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?

Tovshebgoyharogwhodahellwerethey?
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 http://www.facebook.com/#!/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
[17] http://www.vbm-torah.org/archive/halak66/13halak.htm