It just smacks you in the face.
There it is, in the very first line of Haftarat Kedoshim: “To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians.” (This is the Ashkenazic Haftarah: the Sephardic version, Ezekiel 20: 2-20, I will consider in future iterations).
It couldn’t get any clearer than that, could it? If you are looking for a strong, simple, transparent condemnation of racial prejudice, you couldn’t do any better, right?
Well, of course you could, because the Torah has 70 faces. More to the point, as George Orwell put it, “to see what is in front of one’s nose is a constant struggle.” Rabbi JH Hertz, whose commentary I suffered through as a kid, said, “Degenerate Israel is no more to God than the despised inhabitants of distant Ethiopia, the descendants of Ham.”
The context lends some support to Hertz’ position (although less than he claims). After all, the passage is spoken by a God enraged at Israel, one that will soon be conquered and dispersed.
But when it comes to Tanach, interpretation need not follow context. Indeed, the rabbis developed an extraordinarily powerful hermeneutic of decontextualization. Consider, for example, the Biblical injunction of “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise”. (Exodus 21:23-25). You really cannot get any clearer than this, but the rabbis hated it.
In a famous Talmudic discussion, they did interpretive somersaults to avoid plain and precise Biblical language. They noticed that in the Exodus passage, “for” – as in “eye for eye” used the Hebrew preposition tachat. Because another Biblical passage completely and totally unrelated to the issue used the preposition “tachat” to refer to the payment of damages ((Deuteronomy 22:29), the rabbis agreed that “ayin tachat ayin” – even though it is about as clear as can be – really means that if you knock someone’s eye out, you pay damages for it, instead of having your own eye knocked out. (Bava Kamma 83b-84a).
Compared to that, to argue that “Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians” entails a rejection of racial prejudice is pretty much of a gimme. We really need look no further than Moses, who married a Cushite woman. Far from expressing disapproval of the marriage, the Torah relates that when Miriam and Aaron denigrated it, they were afflicted with skin disease. (Numbers 12:1-16).
But if you want context, you can have it. Right after comparing Israelites to Ethiopians, God says, “True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir.” Even the foundational story of the Israelites cannot be seen as unique. There’s another smack in the face.
These divine stings are so arresting in no small part because they undermine other texts read alongside the Haftarah. In this week’s Parasha, God insists, “you shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine.” (Leviticus 20:26). And no; this isn’t just a split between Chumash and Nevi’im. Just a few chapters early in Amos itself, God declares to Israel, “only you have I known of all the families of the earth; that is why I will call you to account for all your iniquities.” (3:2).
One could always ascribe these contradictions to God’s ongoing psychic crisis, which I have written about before. But that is too easy, for God’s statements really reflect commonplace facts and sentiments. Every human being is unique, and every human being is equal. Parents with multiple children have a special relationship with each, yet do not view one as better than the other (at least good ones don’t).
On chosenness, Jewish scholars have dug themselves into holes that have only made the problem worse. Consider Emet v-Emunah, the Conservative Jewish statement of faith, which argues, “Far from being a license for special privilege, it entailed additional responsibilities not only toward God but to our fellow human beings.” Joseph Telushkin echoes this sentiment in his book Jewish Literacy. But I doubt that it helps. If God gives one people special responsibilities, then this may not imply special privilege, but it does imply privileged status. Consider God as Parent: one gives a child greater responsibilities if one believes the child can handle them. If God gives one people greater responsibilities than others, then this implies that the Divine Mind believes that particular people to be particularly capable. And that implies a higher status.
The former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, tried to avoid this problem by arguing that different peoples had different missions: the Greeks had philosophy, the Romans law and government, the British parliamentarism, the Americans democracy, and so on. What about the Jews? “The Jews,” said Lord Jakobovits, “were chosen by God to be 'peculiar unto Me' as the pioneers of religion and morality; that was and is their national purpose.”
Wrong. Were I a member of any other faith, I would find this insulting: it suggests that the Jews have a unique call to “religion and morality.” We don’t.
Instead, we should say that Jews are chosen and so is every other people and faith, to the extent that these peoples and faiths are struggling to understand and enter into relationship with the divine. God “chooses” a people, or a faith, when they are actively seeking to find God. Judaism is special, and chosen, because it attempts to find God in its special way – and Tibetan Buddhism is special and chosen when it does the same even if it is an atheist religion. (The Dalai Lama reminded Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, “remember that I am an atheist.” Reb Zalman responded, “No worries – so is God.” This.). Why be Jewish? Because God calls your soul to be Jewish. That is all.
It is the sincere and urgent search, and craving, and listening for the divine that makes a people or an individual chosen. After all, spiritual longing is not a choice – it is a gift. And that gift can come to an Ethiopian, or a Philistine, or an Aramean, or a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Buddhist. In this sense, all humanity can be Israel, whether they be Jewish or not, for all humanity can struggle with God.