Adi Ophir and Ishay Rosen-Zvi (hereinafter, “the authors”) have written an impressive book. In it, they aim “to reconstruct the transformation of ‘gentile’ from ‘people’ to ‘non-Jew’” (5) through recovering “the discursive framework that naturalized the radical alterity of the gentile and its binary opposition to the Jew, and made it into a fact of life” (6). They pursue this project through a careful tracing of “the genealogy of the goy, from the Hebrew Bible [where “Israel is one goy among many” (19)] to the rabbis and church fathers of the second and third centuries” of the Common Era (8). In surveying biblical and “Second-Temple literature” for evidence of “relationships between Israelites and various others” (18), the authors find that, although these earlier texts are, indeed, characterized by a “recurring theme [of] . . . separation” (139), they are “not dominated by the binary and abstract configuration which the [later] Jew-gentile division entailed” (18). Instead, the earlier texts describe and depict a multiplicity of others and a “multiplicity of technologies of otherings and their justifications” (139) that the later rabbis, “utterly indifferent to existing or possible relations among the variety of alterities named and discussed” by their predecessors and contemporaries, collapse into the single, undifferentiated category of goy.
And yet the rabbis, it turns out, are not the first to disregard diversity and variety – both among non-Jews and among Jewish identities – in favor of stark dualism and encompassing abstraction: “The book’s most daring claim . . . is that the discursive formation through which the Jew-goy opposition functions . . . first takes place not in early rabbinic writings, Palestinian apocalyptic texts, or Alexandrian apologetic works, but rather in the epistles of Paul, the ‘apostle to the gentiles’” (8). Neither Ezra-Nehemiah, in which “the unity of the group is not a given, and the identity of its others can never be taken for granted” (71), nor the Qumran scrolls, whose “children of darkness” include many Jews and exclude many non-Jews (88-90), reach the level of abstraction, individuation, “binarism,” and ontological absoluteness that characterize the Jew-goy discourse found in Paul’s letters and in the later rabbinic writings.
Paul, it seems, felt compelled to abstract and aggregate, individualize, conceptualize, and systematize goy (adapting the Greek term ethne) in such a way that it could function theologically “at every critical juncture of his work: his mission, the death of Jesus, the law, ethics, and redemption” (142). Paul accomplished all this in service to “his unprecedented project of creating a new, universal ekklesia tou theou of gentiles” (144). The authors summarize the Pauline schema by which non-Jews become integrated into “the community of the God of Israel” (155) as full, non-Israelite members, as follows:
The new member becomes an individual, generalized non-Jew, not a member of a nation, at the precise moment he or she joins the ekklesia. “Individual,” because the newcomer leaves his or her ancestral tradition and joins the new community on his or her own. “Generalized,” because at the moment of joining, he or she has no ethnic identity except the negative “non-Jewishness.” This is the moment the asymmetrical concept of the goy is born. (154)
Paradoxically, however, Paul’s goy ceases to be “gentile” at precisely this same moment of entering the redeemed community and becoming non-Israelite “seed of Abraham” (157). Hence, Paul can tell the Corinthians that they are “no longer gentiles” in an assertion that carries the performative power of having first made them gentiles and, thus, objects of Paul’s “mission to the gentiles” (160). Living in what he considered to be the messianic era on the eve of the end of days, Paul hewed to a different purpose than that of the later tannaitic rabbis and their successors. But the mechanism of the goy, first brought to full fruition by Paul, served equally well the aims of both.
The argument of the book, sketched here with a brevity that barely does it justice, is, for the most part, a compelling one, and the authors take their time fleshing it out and nuancing it. They are careful to emphasize, repeatedly throughout each chapter, that they are tracing the development and emergence of a discursive configuration, one that merges and modifies a number of earlier, biblical and post-biblical, elements into an all-encompassing “system of thought and practice” (139) far greater than the sum of its parts. Once established as a fundamental “given” within rabbinic culture, separation from the “rabbinic abstract goy includes its own justification and makes any further explanations superfluous” (90). Thus, it is “due to the gentility of gentiles” (Sifre Num 158) that practices of separation (such as purifying vessels previously used by gentiles) are required by rabbinic halakha (90). “Instead of asking from whom and why one should separate, one would ask how to separate. This mode of problematization would encompass the entire life-world of the rabbinic community” (139).
