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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.

This review offers an interpretation and analysis of the argument in Ishay Rozen Zvi and Adi Ophir ground-breaking Goy: Israel’s Multiple Others and the Birth of Gentile and, as a result of this interpretation, arrives to what I will argue is the core polemical question of the book, the question of the relationship between political theology and philology as modes of thought and inquiry.

Stripped of any connections of kin, tribe, land, trade, sex and/or gender, there emerges— perhaps for the first time— a political-theological notion of an abstract individual, the goy. A common Biblical word for a nation or a group, goy now comes to designate that abstract, universalized person, ready-made for, and therefore already half-way through to, conversion, i.e. to entering into a new group, in this case into the covenant with the G-d of Israel.

The meaning of goy moves from pointing to a nation in the Bible to designating an individual. It evolves, implicitly, to a new notion of a nation now composed of abstract individuals, in Paul and in rabbinic literature alike. If, in the other senses of this word, the national, the tribal— the group in general— comes first and the individual markers remain secondary, additional, or auxiliary, then now, with the advent of the new abstract individual goy, the relation reverses: the individual comes before the group. There emerges an abstract individual, an atom, who comes first, and from whom a larger molecular and molar group or groups can be formed. Most immediately, this new molar form would be an ecclesia; by extension it is also an empire or a nation or potentially any other group, if composed of individuals who enter the group rather than are being defined by the group in the first place. 

When looking more closely, however, it seems that the new goy is not an atom from which larger structures can be built. Rather, the goy is no-one specific; instead, it is a site of negation. This individual is a non-Jew, but also a non-pagan, a non-idol worshiper, a non-locksmith, a non-man and a non-woman, a non-body, and is “poor in spirit,” as well.

Looking even more closely, this individual is not only a site of negation, but it is also unstable, or better put, it is a much more dynamic political figure than it might seem at first glance. The dynamics of this figure is best explained by the classical theological concept of suspension.

Suspension here has a broader meaning than in traditional theology. It is not only the Christian suspension of the Old Testament by the New Testament; it is also the abstract individual gentile, the goy, who is the site of suspension. In anticipation of the coming of the Messiah, the goy suspends her/his/its connection to origins, kinship, occupation, gender, wealth, and social standing, along with whatever names and titles accompanying these categories. By its nature, such suspension is much more dynamic and much more complex than any static negation, or binary distinction between Jew and non-Jew.

The significance of this new, suspending goy ventures well beyond late antiquity. The theological political notion of the abstracted and suspended individual becomes a progenitor of the modern, French-revolution-born notion of universal humanity as well. Just as the latter notion is a political-theological mechanism of exclusion of the Jews from universal humanity (an exclusion accompanied by a partial self-denial through claiming that the Jew is as human as everyone else, i.e. as every other goy), so too does its late-antique progenitor excludes “Israel in flesh” from the abstract set of atom-individuals according to which every member of a society is a goy. Other modern versions of the new abstract goy— with the suspended relationship it has with its particulars–include political-theological forms that range from “Teletubbies” to the “new Soviet human being” (“we are all first of all humans and only then woman, men, workers, engineers, or locksmiths of our destiny”). In the same category of the goy there falls the modern notion of a human person existing and having value before any gender and racial differences come into play.

However, reducing the understanding of Ophir and Rosen-Zvi’s book’s main claim to a “simple” binary distinction of Jew and non-Jew (=goy) raises a complication. This complication has to do with the non-isomorphic nature of what seems to be a simple binary distinction; it is not only that the goy is a figure of a never finished (suspended) transition/abstraction from kinship, trade, nation, etc. It is also, and more importantly, that the Jew and the goy chart the map of the world in two radically different ways.

If the binary differentiation is looked upon from the Jew’s end, the Jew then depicts a topologically linear map of the world consisting of Jews surrounded by goyim (a plural of goy), with the unsuspended (or not-yet suspended) heathens on the periphery. This is however not the case, if the map is looked upon from the new goy’s perspective. From this point of view, the map is the Christian imperial depiction of the world. In that portrait of the world, the position of the Jew is never fully aligned on the map’s surface, and therefore the map is not linear and is not of an uninterrupted surface either. The Jew is the poke on the surface, which however holds the whole map together. Neither a Christian, nor a heretic (for to be a heretic one is to be a Christian); neither a heathen, nor an inconvertible, “the Jew” does not quite belong to the (imperial) map of the Christian world. Yet the Jew cannot be excluded from that map either — precisely because Christianity sees itself in the covenant with the same G-d that Jews worship. The Jew’s position on the Christian map of the world is thus never stable. It is not simply a suspension, it is a topological exclusion from the map of the world, an exclusion which however can never be full. The topology of that exclusion extends beyond the logic of the binary structure.

Therefore, if the Jew/Goy is a binary structure, then it is an unusual one. Unlike common binary divisions, this one does not have the main and the secondary term; or else instead of one, we have two binary divisions, each of them holding a different main term.  In other words, the binary structure that casts two incompatible maps of the world is an unstable one. What then informs the unusual character, complexity and instability of the Jew-goy binary? An answer has to do with the intellectual nature of the book, and with the intellectual scope of the project that the book performs.

