Israel's Multiple Others and the Birth of the Gentile

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Adi Ophir, Ishay Rosen-Zvi
Oxford Studies in the Abrahamic Religions
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Like it or not, most of us belong to goyim, or "nations." Yet how long has one person been called a goy–a kind of individual–in strict opposition to another kind, a Jew? In a single paragraph, "Authentic Evidence for the Use of the Word Goy as an Individual" (1862), Zecharias Frankel pronounced the question closed. Not until the Aramaic translation of Genesis 20:4 attributed to Jonathan ben Uzziel (which Frankel incorrectly dated to the 10th century) did he find any individualized usage of the word goy. Frankel conceded that the word seems to be used this way in early rabbinic sources. However, given that their authors "arbitrarily vacillated" between goy and other terms—foreigner, Samaritan, heretic, etc.—the rabbis could not have meant much by it. Not until the middle ages did goy become a type of person: "[i]s a son of the nations who has not sinned ... to be killed?" (emphasis added). Frankel must have noticed that this individualized goy is also downgraded from its biblical source ("even a righteous nation"), but he dismissed it as "a rather poor translation."

Sometimes progress does happen. Goy: Israel’s Multiple Others and the Birth of the Gentile, a collaboration between a philosopher and a scholar of late antiquity, charts the radical translation of biblical and Second Temple concepts which made the individual, generic goy possible. Adi Ophir and Ishay Rosen-Zvi trace the origin of this peculiar Gentile to early rabbis of the late-1st through mid-3rd centuries, whose choice of terms for non-Jews was hardly arbitrary. Rather, they argue that the rabbis' goyand its synonyms—including "stranger"/nokhri and "Noahide"—converge in a discursive category which functions coherently and consistently throughout the canon.

The authors analyze three distinctive features of the rabbinic goy. First, it is binary: either one is a Gentile or one is a Jew. Second, the binary is totalizing: one can no longer be anything but a Gentile or a Jew. In erasing distinctions or recycling stereotypes among all other nations, eliminating hybrid or potentially ambiguous categories, and lowering the ritual border-crossings from non-Jew to Jew, the rabbis apply this either-or principle to a hodgepodge of categories. This binary operates both exclusively and inclusively. Some hybrids, like the "resident sojourner" or the "God-fearer," are transformed into Gentiles, despite their social or religious overlaps with Jews. Others, like the sojourner or Samaritan, become Jews, and their dubious conduct is dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Even Jews who betray other Jews—such as apostates, heretics, and informers—are not re-classified as Gentiles. The rabbis keep them in the fold, albeit as black sheep.

This totalizing binary is re-enforced by the third feature of the goy: abstraction. "Gentiles have no distinct character, and their traits are not the mirror image of Jewish ones … their traits are usually simply irrelevant" (217). Early rabbis show no interest in distinctions among Gentiles, let alone in the descriptions of Gentile mores and mentalities that we might call "ethnographic" (13). Each Gentile is devoid of motivation and individuality; a mere microcosm of the collective which, in turn, has limited functions for the rabbis' own universe—"a liminal figure at the law's threshold, marking its limit of application" (242). Consequences of this abstraction become especially clear in legal debates on Gentile life and Gentile impurity. Rabbis hold the Gentiles liable for murdering each other, but pass the proverbial buck on a Jew who murders them: "his judgment is transferred to heaven" (220). In excluding Gentiles from purity law, the rabbis compare them to an animal and a premature infant (one who is not expected to survive). They use this same comparison when exempting a Jew from penalties for the manslaughter of Gentiles. Ophir and Rosen-Zvi find a common denominator among these laws: the denial of full humanity to the Gentile—explicit in homilies which qualify only the Jew as a person (adam). More contentiously, the authors find this same attitude in narratives and homilies where Gentiles seem to debate the Jews on weighty matters such as Torah, theology, and eschatology. At most, Ophir and Rosen-Zvi allow for minimal "self-reflection" (243) via this figure of the Gentile outsider. Generally, however, they label rabbinic universalism "a black box, an unrealized slogan" (231). Furthermore, they underscore what Frankel did not: that rabbis radically deny salvation even to virtuous non-Jews. All Israel has a share in the world to come, but Gentiles–simply because they are "Gentiles"–do not (205-8).

