Jewish Palestinian literature of the Second Temple period includes particularly hostile vilifications of non-Jews and an uncompromising demand for absolute separation from these threatening peoples. The most familiar expression of this approach appears in Abraham’s command to Jacob in the second century BCE Book of Jubilees: ‘Separate thyself from the nations, and eat not with them. Do not according to their works, and become not their associate; for their works are unclean, and all their ways are a pollution and an abomination and uncleanness' (22.16). The dominant notion of gentile impurity (discussed widely in scholarship of the last two decades) served in contemporary literature to prevent Jews from associating with these immoral foreigners.
Rabbinic literature in contrast suggests a relatively lenient approach towards non-Jews. According to tractate Avodah Zara, one must limit his contact with gentiles only if it entails some involvement in idolatry or other severe prohibitions. The language of gentile impurity in rabbinic literature is significantly circumscribed, and most significantly the rabbis even promote conversion, which clearly undermines a strictly exclusivist image of the Jewish people. Scholars who have tended to judge the positions of the ancients according to their expressed “attitude” towards gentiles, have thus argued for the relative liberality of the rabbis. Traces of such an approach have been identified in the rabbinic dialogues with non-Jews over theological matters as well as in the remnants of universalistic ideology, which has been compared with Roman dissemination of citizenship or Christian spread of the gospel among the gentiles.
In their new book preceded by a series of articles, which have succeeded to stir the study of Jewish identity in Antiquity, Ophir and Rosen-Zvi offer an exciting new perspective to this question through which they seek to completely revolutionize our image of Jewish discourse of Otherness in antiquity. Counter to all previous scholarship, they argue that only in rabbinic literature the Gentile (= Goy) has acquired the status of the absolute Other, formed in the image of the Jew’s antiparticle. In contrast to earlier attempts to grapple with threatening foreign groups, the generalized and abstract rabbinic Goy has no other quality besides his being a non-Jew. He has no histories, cultures or ethnic features and regardless of the particular behaviors and origins of the different groups of non-Jews, the generalized rabbinic Goy is by definition the absolute opposition of the Jew. Thus, the book argues, the rabbis have transformed the varied strategies of distinctions between Jews and others familiar from earlier Jewish literature into a binary, absolute and stable divide.
Furthermore, the complete disinterest of the rabbis in the particular qualities of other groups (in stark contrast to Greek preoccupation with the Barbarian forms of life), has created an image of an essential (even metaphysical) divide between Jew and Goy, that transcends any particular features of the two groups or the social or political relations between them. Consequently, the distinctions between the two have become impregnable, and the integrity of Jewish identity has been safely secured. This fascinating description of the novel rabbinic discourse leads to what is in my view one of the most significant contributions of the book to our understanding of Judaism in Antiquity: The rabbinic termination of separation technologies, so characteristic of pre-rabbinic Judaism. Ophir and Rosen Zvi have identified various aspects of the new rabbinic discourse of Otherness, including its binary structure, generalization (of all others within one term), and individuation, yet in my mind these features are secondary (and less decisively rabbinic) in comparison to the unprecedented stability that the rabbinic discourse offers. Instead of technologies of separation in face of unstable boundaries, the rabbis offer a clear-cut system of classification.
As persuasively demonstrated in the second chapter, the decisive activity of Ezra to signal out significant portions of the inhabitants of Judea during the Persian period as impure ‘people of the land’ and to expel the ‘foreign’ women and their children, reflects first and foremost the absence of a settled conception of otherness among Judeans. Within the ethnic and social confusion of the post-exilic period, presumably the only way to create distinction was through the actual performance of separation based on an artificial category of ‘holy seed’. In this sense, Ezra laid the foundation for the prevalent sectarian discourse of otherness within Second Temple Palestinian sources; a discourse which did not assume the primacy of the Jew\non-Jew divide over internal forms of separation, but set these different practices of exclusion along the same continuum.
Thus, returning to Jubilees, alongside its harsh deprecation of the impure non-Jews, at the same time it claims that Jews who do not adhere to the correct laws, in particular with respect to circumcision, may slip into the status of the doomed gentiles. Here again we learn that the enduring effort to separate from the impure sinners rests upon an underlying lack of conceptual distinction between Jews and their others. Within the pre-rabbinic worldview, which lacked a definite discourse of otherness, divine election was not identified with any recognized ethnic boundaries. In this vein, Ophir and Rosen Zvi insightfully point out that eschatological universalism and sectarian separatism rather than standing in opposition may in fact reflect two sides of the same coin. The same it true with respect to Jewish-Hellenistic writings, such as in the Letter of Aristeas. On the one hand, this text adheres to a universal worldview, while at the same time it promotes an image of the commandments as means of achieving separation between Jews and others. Arguably, there was no essential contradiction between these elements prior to the evolution of the rabbinic dichotomous taxonomy. After all, by their very nature, technologies of separation are designated to function within a diffused amalgamation of ethnic and normative entities, to which the Jews of Antiquity were bound. Until the rabbis came along.
The rabbinic Goy discourse is primarily characterized by an elimination of internal distinctions among gentiles in the aggadic texts and, in the rabbinic legal texts, by the elimination of any hybrid in-betweens, such as God fearers, Samaritans, heretics, as well as the creation of an exclusive and transformative conversion process that marks that total transition between the two binary oppositions.
