Today that idea has spread well beyond Reform Judaism. Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the leading Conservative institution in the United States, has noted that the idea of Jews as a “chosen people” appears throughout the Bible and that Jews have embraced the message of later prophets that Jews are “the servant of mankind” and “a light unto the nations.”
For many American Jews, the prophetic and messianic role of the Jewish people themselves has become central to their faith. A Pew Research Center survey of American Jews found in 2013 that among the five million American Jews, most regarded “working for justice and equality” as a pillar of their Jewish identity.
It happens to be true that the phrase “tikkun olam” is a kind of modern neologism, derived from Jewish mysticism. But the idea of Judaism with a social conscience is rooted in a rich history of American Jews struggling to Americanize their faith while seeing their “chosen” status as an opportunity to “repair the world.”
Steven R. Weisman, the vice president for publications and communications at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, is the author of the forthcoming “The Chosen Wars: How Judaism Became an American Religion” and a former correspondent and editor at The Times.