Authors’ Response


The rabbinic formation of the goy involved a whole project of Othering, whose medium and toolkit was provided by halakhic discourse, while its ideology was supplemented by the aggadic midrash, where goy is presented as a conduit for the presence of God in the human world and a sure trace for His steps in history.

The distinction between Jews and their other, the gentile, has been so central to Jewish history that the vast scholarship dedicated to Jewish-gentile relations has treated the “gentile” as self-evident. But this concept – which divides reality in its entirety in a binary manner: Jews and all Others – is far from being self-evident, and was not always a part of the thought-patterns of Israelites, Judeans and Jews. In our monograph we have shown that this is an innovation of the rabbis in the second and third centuries CE, and that pre rabbinic Jewish (or Judean) distinctions were not all inclusive, binary and total, but rather allowed for multiplicity of ethnic others. We then analyze the political as well as theological implications, of this conceptual innovation in rabbinic discourse.

We feel lucky and grateful to have received four responses to our book, so rich and diverse, poignant and productive. The responses take the book to task in three of the four main fields within which the book operates: ideology (Liska and Lapidot), discourse analysis (Imhoff), and political theology (Dolgopolski and Lapidot). The fourth field, philology, is not addressed for its own sake, but its crucial importance for is recognized by Dolgopolski, who interprets our project as “an attempt to mobilize philology to unearth the ground of political theology.”

For Vivian Liska, however, the book’s “raison d’être” is very different, and this where her critique is directed. She concentrates on “the short but explosive postscript,” where she finds the ideological motivation behind the historical-conceptual research, and understands it as an indictment “that the rabbis’ negative ’obsession‘ with the goy laid the foundations for contemporary Jewish-Israeli xenophobia.” Rejecting both the historical and contemporary relevance of the figure and position of the rabbinic goy reconstructed in our book, she calls to reconstitute the familiar image of the Jewish tradition, as the locus of multiple viewpoints, pluralism of opinions and never-ending disputations. We would have been happy to oblige, but that is simply not what we discovered in the case of the “goy”. Rather, we discovered a pretty stable binary structure, which was beyond dispute (and never fully thematized), and a far reaching abstractedness. On some major questions, the consensus was striking to us. To give just one example: there is no opinion in the Talmud – neither a majority opinion nor a minority, not even an opinion entertained for the sake of the argument – according to which it is permissible to desecrate the Sabbath in order to save the life of a goy. No multiplicity or dissenting views on this issue. The first real dissenting voices did not appear in rabbinic discourse before the nineteen century.

Our book, however, does not concern the place of the goy in the contemporary Jewish condition but is rather focused on the birth of the category in pre-rabbinic and early rabbinic literature.

Our genealogy reconstructs a process in which others, who had previously belonged to multiple and different kinds – neighbors, enemies, strangers, etc. – were grouped into one of two categories, a binary distinction between one ethnos, Israel, and a formless human multiplicity.

Thus we do not ascribe to the rabbis “an ethnic distinction,” as Lapidot claims, but one that undermines its possibility. In order to keep the two groups apart, a whole project of Othering in which the Jewish Self became implicated was generated. The medium and toolkit for this project was provided by halakhic discourse, its ideology was supplemented by the aggadic midrash, where goy is presented as a conduit for the presence of God in the human world and a sure trace for His steps in history.

Not engaging our findings, Liska instead offers an apologetic rationalization to it: the abstract figure who is nothing but a non-Jew emerged as acompensation“for the loss of a centralized geographical and religious space”. We too entertained this (and similar) explanations, which seem indeed to fit the manner in which rabbinic culture converts actual borders into discursive ones. Our research, however, is not directed at finding explanations, but dwells instead on that which needs to be explained: the new discursive formation that came into being with the emergence of the rabbinic goy. As we wrote in the introduction: “our typological approach needs to be formal rather than thematic, i.e., we focus on forms of Otherness rather than on the justifications”. The debate is therefore methodological, not only ideological.

