To the editors:

Ms. Levinsohn’s article [“The Importance of Being Jewish,” August 7] does a creditable job of covering an interesting and complex phenomenon. I would question, however, her implication that “the chosen people” concept necessarily means that Jews regard themselves “as superior.” Regardless of what Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan had in mind when he dropped the phrase from Reconstructionist prayer books, the facts of history make it very clear that Jews do not regard themselves as a superior people.

The fact is that in the Jewish tradition, heaven is regarded as a place open to the righteous of all nations. The fact is that Israel has always been open to righteous proselytes. In Czarist Russia, conversion to Judaism was outlawed by the gentile majority; marriage between Christian and Jew was outlawed by the gentile majority. In the Polish democracy of pre-World War II, it was illegal for a Christian to marry a Jew. Who took themselves to be superior?

It is true that centuries of oppression led some of its victims to think of their gentile neighbors as less than human. Jews did not have to place themselves on a pedestal; the gentile world debased itself with pogroms, killing wild animals for sport, drunkenness, warring, and ignorance.

“The chosen people” is a biblical concept, and what it means in its biblical context is that God chose to reveal himself to the people of Israel, to command them to be a holy people, a nation of priests, and a light unto the nations; to preach and practice holiness, justice, and mercy. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, the notion that chosenness represents a Jewish claim to superiority is an anti-Semitic misinterpretation, which I hope the Reader does not want to perpetuate.

Encyclopedia Judaica comments: “The misunderstanding, and nonplussed reaction, of certain sections of the non-Jewish world with regard to the Jews’ conception of themselves as the Chosen People is summed up in Hillaire Belloc’s jingle “How odd of God to choose the Jews’ (to which the retort was penned “It was not odd–the Jews chose God’).”

Louis A. Berman