The other day, we had an extended discussion around the office about the proper term to use to refer to people who aren’t Jewish.
While it might not be water cooler conversation fodder at most offices, this linguistic issue comes up regularly in our writing of community histories for the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities. On several occasions across the South, members of the larger community supported Jewish communities and causes, from contributing synagogue building funds to fundraising campaigns for Jewish charities.
This support is noteworthy and historically significant, but I always wrestle with the appropriate language. Some of my co-workers feel the traditional word “gentile” carries a negative connotation and should be avoided. I usually respond that the word was used by none other than Martin Luther King, Jr. himself in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, when he declared “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” Of course, the word “negro” is no longer generally accepted, so perhaps the cultural meanings we associate with the word “gentile” have changed as well.
The term “gentile” comes from the Latin word “gentilis” which means belonging to a tribe or clan. In the King James Bible, the term “gentile” is used as the translation for the Hebrew word “goy,” which refers to people of non-Hebrew nations. Since the 17th century, the word has been used to refer to non-Jews. Later, Mormons used the word to refer to non-LDS church members, although it has fallen into disuse in recent years, as it has taken on a pejorative connotation – bolstering some of my coworkers’ claims of negativity around that word.
Others think “non-Jew,” the most obvious substitute, is inherently negative in construction and that we should use a more positive term. Rabbi Marshal Klaven suggested “people of other faiths,” which works nicely for an interfaith prayer or presentation, but is a bit too clunky for our encyclopedia histories. Also, what about those who don’t have a faith?
I asked one of our staff members who is not Jewish to get an “inside opinion” on the subject. She prefers the term “non-Jewish” since it is not defining or labeling them as a specific group. “Non-Jewish” simply means she is outside the circle of Jews.
This discussion got me thinking about how Jews have perceived and interacted with “people of other faiths” (or gentiles, or non-Jews) in the South and in the rest of the country. Since Jews have become so socially integrated into their communities, we are more sensitive to the feelings of non-Jews. If we sense that “gentile” might offend, we no longer feel comfortable using the word. Yiddish words like “goyim” and “shiksa” and the more genteel “gentile” were once commonly used when Jews were talking to each other, but now that we are just as likely to be talking to non-Jews (as friends, and as family members) we need a new term. For now, the consensus here seems to be that “non-Jew” is perhaps the best term.
What do you think? What is the most appropriate term to describe someone who is not Jewish?
Wishing y’all a year full of health, happiness, and hope, wherever you live!
This special holiday post comes from guest blogger Rabbi Matt Rosenberg, Executive Director of Hillel at Texas A&M University. Thank you, Rabbi Matt!
“Rabbi Matt, they’ve scheduled the Alabama game for Yom Kippur.”
Hearing these words while still living in Los Angeles did not mean much to me; more to the point, I didn’t understand just how significant they were. I was finishing rabbinical school and preparing to move to College Station, Texas to be the executive director of Hillel at Texas A&M University. I thought, “Why are they telling me this?”
How naive I was.
Now, two months into my job at Texas A&M, I have a far richer appreciation for the role of football in Texas. As a new rabbi just out of rabbinical school, where for the last six years I was immersed in the traditions of our ancestors, there was nearly nothing holier or more important than the Day of Atonement. Yet, here we were, with this dilemma: Alabama vs. Texas A&M, the biggest football game of the year, was going to take place on that very Sabbath of Sabbaths, Yom Kippur. Saturday, September 14, with a kickoff time of 2:30 p.m.
I was truly grateful for the 2:30 p.m. kickoff. It made my life so much easier. I realized I wouldn’t have to abbreviate services or start Yom Kippur morning services at a strange time. We could easily complete the additional musaf service and perhaps mincha well before kickoff, before alumni or students needed to rush off from our brand-new Hillel building across the street to Kyle Field, the football stadium where the Aggies would hopefully defeat their opponents from Alabama.
With such a kickoff time, I determined that we’d be able to resume our closing services at 6 p.m., which should coincide with the end of the big game. After the game and after my congregation returned from Kyle Field to Hillel, we’d be able to hopefully rejoice in not only the exhilarating feeling one experiences after a long day of fasting for Yom Kippur but also in the exhilaration of an Aggie victory. Alternatively, if the Aggies were to lose, the chest-beating of the confessional “ashamnu” prayer would take on new meaning for my new congregation.
One of the traditions of Kyle Field is that students remain standing throughout the game. For my students attending the Alabama game on Yom Kippur, they’ve elected to try to pull tickets in a special section for those who need to remain seated. I do hope, for my students’ sake, that the weather is mild and not the 100-degree-plus weather we’ve been having in these days leading up to the High Holy Days.
For me, this juxtaposition of atonement and football will be an enlightening experience, one which I have never experienced before but I was trained by my teachers in California to be flexible and creative within the bounds of our tradition. To meet our congregants where they are, and emphasize the importance of Jewish life not “in place of” other things we value, but right alongside them – and certainly not of lesser importance. With the Alabama game, I appreciate the opportunity to exercise that flexibility in bringing Torah to the world.