English, Reviews

Ophir and Rosen-Zvi’s “Goy”

Adi Ophir and Ishay Rosen-Zvi, Goy: Israel’s Multiple Others and the Birth of the Gentile (Oxford University Press, 2018)

Review by Mira Balberg

In Erica Jong’s novel Fear of Flying, the protagonist Isadora Wing relates her flirtatious conversation with the British charmer Dr. Adrian Goodlove, in which he complains about the fact that only Jews are allowed to make jokes about Jews (a complaint to be famously repeated decades later in Seinfeld).  “Why should I be deprived of the pleasure of masochistic Jewish humor just because I’m a goy?” he asks. Isadora then comments to herself: “He sounded so goyish saying goy.”

What does it mean in effect, to sound like a goy when you say the word goy? This monosyllabic word does not really lend itself to a variety of pronunciations, and it is hard to imagine that Adrian says “goy” in a way that is fundamentally different from the way Isadora says it. Perhaps he says it in an affected manner, emphasizing the word in a way that marks its foreignness to him: he sounds like a goy because it is not natural for him to use the word goy. Or perhaps the logic behind the sentence is completely tautological: Adrian sounds like goy simply because he is a goy. There are no particular qualities, attributes, or accents associated with this category: it is an ontological designation that means nothing and means everything at the same time. The differentiating, separating line that is drawn at that moment between Isadora and Adrian is not one of beliefs, values, lifestyle or affiliation: this separating line is the word goy itself.

The word goy – and more broadly the concept of “goy” as a generalized, abstract non-Jew without any particular social or ethnic attributes – is the topic of an extensive joint study by philosopher Adi Ophir and Talmudist Ishay Rosen-Zvi. Their book Goy: Israel’s Multiple Others and the Birth of the Gentile sets out to explore the concept of the goy exactly as it is evoked in the interaction between Isadora and Adrian: as a discursive tool for generating difference, as a way of using language to mark a metaphysical border line. The project of the book is not to propose a social history of group relations and boundaries in ancient Judaism, nor to offer a meta-legal inquiry regarding the status of non-Jews in different halakhic arenas (such studies have been undertaken in the past by multiple scholars). Rather, their project is to offer a genealogy that would account for the very existence of the category “gentile” as the all-inclusive diametrical opposite of the Jew, a category which is defined strictly by negation. As the authors explain, “we wish to recover 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” (p. 6).

The book’s overarching claim is that the “gentile” in that particular sense – the gentile as a conceptual bin into which one can throw all “others” regardless of their ethnicity, attributes, relations with Jews, etc. – has not always been there. That is to say that while the people of Israel have always been conceived as having “others,” entities who were not part of the group and were in one way or another contrasted with it, those entities were not always categorized using a single terminological umbrella that covers each and every individual other. Ophir and Rosen-Zvi maintain that this single terminological umbrella, and the specific modes of separation it enables, were essentially invented by the rabbis of late antiquity.

The book takes on a remarkably important task in de-naturalizing and investigating a conceptual category that presents itself, in rabbinic literature and in the Jewish literature that ensued therefrom, as requiring no investigation whatsoever. Ophir and Rosen-Zvi explain their task by offering an eye-opening distinction between terms and concepts in halakhic discourse: whereas rabbinic concepts are categories that the rabbis themselves are invested in explaining, analyzing, and dissecting, rabbinic terms are “presented in the text as self-evident, with no problematization and no attempt made to define them” (p. 222). For example, sukkah is a concept, but “store” is a term; “usury” (ribbit) is a concept, but “loan” is a term. In rabbinic literature, goy or nokhri is a term, not a concept: the rabbis never make a point of debating what a “gentile” is, who counts as a gentile, how we determine if someone is a gentile, etc. They present this identification as though it is self-explanatory. As Ophir and Rosen-Zvi claim, the rabbis have been so thorough in manifestly taking the Jew/Gentile categorical distinction for granted that scholars followed their lead and assumed that this categorical distinction can be traced back to the earliest appearance of Israel on the stage of history: but this assumption needs to be revisited.

The book’s chapters, arranged roughly in chronological order (from the Bible through Second Temple and Hellenistic literature to the earlier strata of rabbinic literature), present two levels of analysis: synchronic and diachronic. On the synchronic level, the authors delve into various ancient corpora (while focusing mainly of parts of those corpora that are distinctly concerned with “others” and otherness), and venture to understand who the “others” are in each case, how they are defined, what are the mechanisms of separation from others, and how this separation is accounted for.  On the diachronic level, the authors strive to show that the totalizing notion of the gentile as generalized, indistinct, and defined-by-negation-only conceptual entity cannot be found prior to rabbinic literature. Discourses of otherness in biblical, Second Temple, or Hellenistic texts may seem at times like this notion is operative in them, but this is usually an optical illusion, and the modes of alterity developed in those texts should be understood as “not yet” or “not quite” vis-à-vis the rabbinic corpus.