In this context, Lapidot is right to note that the book could benefit “from a more patient contemplation on the conceptual problems of binarity.” In fact, a long theoretical chapter on “alterology,” offering a conceptual grid on which our basic distinction between the pre-rabbinic, multiple others and the rabbinic “Other” rests, had to be omitted for reason of space. Here is a hint of our basic insights: By “Other” we designate one specific genus of the family of others. It is a subject position set in a binary relation between two asymmetric poles. In the opposite pole there is some sort of agency (usually designated as a Self – a convention we keep), which is capable of identifying itself, claiming a certain degree of sameness, and posing the Other as its strict negation. This negation is limited, however, and holds only in some sense, that which the Self deems essential for its own being and identity. Moreover, this negation can never be taken as a given or assumed as a fait accompli; it needs to be sustained through an ongoing labor of the Self. Therefore the Self is always implicated in the construction of its Other and the opposition between the two is never secured. For the Self, any other is a potential Other, but the potential is materialized relatively rarely. Most others one encounters, hears or reads about are not placed in the position of “the Other.” In order to become “the Other,” a domain shared by and divided between Self and Other should be drawn, imagined, or, at least, tacitly presupposed; the relations between the two should be framed and fixed as binary; and the implication of the Self in the labor of othering should be intensified. These conditions do not necessarily involve estrangement or hostility. The Other does not have to be alien, strange or adversarial in order to keep his or her otherly position; he or she can also be one’s kin, neighbor, peer or colleague.

The question whether the rabbinic goy makes Jews “the most xenophobic of all people”, as phrased by Liska (something we never claimed, as we did not engage in comparative history or sociology!) can be asked only when the type is placed in its concrete historical-political context, and in its interaction with other types. If the goy’s main characteristic is that it has no inherent characteristics, no essential traits, that it is a pure negativity, its othering may certainly be more benign in comparison to figures of alterity in which stereotypes are a central ingredient (as the Jew for pre-modern, and in some cases also modern, Christianity). In our typology we indeed treated these as two different types: Others in which the figure is central vs. those in which the position comes first (introduction, p. 15: “It is thus syntax, the relative position, rather than the figure itself, which is the key element to deciphering our type of Otherness”).

And so while our book – except for a four pages postscript, which both Lapidot and Liska read as a key to the whole project – does not discuss the present, it does offer typologies that may supply tools for differentiating various formations of otherness active in contemporary Israeli and Jewish discourse. In translating this to today’s context, a crucial task would be to follow the recent racialization of the goy, and how it is possibly transforming rabbinic discourse, and look for the discursive formations and repertoire of justifications that allow this racialization. Even more important is the reconstruction of the rabbinic structure of othering where the Other’s name, goy, is almost missing, and yet the position is very much alive, e.g., in “secular” Zionist discourse or the laws of the state of Israel. Whomever is not a Jew cannot become a citizen, or buy land owned by the “Jewish National Fund” (KKL), whether she is, by origin, a Filipino, an Arab, or a Russian. Things are radically different outside Israel, of course. But there too, being different from the goy, still serves a crucial function in cultural contexts. Is not mixed marriages a central theme in American-Jewish discourse today? Do different ethnicities make a  meaningful difference in these discussions? We invite Liska to join us in asking these questions in a critical, non-apologetic way.

When asking these questions, we may certainly sound Israelocentric, as Elad Lapidot claims (basing himself, once again, on our self-positioning in the book’s preface and afterword). He finds it already in the very naming used in the book, ‘The Jews,’ he claims “is the great constant of this book, persisting from Old Testament to Tel Aviv,” and this makes “the Jewish ethnic distinction… transcendental to the book’s argument.” But we use “Jews” to mark the rabbis’ self-designation (for even though the rabbis, like the Dead Sea Scrolls and unlike the Hashmonians, usually prefer the biblical term “Israel” for “Yehudi”, they used these as synonyms, and both stand in a binary relation to the goy; or nochri, another rabbinic synonymous pair). Since this is a native term, and as our work deals with the birth of the goy, which we argue took place in the early rabbinic literature, the hypostatization is not ours but the rabbis’. If the discursive configuration which the rabbinic goy names is still alive today, one could claim that the ideological construct of a continuous and uninterrupted Jewish identity is based precisely on the Zionist reproduction (whether through direct inheritance or novel resuscitation) of this rabbinic discursive configuration. What is “groundless,” thus, is not “Jews” in our discourse, but the goy in the rabbinic halakhic discourse, and it is this groundlessness which we strive to explain. 

In the same vein, Lapidot contends that we’ve reclaimed a “pre-Nietzschean narrative of secular, enlightened, universal humanism.” But this narrative too is not ours. The only moment of universalism in the book is introduced via Paul, and only to be immediately undermined; as we show, Paul rested his quasi-universal claims on a nascent division between Jews and gentiles. (Have we embraced then “the current wave of ‘New Paulines,’” as Liska claims?). In order to advance his cosmopolitan messianic gospel, Paul had to exceptionalize the Jews, placing them as the only human group recognized by its particularity. (We indeed believe that Marcion was a good reader of Paul; we are not the first to argue that). The only moment of secularization (not secularism) is introduced by our (not very original) observation that the rabbis welcome God’s withdrawal from human history and filled the void with Torah study and a proliferating halakhic discourse.

