Friday, December 31, 2010

Goyim & Generalising – An old army medic’s rant, & perspectives on others and oppressors

Goyim & Generalising – An old army medic’s rant, & perspectives on others and oppressors
The word “goy” in Yiddish means, a non-Jewish person, in Hebrew it means nation. It has been used in some derogatory ways, which makes many Jews cringe. Here, I explore the right attitude for Jews to have about people who are not Jewish. I discuss controversial phrases in our tradition that have been taken out of context, both the harrowing experiences of the authors of these statements as well as the full text which give a better understanding of the real meaning then 3 words on their own. How to differentiate between individuals and nations that have oppressed us and those who have not, is also discussed.

I was raised hearing stories about “Goyim” perpetrating massacres, pogroms and forced conversions. I was also taught that the greatest example of honouring parents was the case of the non-Jewish Dama Ben Nesina[1]. How was I to navigate the various messages to ensure that I respected all people created in the image of God?

I was confronted with this issue, as Jews have in medieval debates and on internet hate-sites, during the festival of Succot around 1987 in a senior’s home in upstate New York.
I approached an older man, with a Lulav and Etrog (Palm branch, other branches and a citron fruit) in my hand and asked him if he would like to say a blessing and shake these.
He looked at me, in my black hat and little fuzzy beard and exploded.
"Tov shebgoy harog! who the hell were they?!!!" which sounded to me like "Tovshebgoyharoigwhodahellwerethey!", I could not make out a word he was saying.
 I backed off, but he followed me around the place. Repeating, "I was a medic in Korea, we treated enemy soldiers just like our own! Tovshebgoyharogwhodahellwerethey!
It was only when I was back in the car driving back to Brooklyn that I figured out what he was saying. He was quoting or mis-quoting a phrase, “The best of the “goy”, you should kill!”

Actual phrase and context
Google this phrase and the haters will appear in a moment, but what is the real story? In the story of the Exodus from Egypt we have a phrase that shows there were different types of Egyptians. Even at the time when they were enslaving the Jews not all Egyptians were the same. Moses instructed the Egyptians to gather people and livestock from the field into their houses because those that remain outdoors will die in a plague of hail. “He who feared the word of God among the servants of Pharaoh, evacuated his servants and livestock into the houses[2]”.

This phrase is considered in the interpretation of a later part of the story, after the Jews have left Egypt and Pharaoh takes “600 chariots and rides” to pursue them.
Where did he get the animals from that carried the chariots? It was from these (“good Egyptians”), who feared the word of God. So we learn that these people were a peril for the Jews. From here Rabbi Shimon learned the best of the nations (Goyim) kill! The best of the snakes crush its skull[3].

The version above is not necessarily accurate, nor the most common.  Other versions in many sources have it as “the good among the Egyptians[4]” or alternatively the “Kosher of the Egyptians[5]”. It is argued that the change from Egyptian to “goyim” may have arisen from manuscripts written in Arabic countries near Egypt that changed the word from Egyptian[6].  It is also useful to point out that traditional Jews do not believe that the Egyptians who enslaved us and the Egyptian people today are the same people.

More significantly, it is explained to be a comment relating to a time of war[7] and R. Kasher[8] argues that this statement is not a halachic ruling as we can see from the context.
“A man should not teach his children (to be a) donkey driver, sailor, potter, shepherd or shopkeeper because their profession is robbery. Rabbi Judah said in his name, donkey drivers are mostly wicked, sailors mostly pious. The best of the doctors to hell, the Kosher among butchers is a partner of Amalek, most bastards are shrewd, slaves pleasant (or arrogant). Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai said, the good among idol worshippers, during war kill, the good among snakes crush it’s skull. The Kosher among women is a witch. Fortunate is the one who does the will of God[9].

Clearly, these sayings are mere hyperbolic statements addressing certain issues using especially sharp expressions[10], rather than halakhic rulings. We do not, and have never mistrusted all shopkeepers or assumed that all Jewish women are witches.

The historical context of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his political views must also be taken into account.  He was living under brutal Roman occupation. When he expressed the view that the bridges, roads and markets being built were not based on altruism, he became a hunted fugitive who hid for years in a cave[11].

The broader context of Torah teachings about Egyptians and generalising must also be taken into account. In relation to Egyptians we are commanded "You shall not abhor an Egyptian[12]. The festival of Passover is the only one of the major festivals on which we do not recite the complete Hallel prayer and about which it is not written that we are to rejoice[13].