The synchronic analyses presented in the book are very compelling and thought-provoking. The authors’ incisive and insightful readings of various texts through the lens of alterity is uncompromisingly nuanced and multilayered.  One can only be amazed by the amount of scholarship on each and every text they approach that the authors have engaged with and internalized (although discussions of relevant scholarly works are usually, thankfully, contained in the expansive footnotes).  Because the authors are committed to dismantling the categories themselves and to examining the conceptual paradigms that underlie the texts, rather than to historical or social reconstruction, their observations are fresh and, in my view, mostly persuasive (chapter 2, about biblical literature from the Persian period, and chapter 5, about Paul, are especially impressive in this regard). An interesting and innovative perspective offered as part of the synchronic analysis is that the relation between Israel and its “others” is often, or always, triadic in nature: in what seems like a relation between two opposites there is actually a third element that is the one organizing and constructing the expectation for separation and division. More often than not, this third element is either God or God’s law, which ultimately makes the issue of Israel and its others one of political theology.

The diachronic argument is more elusive and more complicated, and while it is iterated numerous times, its exact configuration is somewhat different in different junctures in the book. The principal diachronic argument is simple: the authors assert that the rabbinic gentile is a quintessentially new formation and that the rabbis’ construction of the gentile is different from previous discourses of otherness. What is not always clear is what makes the rabbinic gentile so different. One iteration of the argument is binarity: whereas in earlier discourses Israel is one among many peoples, and texts recognize differences and diversities among different Others (Canaanites are not Egyptians, Greeks are not Persians, etc.), for the rabbis there are only two options: 1 or 0, Jew or gentile. The multiple possibilities of “gentile-ness” as well as the entire gray area between Jew and gentile (for example, “resident alien”) are eradicated in rabbinic discourse. Another iteration is generalization and individuation: whereas in earlier texts Israel’s others are nations (indeed goy simply means “a nation” in the Bible, and Israel too are regarded as a goy), in rabbinic literatures any individual non-Jew is a goy, who partakes in some kind of abstract quality of “goyhood” which defines him or her entirely. A third iteration is stability: in rabbinic texts the distinction between Jew and gentile is “fait accompli” (p. 209), it requires no justification or explanation and it is regarded as metaphysical truth, whereas in earlier texts the call for separation from others – whoever those others are – always requires reasons, warnings, or apologetics, and is always still a work in progress.

As Ophir and Rosen-Zvi concede, both binarity and generalization and individuation can be detected in texts that precede the rabbis. Insofar as Jewish texts from antiquity almost always depict Israel as exceptional in one way or another, these texts necessarily present a binary, or in the authors’ own words, “there is no exceptionalism that does not imply a binary opposition between the exception and the rule” (p. 125). There are quite a few pre-rabbinic texts that present a variety of “others” but still bundle them all into one group when they are contrasted with Israel, such that for all intents and purposes there are only two options. Usage of generalized language of otherness to refer to individuals is not common, but traceable, in pre-rabbinic texts (e.g., Third Maccabees and the Damascus Document). Perhaps most importantly, Paul’s epistles discuss gentiles (ethnē) in great detail, and his discourse presents – as the authors brilliantly analyze in the fifth chapter – the very features that they trace as quintessentially rabbinic: for Paul, one can be either a Jew or a gentile, and there is no middle ground; “gentile” encompasses all ethnic identities without distinction (in fact, it eradicates all ethnic identities); it pertains to individuals, as well as to groups; and it is a category devoid of all content except for the content of negation, of non-Jewishness. If all of these discursive features can be found in texts that precede the rabbis, what is it that makes the rabbinic goy so different?

This is where the diachronic argument is not entirely clear. One way of understanding it is as suggesting that the rabbinic goy is not a radical break from what preceded it, but rather it is an aggregation, completion, and close-weaving of discursive strands that can be traced in earlier texts. Another way of reading the argument is to attach the caveat “except for Paul” and to say that the rabbinic model of the gentile is completely new within the rabbis’ own frame of reference – that is, it is has no traces in the Hebrew Bible – but they were not the first to have thought of it (the authors don’t go as far as suggesting that the rabbis were influenced by Paul, although they hint at this possibility in quick passing, p. 177). However, my impression is that what makes the rabbinic discourse on gentiles unique, in Ophir and Rosen-Zvi’s eyes, is not that the rabbis newly generated an entity called “goy,” but rather that they generated the goy as a non-entity. Put differently, what the authors find remarkable is that the rabbis talk about gentiles so much and have so little to say about them.

