What Are Jews For? His­to­ry, Peo­ple­hood, and Purpose

  • Review
By – October 21, 2020

In his clev­er­ly titled What Are Jews For?, Adam Sut­cillfe offers a his­to­ry of the idea of Jew­ish cho­sen­ness. Sut­cliffe, a pro­fes­sor of Euro­pean His­to­ry at King’s Col­lege Lon­don, sets out to trace the per­cep­tion of what it means for God to have cho­sen one par­tic­u­lar nation, both with­in Judaism and beyond.

Build­ing off of bib­li­cal vers­es in which God describes Israel as a trea­sured pos­ses­sion among all peo­ples” and Isa­iah calls the Israelites, a light unto the nations,” Sut­cliffe begins his study in the mid­dle ages and then con­cen­trates most heav­i­ly on the mod­ern peri­od. He details how the sem­i­nal medieval Jew­ish thinkers, Judah HaLe­vi and Mai­monides, offered dif­fer­ing per­spec­tives on the idea of jew­ish cho­sen­ness. Mai­monides posit­ed, in Sut­clif­fe’s words, that the spe­cial fea­ture of the Jews was their philo­soph­i­cal incli­na­tion,” while HaLe­vi felt that Jews were inher­ent­ly supe­ri­or to non-Jews.

Fol­low­ing the Protes­tant Ref­or­ma­tion, a renewed inter­est was sparked in the Hebrew Bible and its cen­tral nar­ra­tives. Chris­t­ian nations, includ­ing the Dutch Repub­lic and Eng­land, began look­ing to Jew­ish texts as polit­i­cal man­u­als, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly mis­treat­ing actu­al liv­ing Jews. For exam­ple, the Eng­lish legal schol­ar John Sel­don explic­it­ly built his the­o­ry of nat­ur­al law on the sev­en Noachide laws,” but his admi­ra­tion for Jew­ish the­o­ry did­n’t stop him from also endors­ing a blood libel. This quote from Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialec­tic of Enlight­en­ment encap­su­lates the odd mix of admi­ra­tion and exploita­tion char­ac­ter­is­tic of so much of the cen­turies-long anti-Semi­tism described: “[the Jews] are thought to lag behind advanced civ­i­liza­tion and yet be too far ahead of it.”

What Are Jews For cuts to core ques­tions about the applic­a­bil­i­ty of Jew­ish val­ues, nar­ra­tives and even essence. Is the coun­try of Israel, for exam­ple, meant to be a nation like all the oth­ers, or play a the­o­log­i­cal­ly-dri­ven role in the bet­ter­ment of mankind? Do Jews, as a minor­i­ty group, have some sort of respon­si­bil­i­ty to impart key uni­ver­sal val­ues [like social jus­tice] to all of human­i­ty”? Does Jew­ish his­tor­i­cal suf­fer­ing hold mean­ing, and, if so, for whom? Why did God choose the Jews in the first place?

These types of weighty ques­tions and con­cerns abound in this learned but acces­si­ble vol­ume. Sut­cliffe ulti­mate­ly con­cludes that Jew­ish pur­pose is to instill hope. Hope for what? That, as his vol­ume demon­strates, is open to interpretation.

Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advi­sor to the Provost of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. He has edit­ed or coedit­ed 17 books, includ­ing Torah and West­ern Thought: Intel­lec­tu­al Por­traits of Ortho­doxy and Moder­ni­ty and Books of the Peo­ple: Revis­it­ing Clas­sic Works of Jew­ish Thought, and has lec­tured in syn­a­gogues, Hil­lels and adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion­al set­tings across the U.S.

Discussion Questions