Saint Paul delivering the Areopagus sermon in Athens, by Raphael, 1515.

How the Jews Invented the Goy

Two Israeli scholars examine the dramatic and surprising history of one of the oldest Jewish institutions: the sharp separation between ‘them’ and ‘us’



When the prophet Amos wanted to warn the Israelites against thinking that they would get preferential treatment from God, he said, in the name of the divinity, “I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir” (Amos 9:7). In other words, Israel indeed received personal treatment during the Exodus from Egypt, but other peoples, too, were the beneficiaries of an equally personal approach: The good Lord brought the Philistines up from Caphtor (Crete) and the Arameans from Kir (Mesopotamia). Don’t make a fuss.

Apart from the challenge to Israel’s exclusive chosen-ness, we see here a specific approach to non-Jewish peoples. It turns out that not all the “goyim” – gentiles – are the same. Upon some peoples the Almighty looks with affection. Upon others, not. A similar phenomenon appears in Deuteronomy 23, where the Torah lays down injunctions about the proper approach to different peoples. On the one hand, it’s clear that there must be no marriage with Ammonites or Moabites (“No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord”), but on the other, that negative feelings should not be harbored for Edomites and Egyptians (“You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your kinsman. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land”). Not only that, but the latter need not even be shunned: Marriage may be entered into with their sons and daughters.

To both Amos (eighth century B.C.E.) and the authors of Deuteronomy (seventh century B.C.E.), the specific attitude taken toward different ethnic groups in the region seems natural, but to us it registers as a biblical curiosity. Is it really possible that God looked after the Philistines? Is there truly a difference between Ammonites and Edomites? Would any contemporary rabbi maintain that Jews must not stand under the wedding canopy with French people, but that marriage with Americans is permitted? After all, every Israeli schoolchild knows: You don’t marry goyim.

And goyim, after all, are goyim. A simple tautology. On one side are Jews; on the other, all the rest of humanity. That is, all those who, despite the differences between them, are in essence the same. They are identical according to the most important criterion: They are non-Jews. Around this binary axis, we know, revolve laws and precepts, rights and obligations, and even distinctions between types of souls.

However, the verses cited above show that this wasn’t always so. The binary division into two human categories is unknown in the Torah, Prophets and Writings. In fact as two Tel Aviv University philosophy professors, Adi Ophir and Ishay Rosen-Zvi, explain in their groundbreaking book, “Goy: Israel’s Multiple Others and the Birth of the Gentile” (Oxford University Press, 2018), it was only at the end of the second century C.E. that Jews were able to take it to be obvious that all human beings other than themselves belonged to a single group – that is, that they are “goyim.”

In its biblical sense, the word “goyim” means “peoples.” For the “goy” to become what he is today, it was necessary to change him from a noun referring to a collective group, to a private essence, to the attribute of the individual. Ophir and Rosen-Zvi’s book, the first work to trace the origins of the “goy” (an early excerpt of which was published in Haaretz’s Hebrew edition), offers a precise account of how this happened and which social and religious needs this development fulfilled.

In the Scriptures, then, a goy is a people. Israel itself is a “holy goy,” whereas in connection with non-Jewish outsiders the Bible used the terms ger and nokhri (stranger, foreigner), which are roughly equivalent in meaning. They are differentiated from the people of Israel principally by their customs, but non-Jews do not belong as individuals to meta-categories shared by all of them. There is no binary division in terms of essence.

According to Ophir and Rosen-Zvi, an attitude of general antagonism toward non-Jews first appears in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Exogamy (“assimilation,” in current parlance) became the greatest sin, through its representation of non-Jews as being impure. For the purpose of making a between Israel and other peoples, then, Ezra and Nehemiah made use of the precepts relating to defilement and purification – that is, they used the law, and in practice the book of laws, an object they brought to the people that dwelt in Zion, and which they consolidated as a significant social institution. However, the goy as a generic individual did not yet exist.

