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Pintele Yid: A Rabbi meditates on the meaning of ‘chosenness’ and Jewish particularism


(The following is a guest post by Adam Frank, Rabbi at Congregation Moreshet Israel, a Conservative Synagogue in Jerusalem.  Though CiF Watch is not a ‘Jewish Blog’ as such, we are, to be sure, proudly philosemitic, and thus Frank’s brief meditation should be seen as an opportunity to thoughtfully and soberly discuss what Jewish ‘chosenness’ and ‘particularism’ truly means in the context of Jewish history. –  AL)

Though born and raised in a proudly Jewish and Zionist home, I was not exposed to the term Pintele Yid until reaching adulthood. 

Literally, the words mean ‘the little point of a Jew,’ though colloquially it refers to the idea of the Jewish spark inside each member of our community.  Pintele Yid is a term that has been used to refer to some element of the essence in each Jew that refuses to be extinguished. 

Some  give labels to pintele yid such as chutzpah or determination or stubbornness or soul.  Unarguably, for those who accept and embrace the concept of pintele yid, it does serve to distinguish a Jew from others.

Recently, I engaged in a thoughtful conversation with a Jewish friend for whom the idea of ‘Chosen People’ is an anathema.  Simply put, she does not believe that Jews are different from the other peoples of the world.  While I certainly understand the discomfort that one may feel over the Torah’s reference to our nation as ‘chosen,’ I believe wholeheartedly in the Jewish people’s unique and unambiguous relationship with Gd and, accordingly, with the rest of the humanity.  Still, does the People Israel being ‘chosen’ pertain to each individual or is it a collective label?

For guidance, I look to our tradition’s teachings and belief that stems from the Torah’s verses, You all stand here today before Adonai your Gd….that you enter into a covenant that Gd makes with you this day that you are His people… not only with you standing here today but also with those who are with us but [physically] not here this day. (Deuteronomy 29:9-14)

Begrudgingly or willfully, our people is defined as involved in an ongoing, unbreakable covenant with the universe’s one and only Gd.  Each one of us stood before Gd that day and committed to a relationship of great privilege and even greater responsibility.  

The existence of each individual Jew in the world is neither random nor happenstance; and each Jew’s existence is the result of calculated and uncompromising decisions of the chain of generations that came before us.  Through all of the persecution, all of the oppression, all of the pograms, crusades, libels and massacres – the existence of each and every Jew alive today is deliberate and purposeful; and, our survival has no doubt been assisted by our belief that we are unique, different, and essential.

Pintele Yid is the fiber in each Jew that resists the darkness of the complacent and the ordinary.  Like the menorah in the time of the Maccabees, the spark of each Jewish soul refuses to be extinguished.  

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  1. “Recently, I engaged in a thoughtful conversation with a Jewish friend for whom the idea of ‘Chosen People’ is an anathema.”

    It’s politically incorrect, to be sure. However, the Jewish concept is radically different from others we can find over the world and in history.

    Chosenness in other cases has always been tied to supremacism, with often disastrous effects. The most infamous example is, of course, Nazism, where chosenness was manifest in an entitlement to the entire world, exterminating any nation standing in the way.

    The Jewish concept, while still unpalatable to those who are wed to the idea that “humanity must evolve beyond its divisions,” is in great contrast to that. The worldly entitlement of the Jews amounts to a modest-sized piece of land on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The spiritual bounty promised is great, but even here there is the glorious addition that all the nations of the world will benefit from the divine light the Jews bring down by performing the 613 mitzvot. This is something radical, for, as I said, other concepts of chosenness cast the outsiders like dregs.

    Jewish chosenness isn’t “chosen to be kings” but “chosen to be priests.” Everyone benefits from the work of the priests. The Jewish vision of the blessed future is not one where Jews lord it over all the others but where the Jews finally have absolute peace to keep the Torah, because there will be absolute peace in the world. All of humanity, non-Jewish and Jewish alike, will enjoy this. Soon in our days, amen.

    • Some of Israel’s more hateful critics claim the state is a/the reason for 9/11 etc. In fact they’re right in a way, but not in the sense they mean – because the real reason is that we have yet another batch of barbarians who simply won’t leave the Jews alone.

      • “…because the real reason is that we have yet another batch of barbarians who simply won’t leave the Jews alone.”

        I don’t think 9/11 had anything to do with the Jews or Israel specifically—not even from the point of view of the perpetrators. Bin Laden cited a lot of reasons, such as the American troops in Arabia, in addition to U.S. support for Israel. If people ask which of these is the real reason, my answers are, 1) All of the above, and 2) None of the above. America, and the World Trade Center in New York specifically, was chosen for the attacks because of the high-profile imagery of “Islam’s ability to fell even the greatest of giants.” After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States had become the prime target by nature, by remaining the only superpower.

  2. ‘Jewish chosenness isn’t “chosen to be kings” but “chosen to be priests.” ‘

    This choseness might also include the concept of allowing God, G-d, the Supreme Creator the option of learning from what it is that Jewish priests have learnt. This concept in itself is a valuable lesson for other ways of believing, being, etc.

  3. Hey you Jewish people, God explicitly says you guys are His chosen people, all of the physical seed of Abraham, Isaac, & Jacob. Embrace it already. Just remember it’s not for merit you were chosen, & if you act like it is, you’ll make more enemies — thus, the reason hasbara trumpeting the accomplishments & contributions of the Jewish people is *not* the helpful kind of hasbara, it only feeds the anti-Jewish stereotypes of pride, greed, controlling world, etc.

    • “…all of the physical seed of Abraham, Isaac, & Jacob.”

      That “physical” bit can be left out. Jewishness isn’t a genetic affair, otherwise David would have been ruled out of kingship because of those Moabite genes. Genetic obsession is for anti-Zionists who delude themselves the Khazar Theory would be of consequence even if it were true.

      “Just remember it’s not for merit you were chosen, & if you act like it is, you’ll make more enemies…”

      The actions of the Jewish people make no enemies. Any attempt to frame Jew-hatred in rational terms is an exercise in futility. Historically, Jews have been too small a minority for the hatred to make rational sense. Currently, there is no rationality behind holding the Jewish–Arab conflict in the Middle East to be of more import to world peace than, say, the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.

      “…hasbara trumpeting the accomplishments & contributions of the Jewish people is *not* the helpful kind of hasbara,…”

      I agree on that, though I suspect I don’t agree with you for the same reasons.

      “…it only feeds the anti-Jewish stereotypes of pride, greed, controlling world, etc.”

      The Jew-haters will see what they want to see. I’m long done trying to avoid actions that would “feed the stereotypes.” On the contrary: There are many of those stereotypes I wish the Jews would make a fact. If our enemies really believed even in half of the powers they ascribed us, they wouldn’t dare to speak for fear.