More broadly, we are taught that one suspects the innocent is liable for corporal punishment. Abraham’s plea for the wicked city of Sodom is based on this principal. "That be far from Thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked, that so the righteous should be as the wicked; that be far from Thee; shall not the judge of all the earth do justly?[14]'

This might not do much for the angry old Medic who was merciful to injured enemy combatants in Korea.  Perhaps it would be useful for him to consider the difference between the conditions of war in the 20th century where barbaric as they were, some nations observed the Geneva conventions, with the reality of total war as understood in the time of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

A final reflection.
On a very warm and humid evening, I was a guest at Aboriginal party in Darwin.  There was a laughter, some of it at the expense of the white people of the missions where some had been forcibly been interred. There was a Indigenous language version of Waltzing Matilda, there were songs about the weevils in the porridge in the missions that must have been good because the priest has blessed them, followed by more laughter.   

A legacy of suffering oppression can lead to a generalised hatred toward the offending people. For the latest example, see!/pages/Gaza-Youth-Breaks-Out-GYBO/118914244840679.On the other hand, unwillingness to forgive even after substantial grievances is condemned by King David in the case of the Gibonites[15]. Our tradition provides ample sources that can be taken as guidance toward general respect for all people, with apparently contrary teachings contextualised, applied to narrow exceptions for self-defence, understood as preserving historical memory (and other purposes such as Amalek[16]). Effort is sometimes required to navigate the variety of sources to find this guidance. The broad messages of Judaism obligate us to do so.

Thanks are due to the Israel Kotschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash and Yeshivat Har Etzion[17]  that has been a source of some of the insights and sources in this post.  

[1] Talmud, Kiddushin 31a
[2] Exodus, 9:20
[3] Mechilta, compiled in the 3rd century, Bshalach Masechta Vayehee, chap 1, quoted in Torah Shlaima.
[4] Tanchuma Beshalach 5, Version of Mechilta in Chumash with Malbim, (1973), Menorah publishers, Israel, also Baal Haturim on Exodus 9:19
[5] Rashi, on Exodus 14:7, Old Tanchuma Vaera 20, Lekach Tov Exodus 9:20
[6] Kasher, M (1992) Torah Shelema Shemot p134, Va'era, addenda, letter 19,
[7] Masechet Soferim (can be found in printed editions of the Talmud as an appendix to tractate Avoda Zarah, also in Tosaphot, on Talmud Avoda Zarah, 26b, based on the Jerusalem Talmud Kiddushin
[8] Kasher, ibid
[9] Masechet Sofrim, 25:10
[10] Kasher, ibid
[11] Talmud Shabbat 33b
[12] Deuteronomy 24:14
[13] Sources listed in Kasher, ibid
[14] Genesis 18:25
[15] Samuel 21:2
[16] A topic for another time, worthy of investigation but which is of narrow application


  1. An interesting discussion. Of course a similar discussion could be held using the Qur'an and hadith. There are some fairly unpleasant things said specifically about Jews. Like the remarks about killing even the good Goyim/Egyptians they were made in a specific time and context.

    The danger comes when we read them in today's context. When you are passionate about an issue it is all too easy to depart from your usual attempts to be even-handed and become partisan. Like the old man you remember those words from another time and context and drop them in the middle of what should be a more nuanced discussion.

    The core origin of the phrase as a result of the "good' Egyptians giving the horses Moses helped them save to the Pharaoh to pursue the fleeing jews raises another question. Did the Pharaoh use his power to seize their horses or did they offer them willingly?

    The parallel today is governments who take their countries down the road to Hell by getting involved in actions many of their own people would normally reject. They typically get away with this by creating an environment like the one that produced the Kill the best of the Goy statement. People become like the Egyptians. They circle the wagons for mutual protection from a perceived threat. Even those unwilling to follow the government path are forced into the circle. In effect they become the old man.

    The old man crystallizes this for us. He was placed in an impossibly threatening situation just as the Jews fleeing Egypt were yet he retained his sense of humanity by treating his enemy humanely. It is only in his later years that the horror he was exposed to dominates his world that this unpleasant command fills his mind.

    As a society we have to cope with and manage the best and the worst of situations on a daily basis. We are not helped by old men in positions of authority whose minds are filled with inflammatory rhetoric.

