From the chosen people to the “set apart” people, interview with Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur

From the chosen people to the “set apart” people, interview with Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur

We find in the Bible this beautiful phrase: “the gifts of God are without repentance”. The people chosen by God are therefore forever?

Your question is interesting because the Jews, paradoxically, do not use the notion of “chosen people” that much. Of course, sometimes people say to us: “Who do you think you are, you chosen people?” How many times it is assumed that there is Jewish arrogance! In reality, the Hebrew word used in the Bible is “segoula”: a “segoula” people.

We don't know exactly how to translate it, but it means something like: “which has been distinguished”. And the verb “to distinguish”, in French as in Hebrew, carries a particular ambiguity. Yes, this people was “set apart”, not with rights, but with particular duties that God entrusted to them.

What are these duties?

If we understand “to distinguish” in the sense of “having to make distinctions,” then the mission of the Jewish people can be understood as the duty to constantly make distinctions in the world. To remember that the world is not one, that it is not a whole. In other words, the Jewish people must show themselves capable, in all circumstances, of bringing the particular and the universal into dialogue.

Jews are often criticized for not mixing with others, for not eating like others, for not marrying with others… Jewish practice, in fact, gives particular importance to respect for distinction. Because from the point of view of Judaism, the temptation of an undifferentiated world is a slippery slope that leads to social violence. When we want to erase differences, these are the first steps of totalitarianism.

Would the Jews be the guardians of this vigilance?

Yes, the vigilance of the non-totalitarian. Defending the distinction requires you to accept that there are exceptions to the rule. And besides, the Jews have often been criticized for exactly that: preventing unity from taking place. This “election”, which gives Jews no rights, is thus accompanied by an extremely painful history.

Isn't she a poisoned chalice? How can we understand this singular destiny?

It's funny, because in the Midrash, the rabbinical literature, we find a text which suggests that at Mount Sinai, before the Torah was given to the Jews, God had tried to offer it to most of the regional peoples, like the Canaanites. The latter respond, in essence: “We are not interested, thank you, goodbye”. A bit as if God had tried to give them an encyclopedia! Finally, after knocking on many doors, God entrusts the Torah to the little Jewish people. The latter accepts, knowing that this will cause quite a few constraints. But I don't think he expected so many disasters. In fact, throughout history, the constant of hatred has spared almost no generation.

Why this hatred which continues to reactivate?

This is disturbing, because the Jew is “set apart” whatever his condition: that is to say, he has always been blamed for preventing the world from going smoothly. In a capitalist society, he was accused of being Bolshevik; in a society that praised communism, to be capitalist; in a patriarchal society, to be a feminist; when he was in a weak position, in the diaspora, he was criticized for lacking a state and sovereignty; now that he has land, he is criticized for his dominant position… I often think of this phrase from the poet Amos Oz. When his father lived in Europe, he could read on the walls of cities: “Jew, get out of here, go to Palestine.” And a few decades later, on these same walls: “Jew, get out of Palestine.” We can clearly see the paradox: the Jew, wherever he is, he is criticized for being there.

Judaism was the first of the “religions of the Book”, before Christianity and Islam. Didn't this also create a form of competition?

In my book (1), I develop a theory that is still fragmentary, but which seems interesting to me to explore: all monotheistic religions have a problem with their origins. With the question of what was before them, before their revelation arrived in History.

Until Vatican II, Christianity resolved its problem with its Jewish origins by proclaiming that since the Jews had not recognized Jesus, Christians were now the “verus Israel”, the true people of Israel, the ones who would pass through the alliance. It is a way of depriving the origins of their legitimacy: the Jews no longer deserve the alliance, they no longer deserve trust. The “New Testament” invalidates the previous covenant. And since the Jews have betrayed, they are unfaithful, perfidious, deicidal… We know what this anti-Semitic theology has given rise to. It was devastating.

Catholics have indeed inherited this anti-Semitism from their history. But since Vatican II, they have learned to recognize the Jews as “elder brothers”…

The luck of the Catholic Church, its strength and its blessing, is Vatican II. To have been, at a given moment, able to say: we are going to stop despising our Jewish origin, to substitute their history for the Jews. We can exist side by side. And there can be several alliances. Vatican II knew how to renounce this theology of substitution.

Islam experiences and resolves this temptation differently. Even today, a number of Islamic theologians say that the Koran is the true version of the revealed text, while the Bible is a truncated document. It's a way of saying: “what happened before the revelation made to my people is falsified. Null and void.” And this is yet another attempt at substitution. As if we always had a problem with what happened before.

Deep down, is it unbearable to recognize yourself as a debtor?

It is for all of us! It's unbearable to know you're a debtor, and it's unbearable to know you're a “brother”. There is something difficult to manage there, a bit like in the family sphere: why did my parents love my older brother before me? Before I came into the world? In a way, Jews too are in debt to past civilizations. In Jewish tradition, we find traces of a Canaanite, Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian, Egyptian heritage… Certainly, these empires have disappeared, and the Jews had no need to cohabit with these populations. But this question of the relationship to the origin is essential. It concerns each of us.

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