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 co-edited 14 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.