  2. A friends said to me the other day that we cannot expect peace if we come to it with myths. She was referring to the middle east and the narratives that remain half truths and were once histories of necessity perhaps - but unhelpful at this place in history. So i commend Zalman for considering such unsavoury ideas that also exist within our sacred texts, amongst the more uplifting. They too need to have their due considerations. We need to know from whence we come.

  3. Thanks Donna and Gary,

    I had not thought to judge the old man, at least not recently, but I have to agree with Gary. There is something unblanaced in his approach. Although, I think this also illustrates the nature of cutting thru, sometimes an unbalanced hyperbolic statement just as that of the old man or Rabbi Shimon can get thru, when a measured comment might not be heard.

    As both Donna & Gary say, it is the way in which these ideas are applied that is critical.

  4. This is a very interesting piece in the way it raises many questions about how we see the 'other'. For example I was recently talking to a young Jewish Australian woman, who considered herself primarily as Jewish and felt that her real allegiance was towards Israel, where she had spent some time. At the same time she was born in Australia of Jewish parents who survived the Holocaust, and she chose to come back to live in Australia because that's where her family is.

    I used to feel similarly myself, growing up in Australia. From a young age I was completely immersed in the Jewish community in the eastern suburbs of Sydney until well after my Bar Mitzvah at the Great Synagogue, until I went to university. Suddenly I was confronted by all these 'Australians' and I became friendly with several of them, both male and female, much to the horror of my very Jewish parents. My father had the attitude that you couldn't trust a 'goy', that they all hated us and wanted to kill us. He used to say that the Hungarians wanted to drink the Jewish blood, which is an interesting reversal of the 'Blood Libels' that had emerged in Hungary in the 19th century.

    On the other, I found that many of my Australian friends were interested in my Jewish background, and rarely did I experience any serious anti-Semitism. Sometimes people made stupid comments about Jews being this or that and sometimes I would engage with them, but I never felt physically threatened.

    When I read these passages by Rabbis and from the Torah about Egyptians and Goyim, I consider them to be part of another world, where clearly Jewish people were physically threatened and treated badly. So I can understand the strong language used as a form of psychological self-defence. Given the treatment of my father's Hungarian family by both the Nazis and their sympathisers in Hungary, I can also understand my father's attitude. Many of my father's relatives were victims of the Holocaust, in a way that my mother's Romanian relatives were not, in that they seemed to survive and were part of the early settlers to modern Israel. I believe some one third of these settlers were from Romania, many of whom were members of my family.

    This difference between different cultures towards the Jews is something both interests me and puzzles me. However, as someone who has devoted much of their life to peace, non-violence and anti-racism work, I think it's crucial to recognise that not all goys want to kill us and not all goys hate us. I agree here with Zalman's comment that we have to learn to respect all people, for without that respect how can we be a 'Light unto the Nations'? Where 'nations' is a translation of the word 'goyim' in the Torah, as I discovered when I became involved in Jewish Renewal movement in more recent years.

    Dr Ben-Zion Weiss

  5. The Egyptians in this weeks parsha were idolaters and have nothing to do with today's Egyptian people who are either Muslims or Coptic Christians both of whom are Gerei Toshav/Noahides/Righteous Monotheists either formally or informally depending upon whose opinion you hold.

    A non Jew who forsakes idolatry is to be treated the same as a Jew with the exception of ritual requirements.

  6. thanks Ben Zion for your very thoughtful response. The historical context needs to be considered, then we need to think about choices appropriate for us.

    Avi, agree that Halachically, Egyptians today are not seen as the Egyptians of the Torah. Even in relation to actual idol worshipers, (however this would be defined) as can be seen from Masechet Sofrim, & Tosafot on Kiddushin, this whole matter is only relevant to war time, and as we can see from the context it is not a ruling about action.

  7. Hi Zalman,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughtful blog about how religions deal with 'other.' The discussion about the meaning of the psukim relating to the Egyptians reminds me of the George Bernard Shaw quote, "No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says: He is always convinced that it says what he means"
    Take the example of the current issue in israel regarding the renting of Jewish homes to arabs.
    One can use the torah to reflect ones suspicion of the other - see
    Or one can use that some torah to find the best in the other -

    My question has always been how does one bring about a time when religion will be a force that enables us to see the best in each other, rather than the worst.

