Interfaith Panel Wrestles with Troubling Texts
And as it says in the Quran, "You are the best community that has been brought forth for humanity, commanding the reputable and forbidding the disreputable, and believing in God"; and in the surah it says, "This day I have perfected your religion for you, completed my favor upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion."
"The real origin of chosenness has to do with the structure of tribalism in general," said professor Reuven Firestone, director of the Institute for the study of Jewish-Muslim interrelations at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). Israel's God was the God of Israel just as the Moabites' God was the God of Moab.
"It's logical that the relationship would be unique," he said.
"Just as the God of Israel fought for Israel against its enemies, the God of Moab fought its battles," he said. "The notion of chosenness became a powerful tool to claim authenticity to critique the authenticity of others."
This is not to say that Firestone rejects the notion of the Jews' chosenness.
"I am not able or willing to throw it out," he said. "I remain perched on the sharp horns of a dilemma. I can't disregard the texts - they are part of the divine word; they can't simply be jettisoned," he said. But on the other hand, "they can't be taken as a simple truth."
Definitive answers on Jewish chosenness are not exactly forthcoming.
"A good Jew doesn't want to find definitive answers," said conference attendee Gerald Bubis, the founding director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at the Los Angeles School of HUC-JIR. "A good Jew wants to find new questions."
UCLA Director Rabbi Chaim Seidler Feller, who chaired the session on chosenness, offered a different, psychological perspective: "It sounds like the ploy of minority - we may be insignificant numerically, but we are God's chosen; if you are going to be beaten up, it might be comforting to know that you are chosen."
But in today's world, Seidler Feller suggested, the concept of being the chosen people may have to be discarded. He himself revises the prayers, "Ki Banu Bacharta Mikol Ha'amim" (For you have chosen us among all the nations), to say: For you have chosen us with all the nations.
In a subsequent Q-and-A session, the Rev. Vartkes Kassouni of the Morningside Presbyterian Church of Fullerton suggested: "Chosenness can be understood in terms of mission instead of identity."
Firestone agreed. Perhaps this is all God's plan: if he'd wanted everyone to be the same religion, he would have made everyone the same religion; maybe there are different religions so "they would compete with one another in good works," he said.
The conference was heavily attended by Christians and Jews from various denominations, but there was a dearth of Muslim attendees and lecturers.
Like other presenters, Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, vice president of the Academy of Judaic-Christian and Islamic studies in California and chair of the Shura Council of Southern California, chose to examine a text that dissuaded believers from dealing with people from other faiths: "You who believe, do not take the Jews and Christians as allies: they are allies only to each other. Anyone who takes them as an ally becomes one of them - God does not guide such wrongdoers."