Chimeric antigen receptors (CARs) can effectively redirect cytotoxic T cells toward highly expressed surface antigens on tumor cells. The low expression of several tumor-associated antigens (TAAs) on normal tissues, however, hinders their safe targeting by CAR T cells due to on-target/off-tumor effects. Using the multiple myeloma (MM)-associated CD38 antigen as a model system, here, we present a rational approach for effective and tumor-selective targeting of such TAAs. Using “light-chain exchange” technology, we combined the heavy chains of two high-affinity CD38 antibodies with 176 germline light chains and generated ∼124 new antibodies with 10- to >1,000-fold lower affinities to CD38. After categorizing them into three distinct affinity classes, we incorporated the single-chain variable fragments of eight antibodies from each class into new CARs. T cells carrying these CD38-CARs were extensively evaluated for their on-tumor/off-tumor cytotoxicity as well as CD38-dependent proliferation and cytokine production. We identified CD38-CAR T cells of ∼1,000- fold reduced affinity, which optimally proliferated, produced Th1-like cytokines, and effectively lysed CD382+ MM cells, but spared CD38+ healthy hematopoietic cells in vitro and in vivo. Thus, this systematic approach is highly suitable for the generation of optimal CARs for effective and selective targeting of TAAs.