Each of the particular elements attributed here to the rabbis merits a detailed discussion concerning its applicability to the general model. To what degree are these in fact novel rabbinic institutions and do they indeed fit into the proposed binary scheme? Thus for example, since conversion by means of circumcision was a widespread phenomena well before the rabbis, and the tannaitic literature discussed in the book has actually very little to add to this procedure, what is its significance in the creation of the binary scheme? True, there were those (such as the author the of the Temple Scroll) that assumed that conversion was a multi-generational process, but the standard view perceived it as a personal transformational act, and despite the development of a fixed procedure documented in later rabbinic sources, I doubt whether it altered the basic nature of the transformation. At the same time, rabbinic sources continue to testify to the inferior pedigree of the convert as attested in earlier references to the status of the convert. With respect to the Samaritans, I would argue (as I have suggested elsewhere), that the rabbis did not simplify their status and transform them into full-fledged Jews in order to fit them into the binary structure. To the contrary, the rabbis rejected the relatively simple approach widely documented in Second Temple literature, which conceived Samaritans as imposturous foreigners of a separate ethnos, and applied to them a complex set of standards and a status of partial membership.
However, reflecting upon the argument as a whole, the point I find most intriguing considering the authors' treatment of the rabbinic material is not their particular interpretations, which although may be debatable at times, are extremely erudite and very well argued. Rather, most striking in my view is the complete isolation of the rabbinic conception of the Other and its estrangement from particular historical circumstances, social interests, and familiar political models. The rabbinic Goy discourse is not only novel and sui generis, but as it is depicted by Ophir and Rosen-Zvi, it does not correspond nor does it respond to any classification system among their contemporaries. Admittedly, however, the fact that the rabbis do not disclose their motivation in the creation of a new discourse, show very little historical sensitivity and present the image of the Goy as self-evident and as a fact of nature, does not release us from contextualizing their discursive choices. This would seem to be a pertinent component of any attempt to ‘historicize the Goy’, as the authors understand their project.
In this respect, the comparison between the descriptions of Paul’s innovation and the rabbis’ parallel development is illuminating. The fifth chapter on Paul includes a section dedicated to the question: why does Paul need the individualized generic Gentile? Here the authors offer a most insightful analysis of Paul’s motivations, arguing that the creation of a new model of equal membership of Jews and others within the ekklesia required a new binary language, which would obliterate any particular ethnic identities, and at the same time maintain the separate identity of the gentile qua gentile in the messianic age. Naturally enough, new eras and new social constellations require a new discourse. But how about the rabbis? Can we suggest any corresponding justification to their own discursive innovations, or would we prefer imagining them making their cultural choices having withdrawn into an isolated (and perhaps resistant) conceptual sphere?
The last chapter of the book persuasively argues that the Greek/Barbarian divide does not provide an apt analogy to the rabbinic Goy discourse. At the same time, an alternative model was available. As the following midrash from Genesis Rabbah concerning the birth of Jacob and Esau demonstrates, the rabbis were aware of the reconfiguration of humanity from multiple ethnicities into a binary structure and they attributed this process to the separation between Jews and Romans. “And the one people shall be stronger than the other (Gen. 25:23): R. Helbo in the name of the School of R. Shila: Hitherto one speaks of Sabtecha and Raamah, etc. (following Gen 10.7), but from thee shall arise Jews and Arameans [=Gentiles, identified particularly with Rome].” (Gen. Rab. 63.7). The midrash alludes to the redistribution of the nations descending from Noah, such as Sabtecha and Raamah and many others, into only two groups, Jews and Gentiles, particularly identified with Romans, the descendants of Esau. In this midrashic image, previous ethnic distinctions have been discarded in favor of a binary distinction between two antithetical communities.
The midrash here seems to build upon a familiar motif concerning the role of Rome in restructuring humanity and eliminating previous ethnic entities. Josephus mentions with respect to the spread of Roman citizenship, “Thus those who were once Iberians, Tyrrhenians and Sabines are now called Romans” (CA 2.40). In praise of the Roman citizenship, the second century CE orator Aelius Aristides writes: “For the categories into which you now divide the world are not Hellenes and Barbarians, and it is not absurd, the distinction which you made, because you show them a citizenry more numerous, so to speak than the entire Hellenic race. The division which you substituted is one into Romans and non-Romans. To such a degree have you expanded the name of your city’ (Roman Oration 63).
The rabbis were no doubt well aware of the decisive role of the mechanism of Roman citizenship in rearranging the multiplicity of ethnic and cultural identities into an all-inclusive contrast between citizens and non-citizens. Notably, as in the rabbinic discourse, the contrast to the Roman was simply a generalized non-Roman (as in the formulation of Aelius Aristides), who has no other particular qualities besides not belonging to the Roman legal and political community. That is apparently the very essence and strength of the citizenship model, which served to transform the fuzziness and indeterminacy of various social and ethnic identities into fixed legal distinctions, regulating who is the subject of the legal system. Considering the legalistic orientation of the rabbis and their deep interest in legal classification we can understand their disinterest in the gentile, who is not considered the subject of the law, as Ophir and Rosen-Zvi demonstrate. Other elements as well of the rabbinic Goy discourse seem to follow this model, which served more than any previous mechanism to stabilize the conceptual boundaries between Jews and others (and might as well have served the rabbinic hidden imperialist aspirations).
This however, as the authors emphasize, is just the first chapter of the story. After all, once this discourse has been created it took on a life of its own and gained almost a metaphysical status of metahistorical magnitude. How much are the early rabbis responsible for such an outcome, or is it the result of the Goy’s long reception history, is a matter for further consideration.
Yair Furstenberg is a senior lecturer in the Talmud department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
 “The Rabbis and the Roman Citizenship Model: The Case of the Samaritans”, in: K. Berthelot and J. Price (eds.), In the Crucible of Empire: The Impact of Roman Citizenship upon Greeks, Jews and Christians, Leuven: Peeters, pp. 181-216 [forthcoming]