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"zoo-5" by Javier Lerín CC BY-NC 2.0

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.

Shh, das sagt man nicht!” My first memory of hearing the word “goy” as a child of Orthodox Jewish survivors in postwar Vienna is unforgettably linked to my parents’ reprimand: “One doesn’t say this.” The prohibition against pronouncing the word was absolute, the explanation laconic: it simply means Volk, but “they” don’t know this and take it for an insult. The word was not inherently negative; what mattered was its hurtful effect on those in whose midst we lived. Beyond that, the goy, discursive or real, was largely irrelevant in my experience of learning what it meant to be a Jew. Being a Jew meant learning Torah, keeping the mitzvot, and performing a colorful set of rituals imparted to me as intrinsically valuable components of a way of life. It was the life of a minority group living amidst a majority culture; like Georg Simmel’s “stranger,” we had “arrived yesterday and stayed today.”

There was a vague sense of a dark past, but this did not determine the interaction between Jews and Gentiles. The goy was the classmate, the neighbor, the doctor, the firefighter, the babysitter, and the politician. They were the autochthones, who, like the Jews, needed no essential “othering” for their identity. The dividing line between Jew and Gentile depended on context: it was radical in halakhic terms, porous in social situations, interactive in cultural ones, and almost nonexistent on a personal level. The Jews’ other existed; thus I was taught. But it was not the goy; rather, it was Amalek, the generic name for those who wanted to wipe the Jews off the face of the earth. So much for an impressionistic answer to the final question posed in Adi Ophir and Yishay Rosen-Zvi’s impressively learned and ideologically challenging book: “Can one become a Jew, and be one, without having to go through the negation of the goy?” This question, along with others presented in the book’s bold postscript, exposes the ideological underpinnings and the polemical dimension of the work’s main argument that “Jewish subjectivity” (267) is dependent on a radical separation from the goy and that this all-encompassing, exclusionary attitude forged two thousand years ago by the Tannaitic rabbis is still with us today.

The power of Ophir and Rosen-Zvi’s book derives from its combination of remarkable erudition and a strong and controversial thesis with major implications for the present. Goy consists largely of a detailed reconstruction of the concept’s discursive history. This rich diachronic account is driven by strong argumentation concerning the timeline and the agents of the creation, consolidation, and transmission of a stark and radical binary opposition between Jew and Gentile. The evidence is powerful, the reasoning convincing, and – at least to this reader – many elements in the story are illuminating and new. I have benefited immensely from the book’s close readings of textual passages describing the changing perception of the Jews’ Other. I was momentarily challenged into revising certain of my earlier views of Paul and the current literature about his relevance for today. And disappointed when I realized that the authors ultimately align themselves with the current wave of “New Paulines,” who praise the apostle’s magnanimous overcoming of ethnic distinctions and deny the harsh divisiveness of his religious teachings. The raison d’être of the book, however, seems to lie elsewhere. It is announced in the introduction, hinted at in the main body of the book, and finally revealed in the short but explosive postscript.

In this concluding section, the careful historical contextualization and minute philological work ends, and a barely hidden ideological agenda takes over. These final pages merit a comprehensive analysis as meticulous as the one offered by the authors on the rabbis’ “strategies of separation.” Instead, the postscript, presented as a series of seemingly neutral questions inviting “further research,” intimates a radical critique of the current state of Jewish affairs in the State of Israel and beyond. It becomes clear that the authors’ wholesale inculpation of the ancient rabbis is more than a mere historical critique; it is, rather, an indictment that the rabbis’ negative “obsession” with the goy laid the foundations for contemporary Jewish-Israeli xenophobia.

I leave it to others to probe in detail the book’s thesis that the rabbis replaced a more pluralist view of the Other with a sharp binary opposition between Jew and Gentile. However, even to a relatively non-initiate, the depicted uniformity of the rabbis’ supposed intention seems hardly compatible with the miscellany of voices, debates, and viewpoints characteristic of halakhic texts. The authors’ repeated but often brash handling of exceptions that could challenge their argument contributes to a certain suspicion that they have often streamlined a multifaceted corpus to make their point. Although their demonstration of the rabbis’ “strategies of separation” – such as the elimination of “in-betweens” and the dismissal of the specificity and diversity of the Jews’ Others – are plausible, what follows is far from clear. Did the rabbis really, as the postscript states, thereby turn non-Jews into an “amorphous collective of humans, a sui generis type in the human zoo”? (Goy, 264). The metaphor of the zoo may reinforce the intended sense of a dehumanizing division; nonetheless, an animal menagerie, a structured space with multiple divisions for keeping different species apart, is an incoherent image by which to conjure a single “amorphous collective.”

