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.

This book arises from an important, even paradigm-setting academic project, in which historical, philological and philosophical approaches to ancient Jewish texts come together in view of current political concerns. Adi Ophir and Ishay Rosen-Zvi offer not just an impressive work of scholarship, but, inspired by Nietzsche and Foucault, “a chapter of the genealogy of the present” (17). They define their subject position within this present, a position that this reviewer shares, as “Israeli Jews” (id.), whose political concern is the State of Israel, “a country in which the Jewishness of the state means systematic inequality between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens” (18). It is in critical view of this present that Ophir and Rosen-Zvi, two leading intellectuals of the Israeli left, active opponents of inequality and Occupation, engage in textual archeology of the division between Jews and non-Jews, a genealogy of the goy, who is still, they feel, “our contemporary” (17, 265).

This is a highly sensitive topic, with implications stretching well beyond contemporary Israeli or Jewish politics, into nerve centers of Western mind, memory and trauma. In the last pages of the book, the authors briefly mention that critique against Jews’ self-distinction from non-Jews as asocial and xenophobic was foundational for ancient anti-Judaism, and “was repeated many times in the following centuries” (259). However, perhaps by the effect of an Israel-centric perspective, the book provides little reflection on the delicate relations between post-Zionism (i.e. the mostly liberal critique and rejection by Israeli intellectuals of the Jewish component in the self-definition of the State of Israel), and anti-Semitism (“We have admittedly not found a meaningful way to connect our project to the abundant scholarship on ancient anti-Judaism”, 261 n. 55). This omission is all the more significant and potentially counter-productive as the authors’ central target is the same main target of historical and modern anti-Judaism: the rabbis. In fact, if Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin analyzed Zionism as the negation of exilic rabbinism, it is the main “intuition” (265) of Ophir and Rosen-Zvi’s new book that the discriminatory evil in the State of Israel is an instantiation, i.e. a specific instance of activation and performance of the rabbinic discourse.

Intuition aside, the authors’ basic argument is that the foundational feature of rabbinic discourse is its specific way of distinguishing between Jews and non-Jews, between Jews and goyim, which the book repeatedly problematizes as a “binary” form of distinction. In view of the weighty historical and political implications, the book would have benefited from a more patient contemplation of the conceptual problems of binarity; in fact, it would have benefited from a more binary distinction between binary and non-binary distinctions. Instead, the book’s argument is articulated by the staging of a textual genealogy (the significance of this strategy will be indicated below), going from non-binary to the binary, namely, as announced in the book’s title: from pre-rabbinic texts that distinguish Jews from “multiple others”, many goyim, in the sense of ethne, “peoples” or “nations”, to the binary rabbinic distinction between the Jew and the one non-Jewish Other, the goyas “gentile”.

The journey begins with “pre-goy discourses” (90). Chapters 1 to 4 analyze an imposing variety of texts, ranging from the Pentateuch, Priestly and Deuteronomistic, through Prophets and Ezra-Nehemiah, to Second Temple literature, Jubilees, 1 Enoch, Tobit, Letter of Aristeas, Third Maccabees and Greek Esther, up to Philo and Josephus. The nuanced readings, which merit closer attention, even as they indicate occasional buds of binarity, nevertheless assert in this entire archive, as well as in the Greek archive on non-Greek “barbarians” (Chapter 8), the prevalence of multiplicity in the perception and conceptualization of otherness: there are multiple others, and not the Other.

The turning point appears in Chapter 5, with the book’s “most daring claim” (8), locating the “birth of the goy” not in rabbinic texts, but in the epistles of Paul, “Apostle to the Gentiles”, who made “the first systematic use of a generalized, abstract category of the Jew’s Other” (21). This innovation arises, the authors argue, from Paul, on the one hand, abolishing the ethnic difference, while, on the other hand, insisting on the Jewish origin of his message: “Paul’s monotheistic God is still an ethnic God” (150). Pauline universal de-ethnicization thus leaves intact one ethnic difference, between all ethne, gentiles, goyim and Jews. Also this last ethnic difference is, however, de-ethnicized, namely emptied of any concrete specific ethnic content: “no positive value can be ascribed to any of the opposite concepts” (154, n. 59). Whence emerges the distinction between Jew and goy as binary.

The destiny of this distinction after Paul was “divided into two” (178). The Church Fathers perfected the inclusionary fusion, abandoned the Jew/goy distinction as constitutive, and invented the “Christians”. A home was found for Paul’s baby with the early rabbi, the Tannaim. Indeed, against a scholarly consensus “that the rabbis were, on the whole, more lenient than the priestly, separatist, or sectarian traditions” (208), the authors’ “new paradigm” (id.) is that the rabbis adopted Paul’s binary Jew/goy distinction, but refused its abolishment, thus “creating an unbreakable dividing wall instead” (178).

