Some Musings on Words and Their Applications

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.

17 comments on “Some Musings on Words and Their Applications

  1. 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.

    I disagree. Here’s why: someone being “Black” tells you nothing about their essence and/or purpose — whereas being a “Jew” does. It is true that anybody can be proud of their ethnic heritage and say “I am proud to be Black” or “Proud to be Irish” or anything of the like. But for an outsider to make light of someone ethnicity as a primary attribute of that person…then the question needs to posed, “why?”. Does anyone casually talk about how Hillary Clinton is Welsh-English? Was Thomas Jefferson’s main-self identifier his red hair? I know, I know, society demonstrates that Black = minority = distinct. But since when do Torah-observant Jews allow the misguided ways of “society” determine what is and what is not acceptable behavior?

  2. Bob,

    “Lack of intent” was not being “melamed zechus” on the charcter flaw of those using it, but a “mitigating factor” in that it is not hatred, although it can cause hatred amongst someone who discovers that he is on the receiving end of such terms.

    A few years ago, there was a Jewish radio show regarding a related topic, in which an Orthodox movie producer, a rebbe from RIETS, and an Aguda representative(not a Cross current writer, BTW) had a symposium, in response to a related issue getting national and international exposure.

    The Agudah representative made the point that the risk of such public discussion might outweigh the benefits; after all, even an insular Jew with the wrong attitudes in these matters is not going to become the next Baruch Goldstein; on the other hand, further publicity could possibly inflame anti-Semitism.

    That was my point as well. Despite being a charcter flaw even on those who use the term without intention to insult(and yes, one must struggle with the case of a respected person who uses it), I think, underlying, the people are “rachamnim benei rachmanim”, and I would like to believe would not engage in the equivalent of the anti-Semitic feelings engendered by some(not all) who discover themselves to be on the receiving end of those terms. The lack of reciprocal hatred is “mitigating factor”, compared with anti-Semitism.

  3. I was mainly commenting about the statement about mitigating factors in the 2nd to last paragraph of Comment 4 above by Shades of Grey.

    Years ago, a senior rabbi I respected (and still do) used a derogatory term for Puerto Ricans—one that I was familiar with, but, coming from him, it totally shocked me. Possibly, he or a family member was mugged by one (I forget the exact context), but that’s not enough reason to use that term.

  4. Bob, if you’re referring to my original post, I agree. Nonetheless, I’m not going to suggest completely removing a word from the lexicon when it does have a legitimate use. The words I targeted at the end simply have no place whatsoever in common discourse and discussion! If you’re suggesting that even with potentially neutral terms we should err on the side of caution and respect, I endorse that! We will rarely go wrong by learning to use lashon sagi nahor/clean language. (Of course, we usually don’t want to go to the extreme of obfuscating. Even the Torah doesn’t use lashon sagi nahor all the time.)

    All is, of course, just my opinion. It may only be worth as much as you payed for it. ;-)

  5. About the naive claim that these words are not meant to insult:

    If that’s so, it’s only in a technical sense, because the objects of derision are not meant to hear the offensive speech! Snickering among ourselves is not so praiseworthy, either.

  6. Should we remove the words or use them to describe as well coreligionists who are now spending their lives deservedly behind bars

  7. Thank you for addressing this problem, Rabbi Scher. I have heard these expressions used in derogatory ways in a frum home when I was converting and it bothered me greatly. However, I said nothing because “who was I” to give mussar to a frum family.

  8. Thank you for bringing this up.

    As Marvin Schick has written, it’s not only BT who are affected by this, but also FFB.

    I remember as a kid this bothered me–literally like a crisis of faith(as R. Nataf wrote…”, this was a moment of cognitive dissonance and for some it was even a moment of crisis”). When older, I realized that the problem wasn’t me, but a clash of culture, having more American parents who eschewed the useage of these terms.

    On the other hand, I worry when I see this discussed on CC and on the internet, because of the question of anti-Semitism. On the other hand again, people of good-will can see that Orthodox Jews are trying to address it.

    The mitigating factors should be mentioned, that these Yiddishisms are not meant intentionally to insult, and that it doesn’t affect everyone, even in insular communities; however, to whatever extent it applies, it needs to be changed. If for no other reason than kiddush Hashem , it should be addressed , as today, internal problem are no longer secrets.

    It also represents the challenge of explaining various Jewish concepts in a sophisticated manner. A parent or teacher wanting to explain the negative parts of a promiscuous culture at large, or why it’s special to be Jewish, has to develop a sophisticated approach and phrasing; otherwise as above, it will eventually backfire, with the great irony of causing damage, to the very same Judaism that the insularity is attempting to preserve!

  9. Dear Rabbi Scher,

    Thank you for bringing this issue to the pages of

    I have felt pain upon hearing anti-Semitic utterances by non-Jews who either didn’t know of my presence or didn’t care. I haven’t always responded as directly as I should have.

    It’s wrong for Jews to conduct themselves in such a manner, whether the subject person is present or not. We lower ourselves and hurt others by the use of these words.

    Unfortunately, I have heard such perjorative terms too many times in observant Jewish circles. I have heard them from “everyday” people, and from locally and nationally known Torah figures.

    Some instances in which I have heard these terms include references to homeless people, to an individuals’s employees, or to political figures.

    It’s fine to say that a Torah lifestyle can play a role in preventing drug addiction among youth; it’s wrong to say that Torah is what separates us from the schvarzers in the park next to the Midtown Tunnel.

    Why should someone refer to his employee as “my Mexican” or “my shaigetz?” Is this proper respect for someone who works hard every day of the year (including his religious festivals) so that the lights will be on in Shul and the garbage taken away after a Kiddush?

    It’s quite all right to say that Governor Patterson has a bad idea about some matter in NY State government; it’s entirely another to ask “what do you expect from a schvarzer governor?”

    I’ve discussed this matter personally with some local people (lay and rabbinical) who I felt went overboard by participating in or allowing such talk. The response has been lukewarm.

    I have also chosen not to listen to the tapes or attend the shiurim of one nationally known speaker who frequently uses the phrases mentioned in a very disparaging way.

  10. The use of high-school-like epithets demeans us. We can keep our eyes open and criticize non-Jews who deserve criticism, but use more precise, appropriate speech.

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