Why Goy?

by Adi Ophir and Ishay Rosen-Zvi in


Much scholarship has been devoted to Jewish relations with gentiles in different periods, in both halakhic and aggadic contexts. Scholars have discussed the boundaries between Jews and gentiles/goyim, their creation and stability, and especially the ability to move from one side of the boundary to the other. But something has been forgotten along the way: the category itself. The distinction between the Jew and his/her other, the gentile, has been so central to Jewish history that the vast scholarship dedicated to Jewish-gentile relations has treated the category “gentile” as self-evident and has never questioned its history. But this concept – which divides humanity in its entirety in a binary manner—Jews and non-Jews—is far from being self-evident, and was not always a part of the thought-patterns of Israelites, Judeans, and Jews. The persistent presence of this concept and the division, opposition, and discursive constellation(s) associated with it, from rabbinic literature until the present, have made it almost invisible to scholarship. As a result, the gentile has a long presence but no history.

Since the rise of Wissenschaft des Judenthums over two hundred years ago, almost every category in the vast corpus of ancient Hebrew writings has been historicized, with the glaring exception of (what eventually became) “the gentile.” This oversight is noteworthy, especially due to the vast, recent interest in the birth and development of the opposite concept: “Yehudi” or “Ioudaios.” Thus, for example, in his 1999 formative study, The Beginnings of Jewishness, Shaye Cohen historicizes the category of the Yehudi/Ioudaios and traces its transformations from the ethnic “Judean” to the cultural-religious “Jew,” but avoids any historicization of the Jew’s “other,” the gentile. The same is true for other classic studies of ancient Jewishness by scholars such as Daniel Schwartz, Steve Mason, Daniel Boyarin, and Christine Hayes (to name only a few). The “goy” remained the most glaring blind spot of research for ancient Jewish ethnicity.

Here is an example of the difference between our questions and what students of the rabbinic corpus were usually interested in. Tosefta Gittin 3:13 reads:

A city in which both Israel and gentiles [live]: the community officials collect [charity] from both Israel and gentiles, due to the ways of peace [darchei shalom].  We support gentile poor along with the poor of Israel, due to the ways of peace. We eulogize and bury the dead of the gentiles, due to the ways of peace. We console the gentile bereaved, due to the ways of peace.

Scholarly debates have been framed by the question of whether this source should be read as a paradigm of inclusivity or, to the contrary, of segregationist ideology limited by pragmatic, utilitarian reasoning (for a survey see Yael Wilfand, Poverty, Charity and the Image of the Poor in Rabbinic Texts from the Land of Israel, Sheffield 2014, 199–207). Should it be judged by the inclusive rulings or by their exclusive justification? These debates already take for granted the binary division between Jews and goyim that stands at the basis of the source. It is precisely this division that we are interested in: its internal logic, the specific model of otherness that it offers, and the way it became an unquestioned given in rabbinic literature and modern scholarship alike.

The same scholarly gap also holds true for the debate on Paul’s mission to the gentiles. Scholars quarrel over the identity of Paul’s addressees, but miss the innovation introduced by the very division between Paul and the other apostles. Taking the division for granted, scholars never consider (or at least entertain) the possibility that the apostle to the gentiles is forced, maybe for the first time, to conceptualize “the gentiles.”

Our book Goy: Israel’s Multiple Others and the Birth of the Gentile (Oxford University Press, 2018) proposes a series of questions that address this lacuna. We ask: When did the goy come into being? What categories preceded it to mark the non-Israelite and, later, the non-Judean and non-Jew? How did the appearance of the goy effect the rules and techniques of separation of Jews from non-Jews? How did it modify the category of the Jew, his laws, and his relationship with God? What was God’s role in these discursive transformations? Was He transformed with them?

