A Jewish co-worker often uses the word “goy.” It really irks me. Is it truly Jewish to think of everyone else (non-Jewish) as an “other”? Many classical Jewish texts I’ve read seem to take this view. How can this coexist with the modern concept of plurality, and how can these texts be relevant today if they seem so offensive to the modern ear?
Great question. I think it speaks well of you that your co-worker’s use of the term “goy” irks you. True, in classical Hebrew, the word “goy” simply means, “nation.” It’s entirely neutral. In fact, the Jewish people is described as a “goy” in several places in the Hebrew Bible, and our charge is to strive to be a “goy kadosh,” a “holy nation.” But, in time, the word goy (plural, “goyim”) came to be used derogatively to refer to gentiles. Your co-worker may not be intending to use it derogatively, but the word nonetheless retains its baggage.
But it sounds as though you might be irked even if your co-worker were to use a less offensive term than “goy” to refer to non-Jews. For you are pointing to, and questioning the wisdom and relevance of, a broader phenomenon: dividing the world into Jews and non-Jews. In today’s world, you seem to be wondering, do we still need to do this? Isn’t this pernicious? Doesn’t this simply perpetuate old distinctions? Can’t we all just focus on what unites us?
I don’t think it’s necessarily offensive, in certain contexts, to talk on the one hand about “Jews,” and “non-Jewish people” on the other. The fact is, there are differences between Jews and non-Jews. The ideology of Judaism is not shared by all human beings. The history and the destiny of the Jewish people are not necessarily shared by all those who live on this planet. Pluralism shouldn’t require us to deny our differences; it should instead allow us to affirm unapologetically those differences.
So, although I agree with you that the use of the term “goy” is today problematic, I don’t agree that pluralism requires us never to speak of the distinctiveness of the Jewish people or of Judaism.
The subject of the use of the term “goy” is near and dear to my heart.Indeed, this is one of many terms in Judaism that are used and misused.
It is very easy to take a term such as “goy” which on the face of it means nation or people and then use it in a pejorative sense as a slur against another person or ethnic grouping.In the Torah and by extension—the Tanakh—Hebrew Scripture, there is no such understanding of the word “goy” to mean anything, but its denotation “nation.”
We all know the most famous quotation of all in Isaiah, “Lo yi-sa goy el goy he-rev, lo yil-me-du od mil-ha-mah”—“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more.” (2:4)
There is absolutely nothing unseemly in the word “goy” as employed in our Torah text or other religious literature.
Our teacher, Dr. Max Kadushin, of blessed memory, a true master of Rabbinic Judaism and the pristine period of the Sages of Israel, pointed out that the term “goy” in Biblical literature always referred to a nation or a people, including all of Israel and the Jewish People.However, the Rabbis extended its usage to refer to an individual, i.e. “goy”—masculine or “goyah”—feminine.
Nonetheless, “goy” was not used in a pejorative sense.
My great teacher, Professor Rabbi Hakham Jose Faur, a senior Talmudist, always used the term “goy” when contrasting Jewish thought from non-Jewish thought.He, however, pointed out that this was in no way negative, only a term used distinguishing differences between a Jewish approach and that of everyone else.
In our world, and with perhaps the influence of Yiddish, which also uses the word “goy,” it is common to hear some using the term as a slur or pejorative.This is an unsavory reality and part of a culture deeming Jews as superior and non-Jews as less so.This, of course, is not truly rooted in our Torah, where Abraham, the Father of the Jewish People, was called upon by God to be the Father of Many Nations—“Av Hamon Goyim.”In fact, this is identified as the meaning of the name Avraham/Abraham.
The Jews are called upon by the prophet to be an “Ohr La-Goyim”—a Light Unto the Nations. “V’-hal’-khu Goyim L’-Oh-raykh”—And the nations shall come to your light…” (Isaiah 60:3) If we look upon the “goyim” as inferior, it totally detracts from our own status as a leader, if we see it as a call to lead inferior peoples.
