prostelytizing element”

    I haven’t seen that in Jews, and I have in Atheists. That is one of the things that I like so much about Judaism.

    “Anyway, you can have all the Germanic pagan trees in your house that you want to.”

    I don’t have any religios symbols at all in my house. But then it is MY house.

    I don’t approve of any public money being spent on christmas trees. And I would vote against it. But really for the crying and whining that goes on about such trees. Unlike the public money that is spent on welfare, public school, and aid to Africa, the money spent on an innocent little christmas tree does no harm.

    “Jews have always had a strong sense of social conscience to begin with…

    That I am afraid is a post-WWII myth.”

    Really? Tell me more.

  59. kwais,
    “…they use a little daughter as a pawn to get “under God” removed from the pledge.”

    To argue that issue in court, one has to have “standing”. Gotta have a son or daughter being affected by the pledge. So, someone was going to have to “use” somebodys school kid to bring that issue before the court, ehh?

    Matter of fact, the court ruled the issue on the technical matter of (a lack of) standing.

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