Both the Bible and other writings that were not included in the canon (Maccabees, Ben Sira and a range of other texts that Ophir and Rosen-Zvi analyze), definitely maintain that Israel is differentiated from the peoples in the region, but they do not see those peoples in monolithic terms or as sharing a common essence. Ophir and Rosen-Zvi’s study presents the various possibilities for understanding the distinction that’s made between Israel and the others. The Book of Jubilees avers that the surrounding peoples behave immorally; the Qumran sect equated foreignness with non-observance of the laws of purity and impurity; Philo thought the Children of Israel were capable of communicating with God better than others, and so forth.

The sharp distinction between the Children of Israel and everyone else is first seen, according to Ophir and Rosen-Zvi, in the figure of Paul. This brilliant Hellenist Jew considered himself the apostle of the Christian gospel “to the gentiles,” and precisely because of this he needed to define that category more thoroughly and carefully than his predecessors. Paul made the conception that “goyim” are not “peoples,” but rather a general category of human beings, into a central element of his thought.

New message

Paul’s central project – an enterprise that would later be known as “Christianity” – was the establishment of a universal society of different peoples united as a community of believers. This is the Church (ekklesia). The epistles he wrote to various communities in the Mediterranean Basin are testimony to these efforts. At the heart of the vision he propounded is the distinction between Jews and gentiles: namely, between those who were privileged to enter into the old covenant, and those who are now invited to enter into the new covenant, via the New Testament. Manifestly, the distinction is built on the Law: The Jews uphold the laws of the Torah, the gentiles do not.

In Paul, everything is connected. In order to bring the gospel to the gentiles he needed the distinction between those who uphold the Torah and those who do not, and his gospel was simultaneously personal and universal. Paul promised personal redemption by the Messiah, while also endeavoring to establish a general, worldwide community of believers. In this community – in the Church – he promised, there would be no differences: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). However, this is so only because the Law of the old covenant will no longer play a part – until then it's the Law that differentiates Jews from all the rest.

In other words, the erasure of ethnic, class and gender differences is something that applies to all of humanity – all will become Christians belonging to one church – but to arrive at that point, it’s necessary to distinguish between Jews, the ethnic group that was chosen by God and received the Torah, and all the rest, whose time had now come to be raised to the level of “Israel of the spirit.” The need to delimit “all the rest” in one inclusive category, which on the one hand is universal and on the other is capable of undergoing privatization and of pertaining to each specific person – led the “apostle to the gentiles” to treat the goyim as a generic essence. Hence, the genesis of the term “goy” as a general term referring to a non-Jewish individual.

In the centuries that followed, both the Church and the Jewish sages evoked Paul’s binary dichotomy. The distinction between Jews and gentiles took root as an essential element, revolving around ethnic particularism and the observance of the biblical law – or the annulment of them. Halakha (Jewish religious law), which developed in the first centuries of the Common Era, reinforced this approach and built higher walls between the Jews and all the rest. In direct contrast, nascent Christianity took shape, rejecting the law and seeking to create a community of believers who would be potentially open to every person in the world.

In the wake of this categorical transformation, the Talmudic sages reinterpreted biblical terms that had become problematic. A clear example is the process the term “ger” underwent. In the Bible, the word means, simply, “stranger” (“for ye were strangers [gerim] in the land of Egypt”), and often it refers to the foreigners living among the people of Israel. With the binary division into Jews and gentiles, the ger, too, undergoes bifurcation. In places where the Bible refers to the ger as a part of the community, the term was reinterpreted to mean ger tzedek – a “righteous” ger, meaning one who converted to Judaism – for it is inconceivable that a person who belongs to the community should not be a Jew. In places where the Bible attributed to the ger deeds inconsistent with Judaism (such as eating carrion), the sages termed him a ger toshav – a “resident stranger” – meaning, just another gentile. The binary division retroactively rewrites biblical categories.