Whereas Liska and Lapidot read the book from the perspective of what it mostly hides, its ideological raison d’être, Sarah Imhoff reads it from the perspective of what it leaves in silence. She summarized the book’s main question in a manner we regret not using: “how did it [the goy] come to be so empty and yet mean so much?” She however does not limit herself to analyzing our discussion, but points at a major lacuna: the gender economy of the rabbinic “goy” is missing. She is right. That is a severe fault, and an all too common one, at that: “the male body is easy to overlook as a critical site for the construction of the goy”, and scholars too often mirror the blindness of their sources.

But it is doubtful whether even an enhanced sensitivity to gender contexts would have changed the overarching dichotomy pictured in the book, the positioning of the goy and its characteristics as an abstract other. Imhoff rightly claims that “gender, both in its embodied sense and its discursive one, is central to the development of the goy”. This is the case because the rabbis silenced women, looked through them, and, most importantly, were systematically blind to their own positioning as males in a the patriarchal society they are forming. In Imhoff’s words, “the default person, whether as a part of Israel, a foreigner, a convert, or anything else really, is a male… [and] the male body serves as paradigm, both literally and metaphorically.” But in this respect, the goy is not different from any other concept in rabbinic literature; the paradigm of the male body does not affect it differently than it affects (a male) God or (a female) Torah.

Things would be different if women were “outside the system” like the goy. But this, we argue, is not the case. Unlike readings which place Jewish women as borderline figures in the rabbinic ethnic categorization, we have found that their structured inferiority is part of the system, not something that happens outside it. Is the rabbinic goy gendered in a way that goes beyond the systematic male bias of rabbinic discourse? In the book we have failed to examine this question properly. Provoked by Imhoff, we offer here a first step toward a more extensive study. 

Let us take the occurrences of nokhrit in the Mishna (which never use the word ‘goyah’, probably due to lack of biblical precedent for this naming). There are but a handful such occurrences (ignoring the occurrences of nokhrit in the sense of a non-relative, a terminology unique to tractate Yevamot)  and they deal by and large with the same issues as those discussed where masculine “goy” appears in the Mishna: regulation of social relations (Avodah Zarah 2:1); ritual uncleanliness (‘eduyot 5:1, Nidah 9:3); questions of genealogy (Yevamot 2:5, Kiddushin 3:12) and conversion as a case-study of instantaneous change (Bekhorot 8:3). There are differences in details of course (the impurity of gentile women is manifested differently than that of gentile men), but the categorization is similar to what we found regarding goyim in general. Thus, the rhetoric of  m. Avodah Zarah 2:1 (discussed in detail in our book on pp. 210ff.) changes when it moves from discussing gentile men to gentile women, from accusations and suspicions (“they are suspect regarding illicit sexual relations” etc.) to pure hostility (“An Israelite woman shall not midwife a gentile woman” etc.). There is a certain difference in the mode of othering, perhpas, but not in its effect: a gentile woman is neither more nor less not-Jewish (hence an Other) than a gentile man.

Whereas Imhoff reads the book from the perspective of what it leaves out, Sergei Dolgopolski pushes us behind ourselves urging us to stay longer in terrains we’ve crossed in haste. He captures wonderfully the political import of the goy as a concept of a generalized, abstracted other, “an atom, who comes first, and from whom a larger molecular and molar group or groups can be formed.”. Looked at more closely, this atom turns out to be a site of negation, and, more importantly, of suspension. Suspended are the individual distinct particular traits; what remains active is what is most general about the individual – that which it is not. Thus overcoming particular differences and suspending the weight of origin, class, and pedigree, the goy is a progenitor of the bearer of human and political rights, the man and the citizen of the French revolution. With this precise conceptual reformulation, Dolgopolski extracts from our argument something with which he can take the book beyond itself, and at the same time launch its critique.

Dolgopolski points out correctly that the binary division of humanity into Jew and non-Jew creates two non-isomorphic points of view. We have followed the rabbis, reconstructed their point of view and examined how the goy looks from that point of view. Dolgopolski insists on the importance of reconstructing the world from point of view of the goy. This is an important twist. We fail to understand, however, why he then immediately identifies the map viewed from that perspective with “the Christian imperial map of the world.” Furthermore, by equating the gentile’s point of view with that of the Christian, Dolgopolski presents Christianity as a possible response to this exclusion, one that replaces one covenant with another. But such a response could make sense only if one inverts the genealogical order, for the goy most probably came into being as a rabbinic response to the challenge of a second covenant and not vice versa.