    :) Ittay

  8. thanks Ittay. My experience has been that interacting positively with the "other' changes the perception. I think more broadly, it depends on the general attitude, hopefully education can influence it.

  9. Nevertheless, we ignore the problem of racism in our communities at our peril. This is a letter I once wrote for publication in the now defunct "Jewish Observer." It was not published.

    To the Editor:

    In a fine essay: “Teaching Churban Europa to Our Children” (JO, May ‘03), Rabbi Yaakov Feitman shlita presents the following cogent point as one of the lessons that we can learn from the Hitlerian plot to annihilate the Jewish people, R”l:

    “Disappointment in the Gentiles - Rabbi Hutner zt”l taught us that one of the prime lessons of Jewish history is learning not to be enamored of the gentiles and their ways by recognizing their unreliability throughout the ages.”

    While this is an invaluable lesson, care must be taken in its presentation, particularly to young students. This is because there is cause for concern lest we inadvertently cause racism and bigotry to develop in our society.

    It is essential that we take care that it does not become acceptable in our society to use pejorative terminology to describe other races, especially since there are ever-increasing numbers of Jews, Shomrei Torah u’Mitzvos, of other races. We must be careful never to present people of other races as stereotypical examples of degenerate and dim-witted behavior, particularly in light of the evident accomplishments and prominence of many individuals of other races. A special pitfall to be avoided is the acceptance of questionable “Biblical” justifications of such attitudes. Indeed, most of these rationalizations may be traced to Southern, pro-slavery, antebellum (pre-Civil War) Christian preachers.


  10. To expand somewhat, there are many problems in such attitudes and modes of expression. Among these problems are the following:

    1. These attitudes and modes of expression will not go unnoticed by general society. If they were to become known, they would likely to lead to Chillul Hashem and to setbacks in our task of leading, by refined example, to “Yakiru v’yeidu kol yoshvei seivel ke lecha tichra kol berech (“May all the world’s inhabitants recognize and know that to You every knee should bend” - second paragraph of Aleinu, based on Yeshayah 45:23). They certainly would not help the other races (nor gentiles in general) to recognize that “rak am navon v’chacham ha’am ha’zeh” (“Surely a wise and astute people is this great nation!” - Devarim 4:6).

    2. Additionally, all generalizations only apply generally - at best. Nevertheless, they create stereotypes, branding individuals with the typecast of the group. Thus, upstanding members of other races who remain gentiles, yet may fall into the category of Chasidei Umos Ha’Olam (pious non-Jews who - see Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 8:11) may become subsumed in the derogatory categorization.

    3. Such attitudes and modes of expression are likely to spill over when we would not want them to do so. Olam ha’Bo issues of malbin pnei chaveiro (deriding one’s friend - see Bava Metzia 58b-59a) and other explicit d’oraysa prohibitions, such as ona’as ha’ger (deriding a convert - see Bava Metzia, ibid.) - and, of course, Chillul Hashem - are involved in such “slips of the tongue.”

    4. The usage of pejorative terms - particularly when the word’s intended use is clearly coarse - may constitute nibbul peh.

    5. Perhaps most importantly, were such attitudes to take root in our society, chas v’shalom, they would clearly run counter to the refinement of middos and to the pathways of mussar to which every Ben Aliyah and Ba’al Avodah should aspire. Haughtiness (ga’avah), scoffing (leitzanus), derogation (bittul) and other middos ra’os pervade such attitudes. The tumas sefasayim that is inherent in such modes of expression doubtless impacts negatively on the neshama of the speaker.


  11. In this brief piece I have focused on the pitfalls of bigotry and racism. This is not the vehicle for a comprehensive treatment of our relationship with non-Jews of various orientations. Nevertheless, it is perhaps worthwhile to provide, at the very least, a springboard for further consideration. To the best of my knowledge, the finest comprehensive treatment of that topic is an essay in Divrei Talmud vol. 1 by Rabbi Avrohom Eliyahu Kaplan zt”l. Without going, here, into the broad scope of issues he addresses, it is worth citing some of his conclusions:

    1. Non-Jews who keep their seven laws as a result of their personal convictions, and not because of their belief in the divinity of the Torah, do not fall into the category of rei’ah, and we are not obligated to provide them with monetary support. Nevertheless, because Hashem has endowed all men with divine qualities, they are, therefore, “chaviv” (see Avos 3:14), and hence we are required to save them from any danger and not stand idly by when they are in peril.

