Who Are The (Real) Chosen People? The Meaning Of Divine Election In Judaism, Christianity And Islam

  • When: Friday, February 21, 2014 – 12:00pm
  • Where: Governors Hall, Miller Ward Alumni House, Emory University
  • Speaker: Rabbi Reuven Firestone

The Atlantic Institute proudly sponsored Rabbi Reuven Firestone at a luncheon with Emory University’s Claus M Halle Institute for Global Learning and the Department of Middle Eastern & South Asian Studies. 

Rabbi Firestone discussed “chosenness” in religion, the idea of possessing an exclusive relationship with God not shared by other communities. Being chosen establishes a hierarchy with winners and losers, granting special status to a privileged few. Because all successful religions borrow from their predecessors, the idea of chosenness has become tied to monotheism. The religion of the Israelites has survived and evolved into modern times, becoming a model for Christianity and Islam. All three of the major religions today profess some degree of this concept for their followers; however, by definition, they cannot all be the chosen ones. Jews maintain that their chosenness can be traced back to ancient times through the Torah, defined in God’s covenant with Abraham. Christians argue that Jews broke that covenant by failing to recognize the Messiah. The community of Jesus’ followers that emerged are the new chosen people, the “true Israel.” The Quran, on the other hand, is less exclusive. Although it assures its followers that they are the “best community,” it maintains that whoever believes will have their eternal reward. 

Although it is important to hold on to your religious beliefs and heritage, we should share our unique perspectives with one another and foster an open dialogue between communities. By doing so, everyone will grow in their own faith paths. Regardless of who is correct, everyone can learn greatly from one another. The Quran states that “If God had wished, He would have made you all a single nation, but the intent is to test you by what He has given you. So vie with one another in doing good works!” Similarly, the Old Testament asks “Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us? Why are we treacherous to one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors?” It is more important to live in harmony than to argue over an exclusive truth. You can think that your religion is best without discounting what others have to offer. The three communities of believers should devote more attention to the shared elements of their faiths, rather than differences that divide them.   

Rabbi Reuven Firestone is Professor of Medieval Jewish and Islamic Studies at Hebrew Union College-JIR in Los Angeles.Reuven Firestone was born in Northern California and educated at Antioch College, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Hebrew Union College where he received his M.A. in Hebrew literature in 1980 and Rabbinic Ordination in 1982, and New York University where he received his Ph.D. in Arabic and Islamic studies in 1988. From 1987 to 1992, he taught Hebrew literature and directed the Hebrew and Arabic language programs at Boston University. In 1992 he was awarded the Yad Hanadiv Research Fellowship at the Hebrew University to conduct research on holy war in Islamic tradition.  In 2000, he was awarded the fellowship for independent research from the National Endowment for the Humanities for his research on holy war in Judaism. Chosen to be a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in 2002, he received the Fulbright CASA III Fellowship for study and research at the American University in Cairo in 2006. In 2012-2013 he was appointed DAAD Visiting Professor in Jewish and Islamic Studies at Universität Potsdam/Geiger Kolleg in Berlin-Brandenburg. Since 1993 he has served as associate and then full professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. Firestone founded the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement (CMJE), a joint program of Hebrew Union College, the Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Foundation and the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. He serves on numerous committees and commissions on interfaith relations, serves on the editorial boards of numerous scholarly publications and is vice-president of the Association of Jewish Studies. Professor Firestone has lived in Israel, Egypt and Germany and regularly lectures in universities throughout the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. His publications have been translated into German, French, Hebrew, Turkish, Arabic, Albanian, Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian, Indonesian and Urdu.

Professor Firestone’s recent publications and edited volumes include:

Journeys in Holy Lands: The Evolution of the Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis (SUNY Press)

Jihad: The Origin of Holy War in Islam (Oxford University Press)

Children of Abraham: An Introduction to Judaism for Muslims (Ktav)

Jews, Christians, Muslims in Dialogue: A Practical Handbook, with Leonard Swidler and Khalid Duran (Twenty-Third Publications)

An Introduction to Islam for Jews (JPS)

Who are the Real Chosen People: The Meaning of Chosenness in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Skylight Paths)

Holy War in Judaism: the Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea (Oxford University Press)

Learned Ignorance: Intellectual Humility among Jews, Christians and Muslims (Oxford University Press)