Our research has led us to rather decisive answers to some of these questions. We claim that as a category of binary division and opposition, goy was in fact born at a particular moment, that it replaced older categories of otherness, and that it was both informed by and embedded in new modes of separation of Jews from non-Jews. The book traces multiple conceptions of alterity in the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple literature, and follows the term “goy” from its first occurrences in the Bible, where it simply means “people,” to rabbinic literature, where it signifies any individual (and not just collectives) who is not a Jew, erasing all ethnic and social differences among different others. We argue that the abstract concept of the gentile first appeared in Paul’s letters (see also our "Paul and the Invention of the Gentiles," JQR 105 [2015]: 1-41), but only in rabbinic literature did this category become the center of a stable and longstanding discursive structure. Reading tannaitic halakha and midrash, we reconstruct the specific type of Other which the goy came to be, show that the opposition between the Jew and goy dominated the entire corpus of early rabbinic writing, and examine how different the Jew’s Other was from the famous Other of Greek antiquity – the barbarian.

The aim of this book is, therefore, not historical but rather genealogical and typological. It toils to trace the birth of an operative category and reconstructs a discursive configuration that played a decisive role in many layers and aspects of Jewish culture(s). We believe that this is a preliminary stage for a serious historical research. For the history of the goy can be done only once the goy is identified as a particular type of Other, its emergence and consolidation reconstructed, and its discursive configuration explicated, analyzed, and compared to other types of Others.

Let us cite one example of what we have in mind as possible novel questions that could and should be asked based on our typology and genealogy: According to rabbinic law, a Jew is not legally liable in human court for killing a gentile (Mekhilta de RI, Nezikin 4 and parallels), whether intentionally or unintentionally, and saving the life of a gentile does not justify desecrating the Sabbath (m. Yoma 8:7 and parallels). This legal decision was first seriously contested only in the nineteenth century (!), and only for the fear of animosity (on the basis of b. Av. Zar. 26a: “due to hatred” see the Tosafists ad loc.). However, there is one notable exception: the thirteenth-century Provencal halakhist R. Menahem Ha-Meiri (1249-1315), who applied these rabbinic decrees only to those gentiles “who are not bound by religion” (see e.g. Gerald Blidstein, Studies in Halakhic and Aggadic Thought [Beer-Sheva, 2004], 387-8; Moshe Halbertal, Between Torah and Wisdom [Jerusalem, 2000], 89, and the references there). By this ruling Ha-Meiri actually split the universal category “goy,” which can no longer mean simply “anyone but a Jew.”

Ha-Meiri’s ruling itself had little impact on subsequent halakhists. His writings were lost and were found again only in the twentieth century, and its new publication (based on one manuscript in Parma) left most modern rabbis quite indifferent. Did this exceptional ruling have any impact at all on either his or subsequent generations? Can we find any parallel decision? What connections exist between his halakhic ruling and former polemical literature in the 13th century that similarly distinguished between contemporary Christians and the Talmudic “goyim,” (a distinction which was read by scholars as bare apologetics (see Jacob Katz, Between Jews and Gentiles, Jerusalem 1976, 111-113; Jeremy Cohen, the Friars and the Jews, Ithaca 1982, 72)?

All these are questions historians can, and should, ask once the category goy is historicized. But if our hypothesis regarding the unusual resilience of goy as a discursive configuration is correct, another set of questions could be added: Should we see the writings of such thinkers as a profound divergence from the discourse of the “goy,” (which, in Ha-Meiri’s case, at least, was based on his unique philosophical system), or is it still part of it? Should Ha-Meiri’s application of the talmudic anti-gentile ruling to “those who have no religion” (i.e. pagans) be seen as a technical manner of narrowing the implications of these laws (as per Urbach) or as a novel conceptualization altogether (as per Blidstein and Halbertal)? What does this ruling teach us about the flexibility and limits of the halakhic discourse of the “goy”? Have any of the major splits among Jews throughout history (secterians, Karaites, Hasidism, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, etc.) been accompanied by a similar split in the category of the gentile?

The book thus closes where historical research should (and, as we believe, could now) open. Accordingly, we end our afterword with a series of questions: “Has Jewish self-understanding ever been free from an intense preoccupation of Jews with their Other? Were there Jewish communities that established a sense of belonging and coherent association that was not mediated through the negation of an abstract, general Other? Are there such communities today?”

We leave this list thus, as a call for future studies, discussions and debates. “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Avot 2:16).


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