Lennie Bruce had a famous routine about what’s Jewish and what’s not. “Dig,” he says quickly, and in the Lenny Bruciest way you can imagine. “I’m Jewish.” He continues: “Count Basie is Jewish. Ray Charles is Jewish. Eddie Cantor is goyish. B’nai Brith is goyish; Hadassah, Jewish. Marine Corps, heavy goyim, dangerous. Kool Aid is goyish; all Drake’s cakes are goyish. Pumpernickel is very Jewish, and, as you know, white bread is very goyish.”
Bruce’s routine makes his audience think about the people he names, what they look like, and their bodies: Count Basie, Ray Charles, Eddie Cantor, and Lennie Bruce himself. It also conjures things that bodies do: eating, fighting, performing, talking, getting together in social clubs. Do Jews eat more pumpernickel than their Lutheran neighbors? Could be. But, Bruce’s audience is supposed to wonder, how is the African American musician Count Basie Jewish when the Jewish performer Eddie Cantor is goyish? And yet, as the laughs from his live audiences demonstrate, there is something that feels right about it. “All Italians are Jewish. Greeks are goyish—bad sauce,” he says. Does that one feel right? Bruce creates a list of ins and outs, where it’s clear that Jewish is cooler than goyish. He performed multiple versions with modified lists. Audiences laughed.
What is the logic behind this classification? What do Drake’s cakes and B’nai Brith have in common that Hadassah does not? Maybe the point is that there is no logic, no predetermined criteria. Goyish is precisely not-Jewish. That is its whole meaning. Like a negative theological description of God, it can only tell us what something isn’t. Where did this word come from, what has it meant in its various historical contexts, and how did it come to be so empty and yet mean so much? These are the animating questions for Ishay Rosen-Zvi and Adi Ophir in Goy.
Rosen-Zvi and Ophir write about “the discursive labor invested in constructing and maintaining” (11) the Jew-goy binary, they explain, more than historical facts. Here I want to draw on their study to talk about the ways that the discourse creates meanings for bodies, especially for sexed bodies. A footnote says, “The gender economy of circumcision is beyond the scope of this present study,” but the gender economy of goyishness need not be. Put another way, I want to think about the central place of the male body in this discourse, and its twin, the way that women quietly disappear—or never appear in the first place.
Rosen-Zvi and Ophir have done their textual homework. They walk their readers through the uses of goy and goyim (its plural) from Biblical sources to Second Temple sources to early Christian and rabbinic sources. They show that although the words goy and goyim appear from the Hebrew Bible onward, these terms take on fundamentally different meanings in different texts. To begin with, they demonstrate, “the Hebrew Bible has no stable or binary concept of Israel’s individual Other,” and most often uses goyim in the sense of “nations,” which might or might not include Israel (24). Second Temple literature too works through ideas of how Israel is different from other peoples, and it offers a variety of ways to imagine who non-Jews are and what they are like, such as in Jubilees where “Israel is one, and the goyim are many” (87). That is, Israel is special, but that doesn’t mean that all other people groups are therefore somehow similar to one another or generalizable into a single category.
Then Paul came along and created “a new discursive structure” (142) in which there is Israel and then there is everyone else, a sweeping and generic not-Israel: the gentiles. Paul calls the goyim (in his new sense) into being for a specific theological reason. He “introduces the gentiles as an explanation for the rift that Christ healed” (159). Then the rabbis took this generic-goy concept and ran with it. They jettisoned the theological reasoning behind it, but they took hold of the Jew-goy binary, fortified, entrenched, and naturalized it through law and narrative.
Ophir and Rosen-Zvi open the book by quoting the Talmudic sugya that forms part of a Jewish man’s morning prayers: “Blessed is He who has not made me a goy. Blessed is he who has not made me a woman. Blessed is he who has not made me an ignoramus.” The ignoramus is in the dark about God’s commandments, and so he is also ignorant about sin, and so it’s obvious why no one wants to be one. But what about the other two? Ophir and Rosen-Zvi use the quotation as a way to introduce the question of what makes a goy. It should also prompt us to ask about women. In fact, a goy and a woman can be similar, and these similarities are part of what makes a Jewish man praise God that he is not them: they are not circumcised (or at least need not be), and many of God’s commandments do not apply to them. As Ophir and Rosen-Zvi put it, “the goy is outside the system” (217). Jewish women are not fully outside the system, but neither are they fully inside.
