The symposium is now open. Please see below for the opening comments by the two respondents and replies by Gellman.
Comments by Luvell Anderson here
Comments by Berel Dov Lerner here
Replies by Yehudah Gellman here
(Gellman’s God’s Kindness has Overwhelmed Us: A Contemporary Doctrine of the Jews as the Chosen People (Chapter 4) (permission kindly granted by Academic Studies Press).
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In response to my comments, Yehudah writes: “From my point of view whether we succeed in coming close to God depends on how we take up the task. We become God-like by becoming merciful and loving as is God. Whether this issues from our observance is a matter of our training with a conscious aim of coming close to God.”
But why assume that a spiritual/ethical practice has to be deliberately performed towards some spiritual/ethical effect in order for it to work? Would we be that surprised if a meditation master told a student , “Stop worrying about enlightenment and just be mindful of your breathing”.
In a way, the assumption that Judaism offers a superior form of spiritual practice may be a cause for humility for actual living Jews. One might say, “Some of those non-Jews really out shine us – even with the Torah to guide us we don’t manage to match their spiritual/ethical accomplishments.”
Gellman has provided us with an interesting model of the chosen people. In Gellman’s own words, “the purpose of God’s choosing the Jews was as I say it was, to serve the Gentiles with a model of God’s love of all humanity.” (74)
In the context of ethics, one common objection to utilitarian views is that they permit using one person to the advantage of others. This “using” of people is seen to be intuitively unacceptable. I am left wondering whether something akin might be said of Gellman’s model in that it seems committed to the idea that God, as it were, “uses” the Jewish people for ends He cannot achieve on His own. This kind of instrumentality seems worrisome albeit instrumentality with overwhelming love attached to it.
(It would be interesting to determine whether this form of instrumentality can be connected to the form of instrumentality at play in the skeptical theism debate, where it seems morally OK for God to “permit” an evil state of affairs if that is the only way He can achieve a far better state of affairs overall.)
Reply to Dani Rabinowitz:
God’s “using” people is always triple-sided: (1) God makes use of a person. (2) God’s purpose in doing so is of supreme value. (3) God creates persons and the world in such a way that every case in which God makes use of a person is also a case where God is acting for the best good of that person. (I assume middle knowledge.)
These neutralize any worry about God’s “using” people. In any case, I am not sure God is bound by the prohibition on using people. But I am not prepared to argue that just yet.
There is a venerable history of recognizing God’s use of people to further God’s ends. Hegel wrote of the “cunning of history.”
My reply here should be read with my article, “A Theistic, Universe-Based, Theodicy of Human Suffering and Immoral Behavior,” European Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 2012, where my views on the problem of evil occur.
Thanks to Yehuda Gellman for his very stimulating recent book.
I understand his essential thesis as follows: Gellman’s view of chosenness is that God overwhelmed the Jewish people with love and compelled them to enter into a close relationship with Him. God’s conduct towards His chosen nation is intended to provide a demonstration of His desire for intimacy with all humanity. He does not overwhelm the non-Jewish peoples of the world with His love because He wishes to leave to all of humanity beyond the Jewish people the ability to come to Him in freedom. Moreover, He wishes the Jews too to choose Him in freedom subsequent to the initially coercive nature of the relationship.
In elaborating his view of Jewish chosenness, Gellman writes:
“The history of the Jewish people serves as a mirror of all of human existence. Human existence has a good share of loss and failure, of anguish and disappointment, of suffering and defeat. This truth about human existence is mirrored in the history of the Jewish people. Jewish history has been a long litany of persecution and suffering, restrictions and isolation. But through it all Jewish history has been punctuated by God’s grace shining through the tribulations of a people. The Jewish people continues to exist, and with its religion intact. In this way, the Jewish people serve as a model for how to understand one’s life and how to maintain hope in the darkest of nights”.
My worry is a straightforward one: the focus in this passage on the Jewish people and its experience inevitably marginalises non-Jews. It comes too close for comfort to violating one of Gellman’s own criteria for an acceptable notion of Jewish chosenness, namely that it must not imply Jewish superiority. A conception of chosenness that understands the Jewish people alone among peoples as current recipients of God’s overwhelming love inevitably suggests Jewish superiority and is likely to lead, among Jews, to a sense of superiority. It is also instructive that at the beginning of the longer passage cited above, Gellman terms Jewish history a “mirror” of human experience, but by the end of the passage it has become a “model”. A little later in his discussion, Gellman uses the term “model” again in an important sentence that sums up his view of Jewish chosenness: “The Jews have endured God’s overwhelming love so as to serve as a model for the Gentiles to become God’s beloved”. To constitute a model of belovedness by God to those who are not yet His beloved is to be superior in a meaningful sense.