The near total failure to provide possible explanations or even suggest mitigating circumstances for the ancient rabbis’ “negation of the goy” arouses more serious doubts. Their reasons for closing the Jewish ranks may have had more to do with countering the threat of dissolution of their constituency or trying to compensate for the loss of a centralized geographical and religious space than with upholding internal purity or promoting hatred of the other. Furthermore, their effacement of “hybrids” and “penumbras” (199) may have been dictated primarily by their creation of a legal discourse, a genre whose efficiency by definition requires strict distinctions. Finally, and even more fundamentally, the very practice of separation, when compared to other modes of engaging with a religious Other, must be put in perspective. It has, after all engendered neither the missionary thrust of the crusaders against those not “saved in Christ” nor the call for Jihad or Holy War against nonbelievers, two approaches to religious “Others” that are no less generic and indefinite than the rabbis’ determination of the goy – and considerably more violent.

In their postscript, Ophir and Rosen-Zvi contend that rabbinic Jews are the most xenophobic of all people: More than other nations, religions, or ethnicities, they would, at least for the past two thousand years, deploy and consolidate broad strategies to construct the goy as a single “universal figure of Otherness.” Earlier Jewish approaches to the Other allegedly still respected a “multiplicity of alterities,” similar to other religious or ethnic groups:

Christians have distinguished themselves from multiple Others, including Jews, pagans, Muslims, and others; Europeans have distinguished themselves from “barbarians,” pre-modern “savages,” and indigenous peoples in any part of the earth, the colonized – “Orientals,” “blacks,” “Indians,” etc. – as well as from Arabs and Muslims. (264)

According to Ophir and Rosen-Zvi, the rabbis’ construction of the single, unified goy changed forever for the Jews this pluralist – and thus acceptable – approach to the other where “the abstract otherness was not claimed to be univeral (sic),” where “these Others [did not] embody the same type of alterity” (265). The authors ask: “Is this [construction of a multiplicity of alterities] also the case of the goy, the Jew’s Other? If so, why is it that in too many respects, this second- or third-century figure seems all too familiar to us, in the twenty-first century? Why can we easily recognize it as our contemporary?” (265).

There might be no better way to engage with these questions than to ask a few in return. Is it really more reprehensible to construct the goy as one unspecified other than as a “multiplicity of alterities?” (264). The rabbis’ homogenizing othering is ultimately a strategy of setting oneself apart. Admittedly, this is neither attractive nor enlivening from the perspective of moderns such as ourselves, but it is not necessarily worse than the second option. Recognizing manifold Others may sound like an affirmation of plurality and consideration for the specificity of alterities, but is it necessarily more ethically appealing to differentiate groups and consider them separately, as different from one’s own group? White supremacists, racists, and Nazis acknowledge many types of non-Aryans, or at least consider some more exterminable than others. And recognizing “in-betweens” – say, half-Jews, three-quarter Jews –does not necessarily contribute any degree of humanity to the treatment of the Other.

And finally: Can we really, as the authors rhetorically ask in the postscript, “recognize [the rabbis’ goy] as our contemporary?” (265). Where, and for whom, does this single, unified goy exist today? Does the mainstream Israeli, American, or European Jew today treat the American evangelical, the German politician, the Filipino caretaker, the Sudanese immigrant, and the Palestinian prisoner as the same goy? Only in the ultraorthodox world of the Haredim and Hasidim in Israel and elsewhere does the image of the rabbinic goy remain the same as it did for the ancient rabbis. They desire and cherish the continuity. In their case, it must be added, however, that not only the secular Tel Avivi but even the modern orthodox individual from Rehavia is closer to a goy than to them. For the ultra-orthodox (who throw stones on transgressors of the Shabbat irrespective of their origins), the other from whom they separate is ultimately not the goy but modernity as such. 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 suggestion that the ancient rabbis are the initiators of the rising chauvinism of the Jewish State today raises another problematic issue. While this intimation allows for a simultaneous critique of both the ultraorthodox and the current government, it contributes little to the urgently needed rapprochement between inimical fractions in Israel or to the necessary vigilance in forging alliances with the powerful separatist and antidemocratic players of the new world order around the globe. 

In conclusion, I wish to return to the final question presented in the postscript: is the Jew conceivable without the “negation of the goy”? Someday, perhaps, when all forms of Jewish life have become so depleted of inherent, meaningful substance that the only thing remaining is the negative definition by its Other, the response to this question will be “no.” At that point, the ultimate instrumentalization of the Other will have been achieved. We are not there yet. The other day, my ten-year-old grandson, a bright little Cheder boy from Jerusalem, whose Jewishness is hardly dependent on the negation of the other, saw the volume Goy on my kitchen table. He looked surprised and then commented politely but disapprovingly that one should not use this word.


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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