As conscious heirs to this ancient legacy, the authors signal, early on, an awareness of their own implication and participation in some of the more harmful aspects of contemporary attitudes and institutions that this polarizing legacy has helped to shape:
The goy is a living concept in our own experience. We are two Israeli Jews who grew up in a land where the distinction between Jew and gentile seems to be as alive and well as it was for Rabbi Yehuda, with far-reaching consequences for many aspects of life for both individuals and communities . . . [and where] the Jewishness of the state means systemic inequality between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens . . . [that is] always explicitly articulated in political discourse and legally inscribed. (17-18)
Binary separations, if not ineluctably hierarchical, are profoundly susceptible to disparities in distribution of privilege and power. In a system where “separate but equal” is not even a desideratum, “systemic inequality” is an inevitable result and seemingly lacks any robust internal constraints. Jew-goy is only one among many such binary divisions that distort, deform, and diminish the full personhood of most of this world’s human inhabitants – some far more than others – to say nothing of our non-human cohabitants. In the face of this, the authors are upfront about the potentially interventionist nature of their study: “We direct our gaze to the prehistory of this powerful conceptual, ideological, and theo-political division in order to denaturalize it, unpack it, and open it to further questioning” (17-18). As with so many other damaging dualisms, the mere demonstration of its historical/political contingency may render this dualism more amenable to dissolution, radical transformation, or, at least, as the authors say, to further questioning.
In the current era of resurgent ethnonationalist exclusivism and increasingly emboldened white supremacism, it is worth tracking the authors’ interventionist impulse just a bit further, and asking whether or in what respects the analysis of goy (“a minor figure that a minor culture posited as its Other” ) might provide tools for unpacking, for example, the white/nonwhite discourse of white supremacists. Are all such “binarized” classification systems racialist? Racist? Or merely chauvinist?
The issue of racism appears twice, in passing, in the pages of Goy: In the second chapter, the authors caution against ascribing to Ezra an “‘ideology’ or doctrine of purity, a prototype of a biopolitical regime or a proto-racist interpretation of peoplehood, which applies to one nation only” (71). In an extended footnote to this caution they acknowledge the extensive use made of Ezra-Nehemiah by “modern racist theologians, including those who supported Nazism,” and how it “is still widely used by American Christian fundamentalists to support white supremacism” – most spectacularly by Pastor Robert Jeffress at Donald Trump’s inauguration. (A lengthy quotation of Jeffress’s “benediction” is included in the footnote.) Similar appeals to Ezra-Nehemiah by others than Christians go unremarked.
The remaining reference to racism appears in the final chapter, “Gentiles Are Not Barbarians.” Quoting from Kostas Vlassopoulos’s Greeks and Barbarians, the authors observe: “‘Polarized representations’ [by Greeks of ‘barbarians’] could be extremely harsh and ‘often reached the point of being xenophobic and jingoistic, and even similar, in some ways, to modern racism.’ But this is only one part of an ‘extremely diverse and complex barbarian repertoire’ in which ‘non-Greeks and their cultures could also be depicted as utopian societies’” (250). The authors go on to contrast this variegated and wide-ranging “barbarian discourse” with the Jew-goy discourse of the early rabbis:
Early rabbinic literature refused, quite systematically, any form of alterity except for the general, abstract, and comprehensive goy, and rabbinic discourse worked hard to polarize (or in our terminology binarize) remnants of forms from earlier periods and other discourses . . .The Jewish Other became an uncompromising form of alterity that tolerated no other forms and repelled any form of non-polarized alterity. (252)
Does the determined polarization enacted by the early rabbis, then, ever reach the “point of being xenophobic and jingoistic, and even similar, in some ways, to modern racism”? Is an affirmative assessment implied by the authors’ juxtaposition of Vlassopoulos’s observation with their own? The authors leave their readers to draw their own conclusions.
Although my work on the word Jew is never engaged by the authors (apart from an uncomfortable nod in an early footnote), it is clearly Jew that accounts for my invitation to contribute to this forum on a book devoted to Goy. I would be remiss, therefore, if I were to conclude my essay without at least some brief reflections on Goy through the lens of Jew.
In describing different forms of polarization and “othering,” the authors distinguish the relative “emptiness” of the signifier goy from more figural or thematic “semantics of otherness” characterized by the generation of prejudicial stereotypes and caricatures:
Sometimes, indeed, the construction and reproduction of Otherness involves intense and persistent investment in certain specific phenomenal features, like a beard, veil, or nose, or some cognitive or psychological traits, like rationality, stinginess, or disloyalty. But it is also possible that the profile of the Other would be almost empty, open to include almost everything, as long as the position of the Other is kept. This, we will see, is typical of our goy. (15)
The particular list of “certain specific phenomenal features” offered by the authors positions the Jew and the goy as typologically distinct – if not contrasting – forms of “othering.” Jew-as-Other, it seems, is a fundamentally and significantly different “type of Otherness” from goy-as-Other (15). Although rabbinic halakha expends a great deal of effort on regulating encounters between Jews and gentiles, this, according to the authors “teaches us nothing about gentiles or about Jews. Jews cannot see their mirror image in the looking glass that is the gentile because the goy does not mirror anything . . . none of these regulations expresses a latent characteristic that may be ascribed to either gentiles or Jews” (225). They conclude that, therefore, “the construction of the Jewish self would not rely on the negation of an imaginary other but on an endless series of acts and gestures of separation in the realm of everyday practice” (139).
