In the Book of Genesis, we find God thinking aloud about whether he should reveal to Abraham his plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. It’s a curious thing: God can tell Abraham or not tell him, but why the rumination?
The answer is that God wishes to lay emphasis on the reason for bringing Abraham into the conversation. What is that reason? It can be found in the aside that immediately follows, a seemingly out-of-place interjection between God wondering about telling Abraham and then actually telling him. In this aside, God declares that He will make Abraham a great nation so that all the nations will be blessed through his descendants and that He has chosen Abraham so that he and his progeny will do “righteousness and justice.”
Abraham’s participation in the Sodom and Gomorrah episode is a lesson for him in righteousness and justice. Abraham needs to learn this lesson and teach it well to his children because his family will eventually become the great nation through whom the other nations will be blessed. Indeed, the children of Abraham hold the key to this blessing precisely because they, in good times, embody righteousness and justice and serve as a witness to the world. Those who heed the example will surely be blessed. This, all too briefly, is the meaning of Jewish chosenness.
Unlike Christians or Muslims, Jews generally do not seek to convert others to their faith. But, traditionally, they do believe that non-Jews must uphold the Noahide Law, which today we might call ethical monotheism. Thus, Jews must be missionaries for the one true God and the moral law without any need to promote Judaism per se.
My sense is that many Jews think this description oversells the Jewish mission. To be a light unto the nations, they say, Jews must merely set a good example in their own lives, individual and communal. Those who wish to observe and adopt their upright ways are free to participate in the Divine blessing in that way, but Jews have no obligation to evangelize, as it were, for ethical monotheism. For the reasons I’ve just related, this claim is probably a theological error. But it is almost certainly a political and cultural mistake.
As recent events in American and British courts have shown, if religious values are sufficiently out of step with the law, religious freedom will not provide sufficient protection. Alhough Christians are the main target in the culture wars, Jewish institutions may soon be faced with hard choices between adhering to their beliefs or capitulating to government-imposed ideologies. There is no truce on offer in the culture wars; progressivism is not content to allow religious groups to privately (much less publicly) dissent from the new agenda.
Moreover, it is woefully naïve for all but the most insular Jews – and perhaps even them – to imagine that they can shield themselves from the effects of a culture that stands against so many of their core beliefs. Most Jewish children consume the same music, movies, and television shows as the rest of their American peers. As the wider society grows more and more distant from Jewish values, it becomes increasingly difficult to rear Jewish children who esteem and understand those values.
Not all of these outcomes can be controlled through the law (nor should they be), but we should not underestimate how powerfully the law shapes culture by signaling what is right and what is wrong.
Finally, Jews must consider the question posed by Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik in Mosaic Magazine on the question of Jewish involvement in American politics: “Centuries from now,” he wrote, “historians studying the American Jewish community will surely be struck by how much, in terms of wealth, power, and civic comfort, this community achieved under conditions of unprecedented freedom…. But they will also ask: what did Jews do for America?”
We seek religious freedom not because we believe the Constitution protects our right to be weird or crazy (though it may do that, too). We seek religious freedom because we believe that God has shown us a path that is good, true, and beautiful. This is the same path God wanted Abraham and his progeny to follow, “the path of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice.”
As those very descendants of Abraham, the chosen people, we must support the flourishing of civilization by helping to enshrine in the law the universal ethical principles found in God’s moral teachings – for our sake, for our children’s sake, and for the sake of all people.