Rabbi Dr Margaret Jacobi, Holocaust Memorial Day 2019
Tevye the milkman, in Fiddler on the Roof, said, “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?” It is not easy to be God’s chosen people, as we are especially aware as we commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day this week. As Tevye knew, being chosen meant that we seem to have had more than our fair share of persecution.
Yet, the idea that we have been chosen has meant that the Jewish people have often been seen as having a sense of superiority, of being better than other people. Some Jewish thinkers, notably Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement in America, have rejected the idea of chosenness. But in Jewish understanding, being chosen does not mean being better. It means that we have been entrusted with a special task. It’s true that before the Ten Commandments are given, God tells Moses that the people will be ‘segula’, a rare word which means ‘a precious treasure’. But Claude Montefiore, quoted in the Hertz Torah commentary, says, ‘These words, a peculiar treasure, sound more partial than they really are. If I have chosen an instrument for a peculiar purpose, that instrument may be to me a peculiar treasure, but the purpose is greater than the instrument. So with the Jews. They are God’s instrument, and as such a peculiar treasure; but the work is far greater than the instrument.’ Whilst the Jewish people may have been chosen for a particular purpose, it does not mean that other peoples and other religions cannot also be chosen for a purpose. Unlike some religions, Jews have never understood theirs to be the only way to God.
Being chosen means not that we have an easier time but that we have a harder time. As Amos said, ‘You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for your iniquities.’ Amos considered that we have a greater responsibility to do right and the consequences of doing wrong are therefore greater too. Isaiah envisioned the Jewish people as God’s suffering servant, compassionate especially towards the weak and outcast, as he said, ‘He will not break a broken reed and he will not extinguish a smouldering flax.’ Isaiah called us to be ‘a light to the nations’. This has always been interpreted as meaning that we should be a shining example of what God demands: to care for the orphan and the widow, to cry out against injustice and on behalf of the oppressed. It is no easy task. It means that we have to have the courage to be different.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons we have been so persecuted. I am always hesitant when non-Jews ask me why Jews are so persecuted. It seems to me that it is not up to the victim to explain their persecution. But I do think one factor is that we have dared to be different. It is said that we have sometimes been the conscience of the world. This might again seem to suggest that we are somehow better than others. In fact, we have failed in our task again and again. We are no better than others as human beings. Yet because we have felt called, there have indeed been times when we have brought change to the world.
I think it is no coincidence that three of the shapers of international human rights after the Second World War and the Holocaust were Jewish: Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin coined the terms ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’, as chronicled in Philippe Sands remarkable book ‘East West Street’. Rene Cassin was instrumental in drafting the United Nations Charter of Human Rights. Those who would oppose the rights of individuals, who care only for themselves and see others as enemies and threats rather than fellow human beings will see Jews as opposing their world view and representing all that they hate.
As we commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day we are all too aware of where such ideologies lead. We also know that anti-semitism has been on the rise in this country, especially in the last two years. Yet we cannot let this daunt us. I am always moved when I participate in the Dudley Holocaust Memorial event, as I did yesterday, and the hall is crowded though there are very few Jewish people. Every year, a survivor of the Holocaust speaks and I am reminded that if they have the courage to tell their story and to call to an end to hatred and intolerance, when they have suffered so much, how can we not join them? How can we not join in sympathy with other victims of genocide, speak out against hatred and prejudice and fight against oppression wherever it is found. As Isaiah continues to say, ‘I, the Eternal One, have called you in righteousness and I will hold your hand.’ Even as we remember our persecution and our suffering, may we not fail or be discouraged in our sacred task.
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