This claim is substantiated by textual evidence from Tannaitic discourse in Chapter 6, attesting to erasure of non-Jewish multiplicity (“ambiguous, hybrid positions”, “distinction between ethnicities”, 197), and in Chapter 7, presenting goyim in rabbinic law, the halakhah, as “simply non-Jews, non-subjects of the law, a simple and abstract negative” (219). The authors explain this rabbinic distinction, considering they were not Pauline, by an “unprecedented secularization of the law” (245) that the early rabbis effected in “response to God’s withdrawal from history” (234). Separating law (halakhah) from theology (aggadah), the rabbis “constituted halakhah as a separate and autonomous realm” (244), a godless law. The only remaining trace of the divine was the goy, “a signifier of God and a substitute for Him” (234), such that “[i]n the absence of divine revelation, separation from the goy becomes the ultimate scene of relationship with the divine” (233).

This attempted “genealogy of the present” is important and worthy of further discussion and research, for which the authors call in their conclusion. In this framework, it will be worthy of noting that, whereas Nietzsche’s genealogy deconstructed modern Western historiography, this book reclaims the pre-Nietzschean narrative of secular, enlightened, universal humanism.

Notwithstanding post-modern jargon (e.g., binary vs. hybrid), it shows no trace of post-modern critiques: of liberalism, of the nation-state, of secularism, or of Orientalism. Even the “most daring claim” on the Pauline origin of the goy leads to a Marcionist observation of Paul’s insistence on the Jewish ethnic God.

To be clear: the risk of disregarding philosophical critiques of modern universalism is not the oppression of particular (“Jewish”) identities, but, on the contrary, the reaffirmation of what the authors wish to criticize, namely ethnic distinctions. In fact, their textual genealogy of the goyeo ipso posits the stable, unchanging setting in which the goy-discourse occurs, i.e. the Jews in their separation from non-Jews. “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 –like all goys. The Jewish ethnic distinction, as transcendental to the book’s argument, is present in it as groundless, such that any attempt to define it, to intelligibly make it, is problematized as “binary”, which is ultimately a problem only in distinctions that make no sense.

In view of the authors’ philological and conceptual rigor directed at the “goy”, they give oddly little thought to the fact that the early rabbis, in – a binary – contrast to Paul and to the authors themselves, do not designate themselves with the ethnonym “Judeans” or “Jews”. A single footnote acknowledges that “the rabbis use Yehudi only when they mimic a non-Jewish perspective” (8, n. 34). What this signifies is that for the rabbis, goyim are those who see them as “Jewish”, like the authors do. What Ophir and Rosen-Zvi propose, in footnote and book, is thus a goyish perspective on the rabbinic project, a goyish goy.

In this perspective, apriori ethnic, all resistance to ethnicity, to “Jewishness”, appears as reaffirming ethnos. “Goyim” is a case in point: this category of ethnic indifference is presented in this book as absolutizing ethnicity – taken to signify “non-Jewish”. The rabbinic project of Torah, a “culture of debate” (179),is portrayed – Kant redivivus – as a godless law of groundless ethnic separation. The “secularization of the law”, if any, is performed by the authors themselves, who separate Mishnah from Talmud, which is the effective reception of the Mishnah as the Urtext of historical rabbinic discourse. Finally, indications that the Mishnah’s constitutive distinction is based not on ethnicity but on adherence to the halakha – lack of ethnic stereotyping (217), scarceness of separatist “prohibitions and performances” (209), the possibility and irreversibility (!) of giyur (193), Noahide laws (195) – are all interpreted as ethnic exclusion.

The debate that this thought-provoking book should therefore open is on whether ethnic segregation in Israel arises at least as much from the liberal discourse of the Jewish nation-state, as from the rabbinic tradition that it criticizes – and precisely from this critical operation. In fact, all the above remarks indicate a discursive device or structure, which has been arguably constitutive for modern, post-rabbinic, secular Jewish discourse. In this operation, which this book describes as originally Pauline, it is the very (in modernity: typically historiographic) act of suspending the rabbinic legal distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish, which crystallizes this distinction as historically, factually and so irreducibly real, irreducibly flesh. If this observation is correct, one could wonder whether it is not a similar or perhaps even the same operation, which in late antiquity generated non- or anti-Jewish Christian spirituality, that in modernity constitutes Jewish national identity.


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.

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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