By Rabbi Mordechai Scher
Beit Midrash Kol BeRamah/Santa Fe Torah Learning Coop
Like many who grew up in assimilated Jewish America of the 60s and 70s, I heard certain Yiddish terms commonly used to describe non-Jews. They were clearly used as part of a cultural lingo, to set apart the ‘other’ from ‘us’. What is interesting, and all too sad, is that the separation eventually appeared to me as a form of racism. After all, in nearly every way we lived the same as our non-Jewish neighbors; so why the insistence on a vocabulary of distinction and discrimination? It was clear that these terms were often intended to be pejorative. This bothered me even more when I had learned enough Torah to believe and understand that there are positive reasons for such distinction; but only in the larger framework of an overall commitment to Judaism. Now, the insistence on separation and discrimination solely for its own sake bothers me even more. Sadly, I recognize that this is a last vestige of a connection to Jewish history and tradition; but detached from that history and tradition it does not complement us at all. Even as we fled everything Jewish and ran to embrace nearly everything non-Jewish, we still insisted on these ridiculous, often insulting uses of language.
I can still remember with a laugh the one time an older relative saw me putting mayonnaise on a meat sandwich. She made a face and said, ‘that’s so goyish!’ This coming from someone who probably hadn’t eaten a bite of kosher food in decades. But that’s NOT goyish? And what rational reason did she have to object to something simply because it appears culturally non-Eastern European Jewish? Was she really worried about ‘hukoteihem’, the prohibition against imitating non-Jewish practices of religious import? The intonation made it clear that something ‘goyish’ is to be rejected.
Goy is, of course, a fairly neutral term in and of itself. Goyim simply means ‘the nations’. There is the Jewish people, and there are ‘the nations.’ Similarly, there is HaAretz (the Land, referring to the Land of Israel), and the rest of the world is Hutz L’aretz – outside the Land. For some of you there is New York, and the rest of the world is ‘out of town’. So, exclusive of intonation or other indications of disrespect, the term ‘goy’ by itself isn’t insulting.
Another genuinely neutral term was ‘schwartzer’, a Black person; a Negro. The word by itself is simply an observation of race or skin color. Really not a big deal. I don’t know why it became politically incorrect to say it. To say that President Obama or Colin Powell are Black men, or that I am Jewish is simply an observation. Again, though, intonation and context can change everything. And all too often I heard it used, like ‘goy’, to refer to someone with distrust.
Then there is ‘shaigetz’ and ‘shiksa’. There is no way to interpret these neutrally. These terms are demeaning, period. A ‘sheketz’ is an abomination, something to be thoroughly rejected and avoided. The verb, as in D’varim/Deuteronomy 7:26 means to shun or reject something completely.
And here we run into my problem with this word. As a verb, it makes some kind of sense. We are commanded to be a holy nation. Intermarriage is forbidden – period. So to say, ‘shun completely the notion of marrying this person’ isn’t a problem for me. It is a notion to be rejected because I am commanded to build and maintain a particular society. The burden is on me; the rejection doesn’t necessarily reflect upon the ‘other’. What’s more, the ‘other’ could potentially become one of us through proper conversion; and then they aren’t ‘other’. Then they contribute like any Jew to a holy nation. But to call a person a ‘shaigetz’ or ‘shiksa’ is to label THEM as objectionable. Is this how we talk about God’s children created in the Divine Image?
The mishnah in Avot (3:18) says Haviv Adam Shenivra B’tzelem – Man is loved as he is created in the Image. Rav Hirsch discusses there how this refers to the inherent dignity and nobleness of all people, as distinguished from other creatures, which is only magnified when they recognize it and act accordingly. So what does it say about US when we refer to such privileged creatures – Man – as if they were abominable, contemptible animals to avoid any contact with? To speak thusly says more about the speaker, belittles him more, than it does the subject.
I know that people used these words without even knowing in many cases what their real meaning was. But the implications were well-understood and even intended in many cases. It is worthy to note that I never heard a real Torah scholar use these words. None of my teachers ever did within my earshot. When our sages spoke disparagingly of non-Jews, the focus was on corrupt society or idolatrous behaviors. They didn’t detract, however, from the basic value of human beings created with a great and noble holy potential. In fact, we know that anyone, Jew or non-Jew, can theoretically merit ruah hakodesh – Divine inspiration.
We all understand that labeling people is often a bad thing. Moshe Rabbenu and several of the prophets were punished for labeling the Jewish people (see the midrash in Shir Hashirim Rabbah). Labels limit our perceptions of others. Negative labels create a context where all that is good and holy in others becomes forgotten. There is only the label. When someone is a ‘shaigetz’, then we don’t think of them as ‘haviv’-loved by God, or ‘nivra b’tzelem’ – created in the Divine Image.
I would suggest (as I have to my students over the years) that we drop these words from our vocabulary. Tear those pages out of the dictionary (sort of like the scene in Dead Poets Society). We don’t perceive our own holiness and obligations any better by using these terms; and we certainly don’t see the Divine potential in others that Hashem decreed and put there. As the mishnah says, Man is loved that he is created in the Divine Image. It is special favor that it is known that he is created in the Divine Image.
We will better express the dignity and nobility of all men, and the special favor of Israel, when we shun (shaketz!) demeaning, derogatory speech used indiscriminately and use the vocabulary that shapes and expresses the refined attitude the Torah teaches us.