    2. Non-Jews who accept upon themselves in a Beis Din, as a result of their belief in the divinity of the Torah, to keep their seven laws, do fall into the category of rei’ah. It is obligatory for us to provide them with monetary support, to conduct ourselves with a high measure of respect towards them.

    3. It is unclear whether the status of non-Jews who accept their seven laws upon themselves, as a result of their belief in the divinity of the Torah, but not in a Beis Din fall into the first or second category. Therefore, as in all matters of doubt that touch on d’orysa issues, we must be stringent, and it is incumbent upon us to provide them with monetary support, etc.

    (Rabbi Kaplan also addresses the status of non-Jews who do not accept their seven laws, and whether the concept of tinok she’nishba is relevant to non-Jews.)

    Perhaps, however, all the technical categories are moot, as the Yerushalmi (Bava Metzia 2:5) states so powerfully (free translation):

    Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach dealt in linen. His students said to him: “Rebbe, desist from this trade. We will buy you a donkey [to make an easier living as a donkey driver] and you will not have to toil so much.” They went and purchased a donkey from a bandit. The students subsequently found a precious stone dangling from it. They went back to Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach and said to him: “From now on you need not exert yourself.” He asked: “How so?” The students responded: “We purchased a donkey for you from a bandit and a precious stone was dangling from it.” Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach asked: “Did the donkey’s seller know that the stone was there?” They answered: “No.” He then said to them: “Go return it.” The students remonstrated with Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach: “Although theft from an idolater is prohibited, is one not permitted to keep an object that an idolater has lost?” He responded: “What do you think, that Shimon ben Shetach is a barbarian? More than all the wealth of the world, Shimon ben Shetach desires to hear [the non-Jew say]: “Berich Eloko d’Yehudo’ei” (“Blessed is the God of the Jews”).

    Our paramount value, beyond even halachic considerations, must be Kiddush Shem Shomayim.

    In sum, therefore, while Rabbi Feitman’s point is well taken, it must be nuanced. There are cases in which we must denigrate evildoers, but there are cases where denigration is out of place - indeed, counter to the Torah’s expectations of us. There is a fine line to be tread between “Ein lanu l’hisha’en elah al Avinu she’Bashomayim” (We cannot rely on anyone but our Father in Heaven - see Sotah 49b) and Al tehi baz l’kol adam (“Do not denigrate any person” - Avos 4:3).

  12. Dear Reb Yosef,
    thank you very much for the excellent sources contributed here. It is a shame that the JO did not see the need to publish on this issue.

    As a fellow Mechanech. It might be worth collaborating on compiling a guide for teachers in Jewish day schools about how to approach this issue. Between the sources you put here, plus others you mentioned, plus some material gather on several of my posts. We might have the foundation of something. We then need to make it accessible to teachers. A project I think worth pursuing, over time.
    Kol Tuv

  13. great and informative piece. postd it on Facebook and will use it for further references!

    thank you so much for posting this / Tuvia

  14. Rabbi Shimon EddiMarch 8, 2011 at 6:57 AM

    As one who, when teaching a class on the weekly Torah reading at a father-son learning programme, was told by one of the children that the people of Noah's generation "were all goyim, so God killed them," I can add my shock to the mix. I had until that point been familiar--to-the point of disgust--with the entrenched notion of "goyim are bad," but this new concept of "'goy'='evil person'" totally knocked me for six.
    On a similar note: at the same learning programme at which I was teaching the above-mentioned course, one of the fathers (a guy with "Rabbi" in front of his name, nonetheless!) got up to tell the weekly story, which included a tale of a group of Russian soldiers making a bet as to who could tell the biggest, most unbelievable lie... "[b]ecause goyim love to lie, and everything is [falsheood] with them."

    I was once, when I was in high school, accused by a fellow of racism: "You don't like me because I'm black." I responded simply that he was two-thirds correct: "I don't like you, and I won't deny that; you're black, I CAN'T deny that." What he was missing was the "because." The reason I didn't like you had nothing to do with the fact that he was black; the reason I didn't like him was because he was an absolute prat. To paraphrase in a manner more relevant to this article: a Jew is a Jew and a goy is a goy, but a mongrel bastard is a mongrel bastard no matter where he comes from.