Gellman does say that on the level of world religions, there is a two-way modelling process in which the non-Jewish religions also serve as a model to the Jews, showing how to freely respond to God and intimating the need for Jews to go beyond God’s coercive embrace and respond to Him freely. But this is still not genuine equality. Non-Jewish nations are modelling appropriate responses to God from a starting-point at which they are lesser loved than the Jews. Moreover, there seems to be a lack of recognition here of the self-understanding of adherents of non-Jewish religions, who do not (and even more so in the case of non-theistic or atheistic religions such as Buddhism) see the value of their faith as consisting in modelling uncoerced responses to God for the Jews. Gellman argues that positive interreligious understanding is still possible if Jews perceive non-Jewish faiths in this way, but that seems doubtful.
Gellman has successfully avoided an essentialist notion of Jewish superiority but does not seem to me to have avoided a non-essentialist one.
Thank you for your comments on my chapter. Your comments, save one, are dealt with in Chapter 5, the following chapter of my book. There is a problem in having a symposium on a single chapter of my book, where the book is an extended presentation of my theology of chosenness. But of course people cannot be expected to read the whole book for the symposium.
“A conception of chosenness that understands the Jewish people alone among peoples as current recipients of God’s overwhelming love inevitably suggests Jewish superiority and is likely to lead, among Jews, to a sense of superiority.”
“Non-Jewish nations are modelling appropriate responses to God from a starting-point at which they are lesser loved than the Jews.”
As is clear from chapter 5, it is not my position at all that the Jews alone are the current recipients of God’s love or are lesser loved than the Jews. I am sorry if a different impression was created. My idea is that when people come to God in freedom and joy, at that point God and God’s love for them, which has existed all along, become manifestly reciprocated to them. This love is no less than the love God showed for the Jews. In fact, I cite a rabbinic passage that says that those who choose to convert to Judaism are more beloved than those who stood at Sinai and were exposed to the thunder and lightening and the shaking of the mountain at Sinai. The converts are more beloved because they come to God freely. I then offer to expand that rabbinic passage beyond converts to stress God’s manifest love to anybody who comes to God freely, convert to Judaism or not. Religions other than Judaism represent such freely-given responses to God. God always loves everyone the same. The only issue is that God waits for people to come to God in freedom to reveal God and God’s love openly. Because of the Jews, the fact of God’s love is known to all, only their experiencing the closeness is dependent on their freely choosing God.
“The Jews have endured God’s overwhelming love so as to serve as a model for the Gentiles to become God’s beloved”. To constitute a model of belovedness by God to those who are not yet His beloved is to be superior in a meaningful sense.
Here the point is well taken. I should not have used the term “beloved” here at all. I am now sorry I did and thank you for pointing that out to me. It goes against everything else I have written. My true position is that all are “beloved” to God, equally, but God waits for people to come to God in freedom in order to then make God and God’s love known to them. So I thank you for that correction.
“Moreover, there seems to be a lack of recognition here of the self-understanding of adherents of non-Jewish religions, who do not (and even more so in the case of non-theistic or atheistic religions such as Buddhism) see the value of their faith as consisting in modelling uncoerced responses to God for the Jews.”
You are correct that in the chapter you have read there is such lack of recognition of those other religions. In Chapter 5, though, I discuss Buddhism as an example of a religion without God and the need to accommodate that. I refer you to that discussion.
If you like, I would be happy to email you chapter 5, if that interests you.
In reading my last reply I failed to correct an impression of Michael Harris who thinks I believe about adherents of other religions that:
“the value of their faith as consisting in modelling uncoerced responses to God for the Jews.”
This is not my position. In my book I describe myself as a person who believes my religion has what to learn from other religions. I give many examples of what I have learned from other religions, none of which have to do with their modeling something for the good of Jews. My referring to the modeling for the Jews in this chapter was restricted to contrasting what Jews bring to inter-faith dialogue, which I stressed as God’s modeling God’s love for them as far as this chapter is concerned. Obviously, I do not think that is all Jews have to bring to such meetings, and just as obviously I do not think that is all non-Jews bring to such meetings. Given my stated aims and my criteria for an acceptable concept of chosenness I would have hoped that would be clear. Apparently I was not clear enough or else since the symposium is only on one chapter of the book this is a natural mistake. I urge the reading of my entire book (it is short) for those interested in a fuller picture of my theology.
Finally, I am not committed to agreeing with everything of the self-perception of any other religion. A Christian will believe something in her religion is true that I believe is false. In my book I explain how I can respect a religion and learn from it even while thinking there are falsehoods there.
I want to thank Harris and the others for their comments, questions, and criticism. Some of the last have stuck. As for the rest, I have gained by having to clarify my thoughts.