The goy has another role. The sharp division, Ophir and Rosen-Zvi explain, was also used to entrench the Jew’s connection with God. In the absence of God’s presence in the Temple, without divine revelation, and without God’s strong hand operating in the world, God was muted, and disappeared. The fact that all the different peoples essentially became one “goy,” generic and abstract, made it possible to toughen the boundary, physical and metaphysical alike, between the Jews and all the rest. Thus their special connection with God is emphasized. The sages, living in a world void of temple and of prophecy, needed the emergent halakha and the clear dichotomy between them and the rest of humanity in order to fortify their relationship with the divine.

Although the roots are there already in Paul's theology, the Mishna is the first source in which the “goy” appears generically and privatized. The goy served as a vital halakhic category, one that generates a binary division. The halakha developed around this division and enabled the sages to use the distinction to serve a detailed, systematic discourse of separation and dissociation. The goy also advanced the concept of history as a mythical narrative and not a natural sequence of events. Babylonians, Greeks and Romans are not separate political adversaries, they are different manifestations of a uniform alien presence that is pitted against the Jewish people. History assumes a metahistorical meaning.

Moti Milrod

Jews by need

Ophir and Rosen-Zvi’s study sheds light on a significant blind spot. The two uncover a dramatic historical development and for the first time elucidate the history of one of the oldest and most important Jewish institutions. The “goy” has been one of the pillars of the Jewish tradition since the period of the Tannaim (the sages of the Mishna, circa 10-220 C.E.), and the same dialogue of segregation and separation, along with the same mythic approach to history, is of course still with us today.

At the end of their book, Ophir and Rosen-Zvi ask whether it is possible to imagine a Jewish existence that does not arise from the negation of the goy, that is not dependent on the goy to define himself. I think it is, and it seems to me that the answer to their question is simpler and more accessible than is usually thought. A Jewish life of that kind already exists in both the United States and Israel, and it is based on the supplanting of God and of the halakha, as the fulcrum of Jewish identity, by the nation-state.

The nation-state, and the ethos and mythos it stands for, transforms different people, and sometimes also different ethnic groups, into a single community. It does this for Jews in different ways in the United States and in Israel, but in both cases the notion of the “goy” fractures and loses some of its meaning. In America, Jews typically treat their neighbors – non-Jewish American citizens – not as strangers separate from them, but as colleagues and partners in the great American liberal project. The rates of exogamous marriage are both proof of this, and the expression and realization of that project.

In Israel, too, identification with the nation-state overcomes the traditional taboo against exogamy. This is done not in concurrence with the liberal ethos, but by basing Jewish identity on nationalism and on the national struggle. Here we can see that when non-Jews, according to halakha (immigrants under the Law of Return), participate in the struggle against non-Jews according to halakha and to nationality (Muslim Arabs), they are accepted into the community of the Israeli nation, and hence are considered Jews for the purposes of friendship, communal life and marriage. Indeed, when the fact that halakha prohibits their burial next to people who are considered Jews by the Rabbinate is (re)discovered by the media, public outrage ensues. Partnership in the Israeli national project is enough to turn them into non-goyim.

In the United States, then, we are witnessing the fulfillment of the Pauline vision in which the last dichotomy, between Jews and “goyim,” is dissolving and the Jews, too, are being assimilated into the universal community of individuals. In Israel we are witnessing, as it were, the return to the biblical model (pre-Ezra and Nehemiah): Members of different ethnic groups receive different treatment, according to their attitude toward the Jewish people. There is no uniform conception of “goyim,” and marriage with part of the non-Jewish groups is permitted. These developments grind to a halt, of course, with ultra-Orthodox and some segments of Orthodox Jewry. Where halakha prevails, the goy is alive and well. He dissolves when it disappears, just as he did not exist before it was created.

Dr. Tomer Persico is the Koret Visiting Assistant Professor at the Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies at UC Berkeley, and the Bay Area Scholar in Residence for the Shalom Hartman Institute.

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