(Note to reader: I found this little story in an old email I wrote back in 2002)
The Cockroach and the Bagel
By Roi Ben-Yehuda
The cockroach on the bagel was indeed an ominous sign. I did not know whether to tell the others about it – of course I would have wanted to know. But in the end, I thought to myself “Why waste the food? After all, it was only a cockroach, and the food would still taste the same. Plus, I read somewhere that cockroaches are cleaner than humans (or was that dogs?), so no harm would be done.” I decided not to inform the rest of the congregation that prior to their arrival a roach has sampled their breakfast.
Today’s Torah study dealt with the idea of the “chosen people”. At first, as would be expected in a modern congregation, objections were raised to the spiritual chauvinism that is implicit in the idea of the “chosen people”: “Chosen does not mean better,” said David, a handsome gay man,” it just means that we have a responsibility to live in accords with God’s commandments. We are not inherently superior to other nations; it is just that we took it upon ourselves to fulfill a unique moral and spiritual obligation. It is better to think of us as the ‘choosing’ rather than the ‘chosen people’.”
While David’s line of reasoning seemed to have pleased some members of the congregation, others (including the Rabbi), did not like what they were hearing. As for myself, I spotted the cockroach again, this time the little intruder was quickly advancing under the table of the unsuspecting congregants.
“Listen,” said the Rabbi, “I like what you are saying, and I even think there is some element of truth to it. But let us not pour new wine into old bottles. The fact of the matter is that the Torah is very clear about the idea of the chosen people. In Deuteronomy it states, “For you are a holy people to your God, and God has chosen you to be his treasured people from all the nations that are on the face of the earth.” You see, God choose the Jews, as a holy people, and in doing so he made them and their destiny different. The Kabala teaches that Jewish souls were chosen even before creation itself. Even before creation! Now this does not mean …”
“That’s right” interrupted Abraham, a middle aged man who gave the impression of being the alpha male of the congregation, “In our modern world, we put all this emphasis on individuality and equality, but in truth, while as individuals we are all made in God’s image, as a people, as a nation, as a tribe (and we are just that) there is a qualitative difference between the Jews and the rest of mankind. The proof is in the pudding. Look at the contribution that the Jews have made to civilization. We have revolutionized every sphere of human activity – from religion, law, medicine, science, and the arts. Did you know that while we number less than one tenth of one percent of the world’s population, we make up 23% of all Noble Prize winners? This is no coincidence! You can’t argue against the numbers. It is an empirical fact – the Jews are different. And do I dare say it, not just different, even better. My only question is, did God choose us cause we were special, or did we become special because God choose us?”
At this point of our study session, all those who had supported David’s idea of the “Choosing People” were turned to mutes. The force of Abraham’s comments had clearly intimidated them and they hung their heads low. And I, no longer searching for my insect, began to feel very bugged.”
“Were these people for real?” I thought. “Did they really believe that Jews were somehow more moral than other people?” Did they really believe that Jews were somehow smarter than other people? Was this not a broken mirror image of the same ideology that had led to gas chambers? Only this time, instead of asserting that the Jews were inherently inferior, these folks were pontificating on how they were inherently superior.”
From an historical perspective the idea of the “chosen people” made sense to me: Being an oppressed minority throughout the ages, the Jews developed the idea of “chooseness” as a protest against their degraded existence. It was a big spiritual “Fuck You” to the rest of the world (and to God!). Or rather, it was a big spiritual “fuck me” to the rest of the world – as the idea itself masqueraded as self-love.
But today, there were no excuses for such thinking. The notion that one group of people is inherently superior to another (by choose or otherwise), has been at the root of a great deal of evil in history. The world is dissociated and fragmented as is; the last thing a religion ought to do is reinforce such a state of affairs. It was exactly this type of thinking that had originally alienated me from everything Jewish.
This whole experience made me feel nauseated. Here I was, at the year 2002, at a modern congregation no less, listening to otherwise intelligent men and women espousing ideas and values that simply should not be. It was obvious to me that while they ate the cockroach breakfast, it was I who had to throw up.