These propositions are intriguing and provide some important insights. Chief among these is the argument, noted above, that the rabbinic discourse of the goy renders superfluous any argumentation for, or justification of, separation from gentiles on the basis of particular traits or qualities attributed to them. Separation from gentiles is demanded because they are gentiles, and they are gentiles because they are not Jews. Second, repeated “acts and gestures of separation in the realm of everyday practice” obviate any need – and arguably any desire for – more active or antagonistic forms of “negation of an imaginary other” in the interest of securing a collective identity. (Again, does this analysis provide tools for unpacking, for example, white separatism? Although some white separatists argue for separation through appeal to ascribed traits of nonwhites, others insist that separation from nonwhites is demanded simply because they are not white. And, as argued by such separatists, insofar as separation might become enshrined and institutionalized in “everyday practice,” occasions for other, more explicit, forms of negation would not arise.)
But an absence or dearth of explicit attribution of “certain specific phenomenal features” to an Other is, demonstrably, no guarantee that a construction of a self would not also rely on more active forms of negation. Being systematically “deprived of their share of the genus adam (person or human)” (220), rabbinically constituted goyim are subject to any and all characterizations that mark their lack of worthiness – and to none that are genuinely positive (225). Hence, in this important respect, goy is a mirror image to the rabbis’ highly valued, fully human, Israelite Self. Conversely, the infinite variability and adaptability of meanings attributed to Jew (for instance, “anything which the Chinese aspire to is Jewish, at the same time anything which the Chinese despise is Jewish,” [Zhou Xun, quoted in Baker, Jew, 2]) suggests that, no less than the rabbis’ goy, the profile of Jew is typically “open to include almost everything, as long as the position of the Other is kept.”
My interest in pushing back on the authors’ proposed overarching distinction here is not merely contrarian. Rather, I wish to interrupt what sometimes seems a too-easy treatment of goy and Jew as different types of Other, and a bracketing off of Jew-goy from other decidedly damaging dualisms. I do this, as well, by way of circling back to a proposition that the authors offer in their chapter on Paul that resonates in complex ways with my own arguments about Pauline discourse. Paul is one nexus within and between our two books as he is a key nexus in the entire history of biblically inflected discourses.
In summing up their discussion of Paul, the authors aver that, “due to his role in introducing the binary, asymmetrical counter-concept of the gentile, Paul was part of the very formation of Jewishness, the formation of the categories that became the building blocks of Jewishness” (167). The statement is intended to describe the Israel-goy discourse appropriated and further developed by the early rabbis that helped to shape later Jewish self-understandings over and against this discursive goy. From the perspective of my research, however, it is equally important to acknowledge Paul’s significant part in shaping the content and meanings that the word Jew, itself (as distinct from the rabbinic and Orthodox Christian “Israel” or “Israelite”), comes to hold. Those meanings – arguably as much as the rabbinic goy discourse described by the authors – have given shape to encompassing discourses of Jew that have informed conceptions of Jews in many dominant cultures and, mutatis mutandis, of Jewish self-understandings, as well. Indeed, one might go so far as to attribute to Paul the enshrining of a whole series of interlocking dualisms that have “become the building blocks” not only of “Jewishness” but of numerous Western, humanistic institutions and ways of knowing – including knowing, and naming, one another.
Goy: Israel’s Multiple Others and the Birth of the Gentile is an important study, as much for its careful historicizing of the concepts and mechanisms that it explores as for its gestures toward the roads not taken or those obscured by an eventually hegemonic Jew-goy discourse. The study lays a solid groundwork for further investigations and the asking of vital questions, some of which the authors outline in their short but substantive postscript, where they also muse that “it is as if this minor figure has re-emerged or gained new power as part of the revolutions in Jewish life generated by the Zionist project, the Holocaust, and the establishment of a modern Jewish State” (265). As my own musings here suggest, “this minor figure” hardly stands alone amid the ethnopolitical upheavals of the past century and current times, and it (along with its Others) may have far more to teach us than even these fine scholars have intimated.
Cynthia Baker is Professor of Religious Studies at Bates College.