Rabbinic Ideas of Jews and Gentiles Have Deep Roots in the Bible

Feb. 28 2019

In their book Goy: Israel’s Multiple Others and the Birth of the Gentile, Adi Ophir and Ishay Rosen-Zvi examine the evolution of ancient Jewish notions of the non-Jew, from the Bible, through the Second Temple Period, and in ancient rabbinic texts. Focusing on the term goy, which literally and originally meant “nation,” they argue that in the early parts of the Bible, Israel is simply one of many goyim. But in the later books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the difference between Jew and Gentile begins to grow starker, so that by the talmudic era a strict, binary distinction prevails that erases differentiation among non-Jews. While praising the book for “offering a veritable treasure of the best scholarship on the subject,” Christine Hayes also takes issue with its thesis:

[In my own work] I have adduced evidence for the co-occurrence of both discourses—that of the generalized non-Jew and that of [a group of diverse alternatives to Jewishness]—across biblical, non-biblical pre-rabbinic, and rabbinic sources. Regarding biblical texts: alongside those highlighted by Ophir and Rosen-Zvi, and found throughout the Bible, there is an equally well-distributed conception of a generalized [idea of the non-Jew] that is the binary opposite of Israel. [For instance], in Exodus 19:3-6 and many similar texts, God sets Israel apart from all other peoples . . . by means of His law: “if you will obey me faithfully and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all the peoples . . . a holy [literally, separate] nation.”

It is clear then, from this and similar texts, that Ezra does not innovate by establishing a binary distinction between Israel and other peoples; he innovates by employing a new principle of separation for the binary distinction, one that is essential and immutable rather than contingent. . . .

Thus, no straight line can be drawn from Ezra to [the post-biblical text] Jubilees to the rabbis. Quite the contrary. A straight line can be drawn from the generalized binary of Exodus to the binary of various Second Temple writings including those of Philo and Josephus and on to the rabbis. All of these sources employ a contingent principle of separation that allows for movement of individual persons from one side of the stable boundary to the other. A second straight line can be drawn from the generalized binary of Ezra to that of [such late Second Temple-era works as] Tobit, the Testament of Levi, Jubilees, [certain Dead Sea texts], and other sectarian writings, and on to the apostle Paul who, pace Ophir and Rosen-Zvi, differs radically from the rabbis. . . .

In an important statement near the beginning of the book, the authors speak of their own positions as Israelis growing up with the polarized conception of the goy ­and the various social ills and inequities to which this conception [allegedly] contributes. . . . [A]t times the authors’ argument appears to be driven less by the evidence than by the desire to assign the goy to a late stage in Jewish textual tradition, presumably to lessen its power.

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More about: ancient Judaism, Hebrew Bible, History & Ideas, Judaism, Talmud


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