God’s Beloved: A Defense of Chosenness

By Meir Soloveichik

Jews and Christians disagree about what love is.

One of Judaism’s central premises is that God has a unique love for the Jewish people, in the merit of its ancestor Abraham, whom God loved millennia ago. This notion may make many readers uncomfortable, as they may feel that a righteous God would love all human beings, and therefore all peoples, equally and in the same way. Nevertheless, the notion of God’s special love for Israel must be stated and understood, for without it one cannot comprehend much that is unique about Judaism’s moral vision.
There is no question that to speak of the Jews as a “chosen nation” is to speak of their being charged with a universal mission: Communicating the monotheistic idea and a set of moral ideals to humanity. In designating Israel as a “nation of kingly priests” and a “light unto nations,”1 God, according to the medieval exegete Obadiah Seforno, commanded the Jews to “teach to the entire human race, so that they may call in the name of God, to serve him together.”2
It is, however, often overlooked that the doctrine of Israel’s chosenness also contains a strongly particularistic idea: That God chose the Jewish people for this mission out of his love for their forefather Abraham. The book of Deuteronomy is unambiguous on this point:
To you it was shown, so that you might know that the Eternal, he is God; there is none else beside him.… And because he loved your fathers, therefore he chose their seed after them, and brought you out in his sight with his mighty power out of Egypt; to drive out nations from before you, greater and mightier than you are, to bring you in, to give you their land for an inheritance, as it is this day.3
The Tora later states that God’s love for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was then bestowed upon their children:
The Eternal did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because you were more in number than any people; for you were the fewest of all peoples. But because the Eternal loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, has the Eternal brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.4
God loves the Jewish people because they are, according to Seforno, “the children of his beloved.”5 If the Jews are chosen to serve for all eternity as a light unto the nations, it is because God, in the words of the theologian Michael Wyschogrod, “sees the face of his beloved Abraham in each and every one of his children as a man sees the face of his beloved in the children of his union with his beloved.”6 This unique, preferential love that is bestowed upon Israel, even when it sins, is often depicted in the prophets as being familial in nature: When God describes in the book of Jeremiah how he sustains Israel in its exile, he says, “I will cause them to walk by the rivers of waters in a straight way, in which they shall not stumble; for I am a father to Israel.”7 The Jewish people also beholds God as a merciful mother: “As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you,”8 he assures Israel. So, too, in the book of Isaiah, does God respond to Israel’s fear that “God has left me and forgotten me” after the destruction of the First Temple by asking, “Can a woman forget her suckling child, refrain from mercy on the child of her womb?”9
Here a powerful contrast emerges between the respective scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. The God of the Hebrew Bible, while a benevolent ruler of all nations, is described as bestowing a preferential love upon Israel. Or, as Rabbi Akiva explains inthe Ethics of the Fathers,every man is beloved, “for he was created in the image of God,” yet even more beloved is Israel, “for they are called the children of God, as it is written, ‘you are children to the Lord your God.’”10 The Gospels, on the other hand, do not focus on God’s love for Israel, and speak instead of a God whose love is universal: Jesus redeemed a sinful humanity, John informs us, “for God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”11 God’s loving election is now no longer focused on the children of Abraham, but on the world. Everyone, Jesus argued, may be counted among God’s elect: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”12 Paul, in like manner, authors an epistle addressed to “all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints.” In God’s loving election, Paul argues, “there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek,” and all “are one in Christ Jesus.”13
This, then, is the debate that has divided Jews and Christians for two thousand years: Is God’s covenantal devotion universal or exclusive? The question relates not only to how we understand humanity’s religious obligations. The quality of God’s covenantal love is inextricably intertwined with the most profound questions about the kind of love that human beings are supposed to feel. The difference between the Jewish and Christian views about divine love, it will emerge, reflects a no less profound disagreement about what, exactly, it means to love.

Perhaps the most influential theologian to reflect on the nature of divine love in the past century was the Swedish thinker Anders Nygren. Nygren’s central work, Agape and Eros (1953), begins by describing the different depictions of divine love found in Jewish and Christian Scripture; Nygren notes that while “in Judaism love is exclusive and particularistic,” Christian love “overleaps all such limits; it is universal and all-embracing.” In explaining the Christian perspective, Nygren contrasts human love, which he refers to as eros, with agape, the Greek word used by the New Testament to refer to God’s love of man. A human being loves his beloved, according to Nygren, because he is drawn to some aspect of the beloved, something which he finds worth loving. God’s agape, however, is “unmotivated”—that is, it is bestowed regardless of the beloved’s worth and value. It is a love that demands nothing in response, no return on the emotional investment. Nor is it grounded in anything particular about the human being. Rather, God bestows love upon all humanity out of pure generosity. Unlike human love, Nygren concludes, God’s love “has nothing to do with desire and longing.”14
God’s love is altogether spontaneous. It does not look for anything in man that could be adduced as motivation for it. In relation to man, divine love is “unmotivated.” It is this love, spontaneous and “unmotivated”—having no motive outside itself, in the personal worth of men—which characterizes also the action of Jesus in seeking out the lost and consorting with “publicans and sinners”…. In Christ there is revealed a divine love which breaks all bounds, refusing to be controlled by the value of its object, and being determined only by its own intrinsic nature. According to Christianity, “motivated” love is human; spontaneous and “unmotivated” love is divine.15
In support of this assertion, Nygren points to the Christian obligation to love your enemies. In the Gospels, Jesus instructs his followers to love even the egregiously evil, for all human beings are equally loved by God:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.... Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.16
It is precisely because divine love is unmotivated, Nygren argues, that God’s agape is bestowed upon saint and sinner alike. Thus God’s love, as depicted by Jesus, makes no distinction between Hitler and Stalin, on the one hand, and Mother Teresa on the other. After all, Paul’s doctrine of original sin depicts a wretched humanity mired in moral depravity, from which only Christ’s death on the cross can extricate it. Paul argues that all human beings enter this world evil at heart, all are enemies of the Lord, and all are thoroughly unworthy of God’s love—yet all are recipients of God’s love, nevertheless.17

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