The Jewish nation is often referred to as "the Chosen People."
Many people (including Jews) are uncomfortable with this idea. They perceive the concept of a "Chosen People" as racist and mindful of the Nazi concept of a supreme "Aryan" nation. It appears to contradict the accepted Western ideal of all people being equal before God.
Is the Jewish concept of choseness racist?
When the Torah refers to the Jewish people as "chosen," it is not in any way asserting that Jews are racially superior. Americans, Asians, Russians, Europeans, Scandinavians and Ethiopians -- and moreover Caucasians, blacks and Orientals -- are all part of the Jewish people. It is impossible to define choseness as anything related to race, since Jews are racially diverse.
Yet while the term "Chosen People" (Am Nivchar - Deut. 7:6) does not mean racially superior, choseness does imply a special uniqueness.
What is this uniqueness?
Historically, it goes back to Abraham. Abraham lived in a world steeped in idolatry, which he concluded was contradicted by the reality of design in nature.
So Abraham came to a belief in God, and took upon himself the mission of teaching others of the monotheistic ideal. Abraham was even willing to suffer persecution for his beliefs. After years of enormous effort, dedication and a willingness to accept the responsibility to be God's representative in this world, God chose Abraham and his descendents to be the teachers of this monotheistic message.
In other words it is not so much that God chose the Jews; it is more accurate that the Jews (through Abraham) chose God.
Choseness was not part of God's "original plan." Initially all of humanity was to serve the role of God's messengers, but after the fall of Adam, humanity lost that privilege, and it was open for grabs. Only Abraham chose to take the mantel. If others would have (and they were offered the choice), they too would have joined in this special covenant which was sealed upon the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
If a privilege is offered to everyone willing to pay the necessary price, nobody can protest that those willing to make the extra effort are being shown favoritism. For example: It is reasonable that an employee who agrees to work overtime, attend training seminars, and manage special projects, should be entitled to a performance bonus -- particularly if each employee was given the same opportunity.
The essence of being chosen means responsibility. It is a responsibility to change the world -- not by converting everyone to Judaism, but by living as a model community upheld by ethics, morals and beliefs of one God. In that way, we can influence the rest of mankind, a "light unto the nations" (Isaiah 42:6).
Judaism is Universal
Further, Judaism is not exclusionary. A human being need not to be Jewish to reach a high spiritual level. Enoch "walked with God," and Noah had quite a high level of relationship, though neither were Jewish. Our tradition is that all of the 70 nations must function together and play an integral part in that "being" called humanity.
According to Judaism (Talmud - Sanhedrin 58b), any person can achieve a place in the World to Come by faithfully observing the seven basic laws of humanity. These seven laws are named the "Laws of Noah," since all humans are descended from Noah:
1) Do not murder.
2) Do not steal.
3) Do not worship false gods.
4) Do not be sexually immoral.
5) Do not eat the limb of an animal before it is killed.
6) Do not curse God.
7) Set up courts and bring offenders to justice.
Torah is for all humanity. King Solomon built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, he specifically asked God to heed the prayer of non-Jews who come to the Temple (1-Kings 8:41-43). The Temple was the universal center of spirituality, which the prophet Isaiah referred to as a "house of prayer for all nations." Non-Jews were welcome to bring offerings to the Temple as well. In fact, the service in the Holy Temple during the week of Sukkot featured a total of 70 bull offerings, corresponding to each of the 70 nations of the world. In fact, the Talmud says that if the Romans would have realized how much they were benefiting from the Temple, they never would have destroyed it!
Most other religions say that non-believers are condemned to eternal damnation. Even the calendar systems of Christianity and Islam reflect an exclusionary philosophy; each begins with the birth of their respective religion. The Jewish calendar, on the other hand, begins with the creation of Adam, the first man, teaching us the intrinsic value of every human, even though the Jewish religion was not yet born.
For this reason, Jews do not proselytize in search of converts. One can still merit a place in heaven, no conversion necessary.
An important component of Judaism's non-exclusionary approach is that any person -- regardless of national or racial background -- can choose to accept the Torah and become part of the Jewish nation. Indeed, some of the greatest names in Jewish history - Ruth, the ancestor of King David, and Onkelos the Talmudic Sage -- were converts to Judaism.
According to the Code of Jewish Law (the "Shulchan Aruch"), there are three requirements for a valid conversion (paralleling the Jewish experience at Mount Sinai):
1) Mitzvot - The convert must believe in God and the divinity of the Torah, as well as accept to observe all 613 mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah. This includes observance of Shabbat, Kashrut, etc., as detailed in the Code of Jewish Law, the authoritative source for Jewish observance.
2) Milah - Male converts must undergo circumcision by a qualified "Mohel."
3) Mikveh - All converts must immerse in the Mikveh, a ritual bath linked to a reservoir of rain water.
All of the above must be done before a halachically-valid rabbinical court of three Jewish men who themselves believe in God, accept the divinity of the Torah, and observe the mitzvot.
Rabbi Shraga Simmons spent his childhood trekking through snow in Buffalo, New York. He has worked in the fields of journalism and public relations, and is now the Co-editor of Aish.com in Jerusalem.