January 08, 2007

Kristeva on ‘The Chosen People and the Choice of Foreignness’

Foreigner or Convert

Kristeva considers the labelling of Jewish people as God’s chosen people as they become exiles and she sees in it ‘an inherent inscription of foreignness’ (65). While the Jewish people are chosen, others are excluded. Kristeva cites examples of:
• the exclusion of others: Genesis 17:7 ;
• the rejecting of others: I Samuel 15:2-3 and Nehemiah 10:31 ;
• and acceptance of certain kinds of foreigners: Deuteronomy 23:3-9 .

With these examples in mind, Kristeva considers the Jewish people’s relation to exclusivity:

Exclusive as it may be, and while basing that exclusiveness on the moral misdeed of those who are despised, the Jewish people’s covenant with God is an outgrowth not of favoritism [sic] but of choice founded on ordeal; this implies that, constantly threatened, the covenant is always to be conquered and its object is always the continuous improvement of the chosen. (66)

Through choosing the Torah, Jewish people universally gain access to God, since ‘whoever obeys the Torah, even a pagan, is equal to the highest priest’ (66). Similarly, there is universalism in the command to love thy neighbour (paraphrasing Leviticus 18.5). Interestingly, Kristeva notes that often the religious texts of the Jewish people command respect for foreigners:
Exodus 22:21 ;
• and Baba Mezia 58b: ‘If a convert comes to learn the Torah do not say to him, the mouth that has eaten impure animals, worms, and reptiles, would like to learn the Torah that has been given to us by God’.

Kristeva identifies an anxiety over whether the Jews as exiles will treat other exiles well or badly. Although they have been other to the Egyptians, this does not ensure an understanding of other foreigners and rules have to be laid down.

God alone watches over all foreigners, and the remainder of the stay in Egypt indices the greater humility into “the chosen people” who might thus view themselves as having once been part of an inferior group. Justice rather than mercy seems to rise from that verse. (67)

Kristeva cites a number of passages to support her point including:
Leviticus 19:33-34 ;
Deuteronomy 10:19 ;
• and Genesis 12:1 .

Abraham experiences his religious revelation through exile leaving behind ‘his country […], his fatherland and his father’s house, and all the other peoples of the world’ (67-68). Kristeva also notes ‘the universalism of the prophets’ who believe ‘that all mankind is respectable in its intrinsic dignity’ (68). Kristeva now quotes a wonderful passage from Job 31:13-15 and 32:


If I have infringed the rights of slave
or maidservant in legal actions against me—
what shall I do when God stands up?
What shall I say when he holds his assize¹?
They, no less than I, were created in the womb
by the one same God who shaped us within our mothers.
[…] No stranger ever had to sleep outside,
my door was always open to the traveller.

Kristeva notes that the Hebrew term for stranger is ger and though it literally signifies ‘the one who has come to live with’ or ‘resident’, it can also mean ‘convert’. It can mean ‘proselyte’ or ‘stranger’ and there can also be gertochav (resident foreigner) or ger (someone subject to conversion or naturalisation).

However, some Jewish texts are more suspicious of converts. Kristeva quotes Rabbi Helbo who speaks of converts in metaphors of disease (Yebamoth 47b). Yet Kristeva sees this as an individual’s idiosyncrasy and sees welcome to converts as an integral part of the Jewish religion. Most importantly there is the prospect of reward for proselytes. Ultimately though, Kristeva is aware that Judaism has the same problems as Stoicism and Christianity in trying to integrate strangers.


- 2 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Through choosing the Torah, Jewish people universally gain access to God, since ‘whoever obeys the Torah, even a pagan, is equal to the highest priest’

    I don’t see how that makes sense given that a pagan by his/her very nature cannot obey even the basic commandments set down in the Torah.

    It would of course be logical that any Jewish person who obeys the Torah in its entirity would be equal to the highest priest because the priest would, presumably, also be obeying the rules of the Torah (and he wouldn’t be able to obtain his position were he not to observe those rules).

    08 Jan 2007, 15:26

  2. Here is what Kristeva says in full, Hamid.

    Furthermore, a biblical universalism comes to light, which allows the possible dignity of humankind in its entirety to emerge, and the foreigner himself might chance to be God’s unwonted although inevitable unveiler. In the eyes of rabbis, the Torah would eventually be destined for all mankind. Thus ‘Moses expounds the Torah in sixty-six languages’; ‘You must keep my laws and my customs. Whoever complies with them shall find life in them’. One may conclude that whoever obeys the Torah, even a pagan, is equal to the highest priest.

    Does this make more sense?

    08 Jan 2007, 15:36


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