Gender, both in its embodied sense and its discursive one, is central to the development of the goy. First, the writers and implied audience of these ancient texts are men. They take for granted that the default person, whether as a part of Israel, a foreigner, a convert, or anything else really, is a male. Second, the male body serves as paradigm, both literally and metaphorically. Rosen-Zvi and Ophir quote Ezekiel 44:9, which employs both: “every foreigner (ben nekhar) uncircumcised of heart and of flesh shall not enter my temple” (30). Moreover, as the authors’ own language shows, the male-default plays a central role in differentiating Israel from others; for example, they write that “the opposition to taking ‘foreign women’ (nashim nokhriyot) is associated with the sexual separateness of a distinct group” (58). The people doing the action of “taking foreign women” are Israel, the people doing the action of “taking foreign women” are men, and therefore Israel are men.
Goyim are also men. For instance, the third-century Mekhilta de-Arayot describes the Canaanites—and then the Egyptians, now interchangeable under the category goyim—as “overrun with idolatry and incest and bloodshed and sex with men and bestiality” (198). “Sex with men,” of course, is only a rabbinic problem if the implied actors are other men. In rabbinic materials, the stock non-Jewish characters who appear and speak with the rabbis are almost always men. This is not to say that there are no Jewish women or non-Jewish women. They do appear in the text, but when they do, they are marked as a special case.
Not only do men appear as the unmarked category throughout these ancient texts, the circumcised penis and uncircumcised penis also have central roles. When they are explaining the textual context pre-Paul, Rosen-Zvi and Ophir write that there are two possible models Paul rejects. One is a model in which nations can accept Israel’s god as their own without becoming part of the people of Israel. The other “is the ethnic-political model, in which circumcision is the only legitimate path into the Jewish collective” (164). How can we make sense of this bodily sign of belonging, when it is only available to men? What does it mean for people who do not have penises that the only legitimate path into the Jewish collective is circumcision? Must one be a man to be a Jew? Scholars such as Cynthia Baker and Susannah Heschel have suggested that one way to think of this is to think that women were not really, fully Jews.
Though (Jewish) women weren’t really, fully Jews, they weren’t really goyim either. They are excluded from participation in Talmudic discourse, they are not subject to many divine commandments, but they are subject to some. As Rosen-Zvi and Ophir remind us, the rabbinic materials that make goy into the generalized “non-Jew” try very hard to create and fortify the Jew-goy binary. Although their textual and physical worlds hold many in-between cases (Samaritans, gerim, and god-fearers, just to name a few), the rabbis do their best to reinterpret these as firmly on one side or another, either Jew or goy, never a hybrid. Women and other non-men could have posed a problem for this dichotomy. Yet the rabbis insisted they did not.
The primary, though not exclusive, way the rabbis handle the question of where women fit in the Jew-goy equation is by ignoring their presence. When both Jew and goy represent categories where the default character is male, this strategy can make the logic seem seamless. Yet this is how we find “the uncircumcised” as a metonym for a group of people, and even for all the people who are not Jewish. In this locution, possessing a foreskin means being a goy. Once you see this penis-centric phrase—some version of it appears in many, if not most of the ancient texts in the corpora mentioned here—it’s hard not to notice that, however empty a signifier goy may be, it still signifies something about the male body.
Ancient texts notoriously silence women’s voices, and so there are many things we simply can’t know. Ophir and Rosen-Zvi engage with the work of women scholars, and they discuss several examples of women as non-Jews in ancient texts. But, perhaps because it goes unmarked in both ancient texts and our contemporary world, the male body is easy to overlook as a critical site for the construction of the goy.
It would be a mistake, as Ophir and Rosen-Zvi show, to assume that a stark Jew-goy dichotomy is the way it has always been, or that this is the only way it could be. These words and these bodies, their difference and their gender, are anything but accidental, anything but neutral. Rabbinic materials, like Lenny Bruce, declare there is a dichotomy between Jewish and goyish, and they know and their audience knows that Jewish is the cool side of that dichotomy. It’s about bodies, but it’s also about the words that we use to make those bodies mean.