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. Even if presented as marginal by the authors, this interest in fact frames the entire inquiry. In other words, the picture the authors draw allows them to explain the birth of political theology, i.e. the birth of the purely political form the theological, and this is one of the leitmotivs of the book.

Certainly, subscribing to political theology as a framework of inquiry means, in the classical Schmittean sense, perceiving the theological as preceding the political, in fact as always lurking beneath the political. Based on this preliminary assumption one might subscribe, as the authors do, to an explanation of political theology’s origin from the goy as a theological figure that, as the above mentioned modern examples illustrate, can become purely political even beyond explicitly theological themes and notions.

And yet, this raises difficulties. One such difficulty has to do with the very notion of theology. Both within and beyond the scope of the book, basic for any theology, no matter how and in which contexts it is approached, remains a connection between theos and logos, an interpretation of theos as logos, defines theology’s conceptual core. This core remains invariant through mutations and permutations of theology and of its meaning over the centuries of reception and/or further development. This nature of theology as theo-logy, or the claim that  theos is logos, is already a political argument even before the political gets extracted from it “by extension”: equating theos with logos is a political move in which G-d becomes universal by being expressed as logos, and thus available to each single goy to grasp. Theology is thus a political move in the first place.

To appreciate the power of this political enfolding of theos in logos, an understanding of the possibility it denies is required. The possibility denied by theo-logy is that of a G-d and/or of divine law which is neither revealed nor needs to be revealed in verbal form. It is the possibility of a G-d and/or of law governing theocratically (or through a monarchy) without being “given” to its subjects in any form, shape, or way, except by way of letting them know there is a law, i.e. without letting them know what this law is. After all, to be a governing law, the content of the law does not have to be made public, revealed and/or known.  Rejecting this possibility is a political move towards a publicly/universally accessible divine law, the G-d who is Logos, the G-d of theology. What that means however is that theo-logy is a political move from the outset: the creation of theology is a political move of making G-d and law known. This political move is the cradle, or birth-place of theology; the move itself is not theological, only the result is. That means the political precedes the theological. The former is at work even before the political can or needs to be freed from theological themes. What is even more important is that this primary nature of theology as a political move contravenes the main move of political theology, if the latter means showing the theological nature of political relationships. Attention should be given not only to the theological nature of political relationships but also and more importantly to the political nature of theology.

Another complication emerging from the classical framework of political theology has to do with the aforementioned (in)stability of the map of the world charted by and around the goy. Schmitt’s political theology insists on the stability of political-theological distinctions and disjunctions, such as creating the law by dividing up the patches of land, or excluding Jews from such land-division to make that very division possible. By contrast, Taubes, in his The Political Theology of Paul, distances himself from the project of political theology as defined by Schmitt and its insistence on stability.

For Taubes, Paul does not function as a figure that separates Israel from abstract individual “gentiles” (goyim) to become their “apostle”, but rather as a figure of political leadership directed towards the “Israel of the flesh”. Taubes’ Paul has the political intention to prompt Israel or the iudaioi to repent, even if this intention is now carried through in a radically new way— by enticing the constructed “gentiles” to enter into the covenant with the G-d of Israel. For Taubes, just as Moses was horrified by to the idea becoming a father of a new nation (new goy in Biblical parlance), so Paul too was horrified by the idea of becoming a father of the new goy (in the new sense), and thus also the father of the new Israel. Paul therefore creates for himself a suspended category of being the apostle to gentiles, a category in which he appears not as a “real” apostle, for he does not belong to the twelve, but as one that speaks to the unreal but politically virtual or abstract group, the “gentiles”, the unspecified number of individual goyim. Due to this Pauline move, the goy-Israel distinction becomes as solidified as the authors tell us it has. Yet at the same time it becomes intrinsically unstable, in giving an only virtual apostleship to Paul, and only an abstract-political existence to the gentiles As Taubes argues, despite centuries-long tradition of misreading Paul’s writings, Paul’s true target was to call for the repentance of the concrete Israel of the flesh in Jerusalem, not to entice the individuals abstracted or suspended from their “nations” to turn to the G-d of the concrete Israel.

If the less obvious but no less important aim of the book was to explain the birth of political theology (i.e. of the separation of the political from the theological) by means of a philological analysis of the genealogy of the political-theological concept of the goy, then the mission was accomplished. If, however, the authors wished to create a distance from Schmittean political theology as a mode of thinking, indeed as a mode of doing philological work, there remains more work to be done. Such distance can be found in Taubes who ascribes political theology to Paul but distances himself from the political theology as a mode of inquiry. The question therefore is: can such distance from political theology be maintained in understanding the book, if the book’s aim was no less but also no more than explaining the origins of political theology through philology.

Where the new book stands vis-à-vis Schmitt’s and Taubes’ positions is the question that might define a continuation of the discussion which this book so strongly initiates.


Symposium Essays

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.

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.

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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