According to Ophir and Rosen-Zvi, gentiles, for the rabbis, are the anti-subjects, and they exist only to capture a category of a person who has no legal subjectivity: thus their identities, activities, beliefs, practices, attitudes toward Jews, etc., are of no concern. The dichotomy between Jew and gentile in this configuration, as the authors staggeringly (but in my view, correctly) put it, is a dichotomy between being and nothingness (p. 2). It is in this regard, I think, that the rabbis are different from everything that precedes them, including Paul. The rabbis are – at least in terms of their explicit rhetoric –  not interested in gentiles at all: not in who they are, not in what they can or cannot do, not in the threat they pose or do not pose to Israel. Their discursive role is only and exclusively to be non-Israel, and this is an immensely important role, but also, at the end of the day, an empty one.

Now, is this a correct characterization of the way gentiles are depicted and approached in rabbinic literature? I am still debating this question. I think it is mostly an apt description of gentiles in the halakhic portions of rabbinic texts; I am less persuaded by the authors’ readings of midrashic or aggadic texts in the same vein (the book discusses only Tannaitic compilations: consideration of Amoraic texts as well would have made it either unmanageably long or painfully superficial).  Even in the Mishnah and Tosefta, I am not sure that the picture is not somewhat more complicated and multivalent (for example, I think Mishnah Avodah Zarah presents a somewhat different logic, and I think that Samaritans do pose more difficulties to the binary distinction than the authors admit). But despite possible nuances, exceptions, and corrections that can be proposed in response to the authors’ generalizations, I think Ophir and Rosen-Zvi are overall correct in their observation that the rabbis made the distinction between Jew and gentile a metaphysical one, ingrained in the order of the cosmos, and thereby obliterated any need for further questions about this distinction. For the rabbis there is no need to explain why, for example, one is not obligated to save the lives of gentiles on the Sabbath: the very fact that they are gentiles suffices.

The book demands much from its readers insofar as it forces them to think structurally, conceptually, and abstractly, and to keep an eye for broad discursive trends and tendencies while at the same time delving into the intricacies of multiple, and very different, ancient texts. The relations between the trees and the forest are not always transparent, and require some independent critical work on the side of the readers. Moreover, the analyses presented in the book are sometimes, at first blush, counterintuitive: it takes work to understand why the rabbinic invention of a conversion ritual solidifies boundaries rather than relaxes them, and why passages that seem on the face of it to be inviting and universalizing are in actuality restricting and separating. But in my view, it is worthwhile to commit to this book and take on the challenge it presents. Particularly those interested in rabbinic culture stand to benefit from the high order meta-analysis of its discursive paradigms and from very unusual explorations of familiar texts from a perspective of political theology.

This book is, of course, a very political work. It cannot but be: otherness is by definition a political issue, and beyond that, the question of “the gentile” stands, to this day, at the heart of the most third-rail topics engaging contemporary Jewish communities. I can only imagine that this book is not a very pleasant read for whoever is invested in a humanistic and universalistic vision of Judaism, and who is convinced that its classical Jewish sources (or at least some of them) espouse an open and welcoming approach to “all the people of the world.” Ophir and Rosen-Zvi do not sugarcoat or mitigate their observation that the legacy of the Jew/Gentile dichotomy that the rabbis have bequeathed to future generations is a one that considers the latter to be less than human. Furthermore, they do not attempt to apologize for or downplay the xenophobia and what can be only called the “Jewish supremacy” of the rabbis: rather, they present those as cornerstones of the rabbis’ systems of thought and legislation. I have no doubt that for many, this would make this book a difficult one to swallow. It should be remembered, however, that while this book does not shy away from decrying some of the ugliest aspects of the rabbinic discourse about gentiles, its main purpose is to show that there is nothing natural or self-explanatory about this discourse: indeed, there is nothing self-explanatory about the category of “the gentile” to begin with. The book is concerned with uncovering the varieties of other ways in which ancient Jews categorized and divided the people around them, and with showing that the rabbinic way is only one way, and a rather idiosyncratic way, of doing so. This book thus forces us to stop and think about sentences like Isadora Wing’s “he sounded so goyish saying goy,” and to wonder how such a sentence came to even have meaning. It forces us to acknowledge that the goy is an idea, not an object that actually exists in the world, and that like all ideas, it has a history. At the end of the day it is a book that takes one of the most familiar paradigms in Jewish culture and reveals it in all its strangeness – and to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar is, after all, the role of scholarship.

Mira Balberg is Professor and Endowed Chair in Ancient Jewish Civilization in the Department of History at UC San Diego. Her most recent book is Blood for Thought: The Reinvention of Sacrifice in Early Rabbinic Literature (University of California Press, 2017).


One thought on “Ophir and Rosen-Zvi’s “Goy”

  1. Daniel Boyarin says:

    excellent review; thanks Prof. Balberg, who, by the way, is not an endowed chair–nor am I–but holds an endowed chair. Holding an academic chair is not the same as being the chair (of a department), for instance, and it is well to maintain the distinction.

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