The remaining two-thirds of the book sets this argument in historical context, with an introduction to its method of discourse analysis (inspired by Foucault and Koselleck), and a brief postscript on the significance of the goy for contemporary culture—to be developed in a new book by the same authors. The concluding chapter compares the binary, totalizing, and abstract goy with Greek sources, engaging Kostas Vlassopolous' stellar Greeks and Barbarians (Cambridge University Press, 2013) to show the greater variability, descriptiveness, and nuance of the barbaros and its contrary trends towards permeability and non-totalization in the Roman era. The first four chapters examine discourse on “the Other,” from the Bible through Second Temple literature, exploring the "paths not taken" as well as the seeds of the rabbinic concept. Amidst this swathe of sources and scholarship, one theme stands out: the centrality of “the Other” to the political theology of ancient Israel, complementing Elliot R. Wolfson’s landmark Venturing Beyond: Law and Morality in Kabbalistic Mysticism (Oxford University Press, 2006). From Deuteronomy, where God—not any human group—is the foundation of alterity, to Trito-Isaiah, where a union between Israel and the nations is hoped for but deferred until the End, to Paul, who premises salvation on annihilating identity—but only after identifying his audience as "Gentiles"–Ophir and Rosen-Zvi show that relations to “the Other” are inseparable from equally mutable relations to God. In this regard, their reading of Paul is particularly provocative. They argue that Paul’s use of "the Gentiles" (ta ethnē) ruptures both national and eschatological models of ethnicity, paving the way for the binary, totalized, and abstract goy. Attention to how the term functions in contrast to both contemporary and historical alternatives—what Ophir and Rosen-Zvi call the "syntax" of discourse—pays dividends by revealing how Paul presses the language of politics into the service of his new theology.

Books such as this should be judged not only by what they say, but also by the quality of debate that they generate. On this score, Goy is already a success. One scholar of antiquity challenges its case for chronological development toward the rabbinic goy, while even synchronically, another suggests a more nuanced profile; a philosopher interrogates the Israel-centrism of its critique with respect to political theology; and more ripples in Pauline scholarship are sure to follow. Ophir and Rosen-Zvi's blend of methodological precision with philological breadth has set a new standard for debate on these issues, regardless of how one views their conclusions. Whenever and by whomever it was invented, the Gentile—not precisely as a reflection of ourselves, but as a way to rethink our own problems—is here to stay.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James Adam Redfield is Assistant Professor of Biblical and Talmudic Literatures at St. Louis University and a 2019-2020 Fellow in Cornell's Society for the Humanities.

Date of Review: 
August 28, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Adi Ophir is Professor Emeritus at The Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas at Tel Aviv University and a Visiting Professor in the Humanities at the Cogut Center of the Humanities, Brown University. He was Director of the Lexicon for Political Theory research project at The Minerva Humanities Center. He was also the founding editor of Theory and Criticism, the main Hebrew journal for critical theory, and of the online journal Mafte'akh: Lexical Review for Political Thought, and member of the editorial board of Political Concepts: A Critical Lexicon. His publications include The One-State Condition: Occupation and Democracy in Israel/Palestine (Stanford University Press; 2012), Power of Inclusive Exclusion: Anatomy of Israeli Rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and The Order of Evils: Toward an Ontology of Morals (MIT Press, 2005).

Ishay Rosen-Zvi is Professor in the Department of Jewish Philosophy at Tel Aviv University and head of the Talmud section. He previously taught Talmud and Midrash at the University of California at Berkeley and was a fellow at the Scholion Institute at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 2013 he was elected to the Young Israeli Academy of Science. He is the author of Demonic Desires: "Yetzer Hara" and the Problem of Evil in Late Antiquity(University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011) and The Mishnaic Sotah Ritual: Temple, Gender and Midrash (Brill, 2012).


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