Various Theories Explaining Why the Jewish People Are Special

A Response to Jerome Gellman, David Novak and Michael Wyschogrod's Understanding of the Chosen People

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Andrew L. Gluck
  • Lewiston, NY: 
    Edwin Mellen Press
    , December
     419 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Andrew L. Gluck has written the sweetest, gentlest critique that will ever be published. In this book he has objections to three theologians/philosophers who have put forward concepts of the Jews as the chosen people. Yet, he is so modest, and so concerned for the feelings of the ones he critiques, that at almost every occasion after registering a complaint, he apologizes, says something good about the person, asserts his own inadequacy, or notes that the person might still be right, and the like. As one of the “critiquees,” I [Jerome Gellman] agreed with some of Gluck’s points against me, with a warm smile. Gluck’s book should be mandatory reading for every academic predator who delights on freshly killed meat and blood.

Gluck wants to present a concept of the Jews as the chosen people that acknowledges the equal worth of every human being, Greek or Jew, man or woman. Such a concept must also not make any claims to the superiority of Judaism over other religions in any way. No claims of exclusive truth for Judaism and no claims of falsity in other religions are allowed. And it must be appealing to spiritual people devoid of confessional commitments. Gluck does this by accepting that God exists, and by offering a lengthy case for the Jews having been the/a central force in the creation of the foundational frame of mind of Western civilization. God chose the Jewish people to have this role in history. So Gluck has a hybrid conception of Jewish spiritual/religious chosenness with God, and secular chosenness in the rise of Western civilization.

Gluck’s main problem with Gellman’s work is that he makes pronouncements of loyalty to his religion’s core on truth-grounds, as opposed to at least one falsity in the core of other religions. Gellman calls this “open exclusivism” because he learns important matters from other religions as well. Still, this violates Gluck’s desire for a religion-neutral concept of the chosen people. Gluck criticizes Michael Wyschogrod for a “racialist”—contrasted to “rascist”—position that focuses on the relationship between God and the Jewish people, without “incorporating” his concept into a larger “vision for humankind.” Wyschogrod, in other words, is satisfied not to see beyond his people. Gluck likes David Novak the best of the three thinkers he critiques in this volume, primarily for his knowledge and comprehensiveness, but Gluck spares no words in rejecting Novak’s idea about the chosen people. He objects to Novak’s “ideological” defense of traditional Jewish beliefs. And he scolds Novak for being an “elitist;” for a “form of religiosity that centers on book learning and not on people” (175). Another objection Gluck raises is that Novak likens the Jewish people to being God’s wife, “but why cannot God have more than one wife?” asks Gluck. After all, God is not bound by the ruling against bigamy for Ashkenazic Jews! I am not convinced that all of Gluck’s objections to Novak are correct, since some are taken out of context. (But then, maybe I am wrong, or Gluck understands Novak better than I do, or I have not understood Gluck correctly, and in any case this is a very engaging book.)

Gluck’s conception could not please the three whom Gluck criticizes. Gluck as much as admits so when he writes, “My project actually suffers from the fact that it is not theological” (195). The three thinkers he rejects are each traditional religious Jews taking theological stances. It is not only the hybrid nature of Gluck’s proposal that is the problem, but the fact that he has really nothing to offer to Jews continuing to play the role of the chosen people now, or on into the future. Gluck realizes this when he writes, “The question arises whether there is still any reason for the separate existence of the Jewish people,” and supplies a rather lame reason for the continued existence of the Jews. The problem becomes acute when Gluck tells us that the Jews used to be “God’s tool for reforming the world, and that this now occurs through Western Civilization.” (327, 330). The historical task of the Jews has ended.

Take out God, who appears here as a deus ex machina in any case, designed to preserve someone who does the choosing, and we are left with a secular appreciation of the Jews’ past contributions to Western civilization. This is a reason to appreciate the Jews in history, perhaps, but hardly a reason to call us “the chosen people.”

Gluck’s book ably demonstrates the conflicting, difficult issues surrounding the chosen people concept in contemporary times. Gluck is to be congratulated for taking up these issues in a deep and intricate manner, with honesty and clarity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jerome Gellman is Emeritus Professor at Ben-Gurion University.

Date of Review: 
February 16, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew L. Gluck is a vocational and economic consultant in New York and a former member of the department of philosophy at Hofstra University.


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