As is pointed out, most Jews live in liberal democracies which believe in pluralism and multiculturalism.There is no place for Jews to use or misuse our Hebrew language, in order to “put someone down” and hurt them.
I do not know of “classical” texts which use the term “goy” in a pejorative sense as suggested in the question. There are, however, texts which do show others in an unkind way.Some scholars suggest that such texts ought never be taught or employed publicly, as they do not reflect our present day reality and will tend to promote a discriminatory attitude that is undeserved by those around us.
Whether or not a coworker chooses to misuse a perfectly acceptable Jewish word—“goy,” is their own business.We cannot control everyone else’s speech.However, it is correct to take an opportunity and point out your feeling when a beautiful Hebrew term is corrupted and used in your presence, so freely.
At minimum, in the case of the coworker described, one should develop a sensitivity in the work place.
We should always look for opportunities to help others in their understanding of our Torah and its teachings and restore a perfectly wonderful word to its pristine meaning.
As Rabbi Shudnow explains, the word “goy,” classically, simply means “nation,” and often indicates, without judgment, a nation “other” than Israel. But I’m not sure your question is so much about the use or meaning of the word “goy” as it is about the relationship, according to Jewish tradition, between Jews and non-Jews.
“How can this [by which I’m guessing you mean the idea of the non-Jew as the “other”] coexist with the modern concept of plurality,” you ask, “and how can these texts be relevant today if they seem so offensive to the modern ear?”
I wish I knew which texts you’ve read.In the absence of this information, I’ll try to address your question generally.
Leviticus 18:3 reads, “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.”From here have developed many Jewish laws that have served and in some cases still serve to separate Jews from others in marriage, at meal times, in matters of business and at leisure and, most especially, as regards religious practice.
“This does not mean, of course, that we are forbidden to learn anything from our neighbors,” explains Rabbi Mark Washofsky, reflecting on the Leviticus verse. At times throughout Jewish history the prohibitions against mixing with or adopting the customs of our neighbors have been strict, indicating a concern for the integrity and survival of Jewish tradition and community.At other times, the response was more open, suggesting a degree of security and “optimism that the Jewish community could maintain its distinctiveness even when it opened itself to contact with Gentile culture. ...The exact placement of boundaries, in other words, has always been a matter of dispute.”
Not open for dispute is the idea that Judaism as a distinctive religious and cultural tradition is worth preserving (as are all great world religions).The modern concept of plurality that you cite does not require that everyone be the same.Rather, plurality by definition embraces and values the co-existence of individuals and communities claiming many different particular identities.Alongside the celebration of universal ideals that characterizes contemporary progressive Judaism we maintain an allegiance to the aspects of identity, ritual, theology, language, calendar, collective memory, and principle that set us apart from everyone else.
As modern philosophy has well established, we can hardly have a self without an “other,” and the term “other,” just as the word “goy,” can take on many meanings and implications depending upon the purpose and context of the speaker.Some are negative, others are decidedly not.Upon encountering Jewish texts that “seem so offensive to the modern ear,” we might do well to consider the particular historical and geo-political moment, so different from our own, that produced the text.We might then look for the enduring truth that often lies at its heart.
Throughout Jewish history and certainly since the birth of Reform Judaism, our tradition has been animated by, among other things, a productive tension between universalism and particularism.That is, we find ourselves caught on a continuum between our concern for and relationship with all of God’s children, and our concern for and relationship with Torah, Israel, and our particular covenant with God.It is this tension that makes Judaism a great and enduring tradition, and which motivates us to fulfill our potential as or la-goyim, “a light to the nations,” the highest embodiment of all our ideals.
Mark Washofsky, Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice (New York: UAHC, 2001) 270.
Washofsky, 271.I highly recommend the introduction to chapter seven, “Between Jews and Non-Jews” for a succinct yet fuller discussion of this question.
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