Asking about the map of the world from a gentile’s perspective, one must be able to place there a Delphian prophetess, a pagan Roman citizen, an Egyptian princess, or a Zoroastrian priest, and, later, a Muslim sage. If they would be willing to take the gentile position, to reclaim it, they would see themselves overcoming whatever separates them and recognize that they are opposed to nothing but the Jews. But why would they take such a position? Why would they give up their distinct faith, place of origin, gender, etc.? Unlike the generalized human and the abstract citizen, they are promised neither liberty nor equality, except for the equality of those who have been excluded from the covenant with God.

Dolgopolski may argue that all this is written from a specific Jewish perspective, and that the gentiles may have a point of view of their own once they are liberated from the pure negativity in which they are placed by the Jewish gaze. But this is the whole point. As a construct of rabbinic discourse that also functions as its condition of possibility, the gentile is not supposed to have a point of view in the first place. We tried to show this in detail in our reading of the few episodes of encounters between rabbis and gentiles in Tannaitic literature. In each of them the possibility of assigning a gentile with a point of view and a speaking position is admitted momentarily, at the plane of the narrative, only in order to be denied at the plane of discourse. The gentile is either dismissed, silenced, or ignored.  

Dolgopolski characterizes the general trajectory of our argument as an attempt “to mobilize philology to trace the ground of political theology,” and this, he claims is what truly “frames [our] inquiry.” This is another fruitful formulation. One of us would have never dared to mobilize philology for anything, while the other has never been interested in tracing either the ground or the fruits of political theology. But we cannot refuse this description as characterizing the unexpected space that our ongoing dialogue and collaboration have created. We do refuse, however, the way this “tracing the ground of political theology” immediately means explaining “the birth of political theology.”

As a concept and a discursive formation, goy is theo-political through and through, enabling a new articulation of God’s sovereignty, on the one hand, and of the exilic, stateless condition of Jewish existence, on the other hand. But by no means does it serve as the birth place or “origin” of political theology. Without committing to any moment of birth, we would like to note simply that the rabbinic articulation of sovereignty and exile is an innovative transformation of Biblical theopolitical configurations. For Dolgopolski political theology is “showing the theological nature of political relationships.” But there is another side to political theology, and it is with this side that we have been mostly occupied: showing the political nature of God. Because the God described by our sources exists among humans and in relation to them, rules, judges, and governs them, punishes and forsakes, promises and fails to deliver, the theology we studied is political from the very beginning.

In the final section of his fascinating response, Dolgopolski invites us to think about the possibility which our implicit conception of political theology denies (or so he claims): the possibility “of a G-d.. which is neither revealed nor needing to be revealed in a verbal form.” Under the reign of this God, people know that there is a law but not what this law is.  We have not rejected this possibility, but our rabbis certainly did. For them, there was no divine law other than the ever evolving Torah, and they famously subjected even the forefathers to this Torah. Their rejection of the possibility of “a divine law which is neither revealed nor needing to be revealed” was certainly “a political move towards a publicly accessible divine law,” but not a universally accessible one, as Dolgopolski states. Rather, being subject to – and of – this proliferating law was the ultimate prism through which Jews were distinguished from non-Jews. The latter are defined first and foremost as those who are not commanded, to whom the law does not apply. And it is exactly this trait that makes the goy such a useful, indeed necessary, vehicle in defining the limits of halakhic law.


Symposium Essays

Sarah Imhoff

Gender and the Goy

Once you see the penis-centric phrase “the uncircumcised”— some version of it appears in many, if not most of the ancient texts in the corpora mentioned in the book— it’s hard not to notice that, however empty a signifier goy may be, it still signifies something about the male body.

Sergey Dolgopolski

The Poke Between, or the Complex Negativity of the Non-Jew

The real scope of the project emerges when its intellectual polemical core is revealed. The book— a fruit of the shared interests of its authors in philology and political theology– is an attempt to mobilize philology in order to unearth the ground of political theology.

Vivian Liska

Whose Goy?

When the authors speak of “our contemporary,” they must be wary of homogenizing the radically diversified world of contemporary Jewry and their equally diversified others.

Elad Lapidot

The Goyish Goy

The Jews is the great constant of this book, persisting from Old Testament to Tel Aviv, as an ahistorical collective, undisturbed by text and politics, what the book calls ethnos, goy. This book’s apriori is the Jews as a goy.

Authors’ Response

The rabbinic formation of the goy involved a whole project of Othering, whose medium and toolkit was provided by halakhic discourse, while its ideology was supplemented by the aggadic midrash, where goy is presented as a conduit for the presence of God in the human world and a sure trace for His steps in history.

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