Memories of a Shabbat Goy (part 2)

Pride of Israel, 2013 © Michel Botman Photography

Pride of Israel, 2013 © Michel Botman Photography

Commentaries on the all-so-important theological article published in The Times of Israel on April 17, 2015: Is kosher switch really kosher for Shabbat?

My wife and I immigrated to Canada in 1994, bought a green Mercury Villager and a set of winter tires. That was our very first step in establishing ourselves in the Great White North.

A few days before taking possession of our new minivan, we met with a reputable insurance broker well known in the Toronto Jewish community. Once we had introduced ourselves and discussed details of the insurance policy, the broker turned towards me and said rather unexpectedly:

“So, you are a goy?”

“A what?”

“A goy!”

A guy? I thought, turning towards my wife. We had just landed and, like many new immigrants, I spoke a dreadful rudimentary English, built mostly of bits and pieces collected from Beatles songs.   A jealous guy, perhaps?

My wife’s embarrassment betrayed the incongruity of the question – or at the very least its abruptness. For anyone non-Jewish or not intimately connected with the Jewish people, the “goyim” concept is generally unknown and difficult to appreciate. The more common term “gentile” is similar in many ways, but not quite as pejorative or elemental in its “outsider,” or “outcaste” connotation, in the very essential and etymological sense of the word “caste,” – a unique and exclusive lineage or race.

The term “goy” appears in Genesis, as the word used to define nations. The “goy gadol’” (great nation) or “goy kadosh,” (holy nation). Early on, this term, which meant nation, evolved to a meaning that started to encompass all nations, not as a collection of individual nations, but all as being distinct from the Jewish nation. It does appear that indeed, very early in its history, the Jewish people conceived a very particular notion of definitive and absolute separation from the rest of mankind. This concept of separation, which they thereafter strived to protect at all costs – including at the cost of being a dwindling tribe within the concert of nations – evolved into a “goyim” conception that went far beyond the “all other nations” understanding, and essentially morphed into the concept of “all, other than Jewish,” or simply put; “Non Jewish.”

This idea of other (goyim) has multiple origins, some of which are the result of cultural endogamy, such as the subjective and audacious proposal of being God’s “chosen people,” and some that are the direct consequence of obvious, antediluvian, and recurrent anti-Semitism.

It is a relatively unique concept. Most societies or cultures tend to call others by what they are. Indeed, I could have been asked: “So, you are Belgian?” or “So, you are Christian?” or even “Are you francophone?” The question “Are you a goy?” is quite different. It not quite a question of what you are, but what you aren’t. Indeed, anyone not Jewish, regardless of his or her race, religion or origin, falls de-facto into the generous and all-encompassing “goy” category.

Today, it reminds me how my son Noah would sometimes introduce his mother and father.  He would often say:

– My mother is … Jewish.

– My father is … not.

What is worth recognizing, nonetheless, in the Judaic “goyim” concept is the fact that while Judaism does indeed differentiate other members of the human race, in the sense of distinguishing or separating itself from the other, (from the goyim), sometimes with some underlying derogatory connotation, it does not call to actively denigrate non-Jewish people, or attempt to force conversion upon them.   It does not either attempt to cause them harm in any way. In fact, since its negative undertone is frequently perceived as being depreciatory, it is a term that many Jews will no longer utilize – other than in its original sense in Hebrew to connote the nations of the world – and have customarily replaced with the word “gentile.” The “goyim” concept is therefore entirely different, and far more benign than other models of racial or religious exclusion, such as imposed in Nazi Germany or the rather fanatical and intolerant Islamic concept of “Kafir” (infidel, in English, or mécréant, in French), which implicitly condemns to the sword anyone who doesn’t accept Allah as the only true god or denies Muhammed as his Prophet.

Nonetheless, this concept of distinction of the Jewish people from all other people is, and will always remain, controversial and a source of tension between Jews and non-Jews. As a tolerant and secular humanist, it is certainly a concept I personally find inappropriate, and one that I believe has probably been detrimental to the Jewish nation over its history – including during its exceptionally painful recent history. However, as I indicated above, it is a concept that goes both ways. If there is discrimination, it may actually be more towards the Jews than the other way around. One should always remember Jean-Paul Sartre’s definition of a Jew as “someone who is called a Jew.”

And so it is, that in 1994, and although I always considered myself Jewish at heart (or through Oz-Moses, as I often joke) I unexpectedly learned I was a goy, in a way not too dissimilar from Sartre’s designation of a Jew.  (Note: I in fact have Jewish ancestors on my father’s side, both with the Simeon and possibly Botman branches of my family).

Since, I must confess, I give little credit to archaic concepts that take their roots in folktales and primitive religious superstitions, I was not more offended to be called a goy, than a Martian or a leprechaun. I found the whole story deeply absurd but also quite amusing. I gleefully embraced my new identity of “goy” and rapidly promoted myself to the rank of “Shabbat Goy In Chief” (in spite of the embarrassed resistance and repeated protestations of my beloved sister-in-law), with the most important task of switching off stoves and lights during Shabbat dinners. I not only embraced the new post with the immense pleasure I get with helping whenever possible, but also, to adhere to my own vital desire to minimize as much as possible my existential and ecological footprint. Short of saving the world, I was saving electricity, and at least fighting global warming!

However, it is not without deep anxiety that I learned recently that my days as a Shabbat Goy In Chief might be counted and that I could indeed lose the job I faithfully carried out for the last twenty years. As many in our post-industrial society, I am about to become redundant, mercilessly replaced by technology – and, perhaps like me, thousands of disenfranchised Shabbat goys around the world.

Unknown to many, God was a bit of a handy man in his spare time. He famously boasted to having built an IKEA bookshelf in 5 days without even reading the instructions, and entirely in the dark! “That’s right, man,” he bragged. “Without instructions!” As it is said; “In the beginning, God created an IKEA bookshelf in 5 days.” (Genesis 1:31).

On the sixth day, carried away by his divine success, and newly acquired screw driving skills, God said, “Let there be light!” And suddenly realized that on the floor around him were some leftover screws and bolts from his first handiwork. Retrospectively, God admitted that he could have probably taken a bit more time and attention, since his other creations ended up quite a bit wobblier and defective than his first IKEA shelving unit.

In the year 1194, Moshe Ben Mamon, a remarkable rabbi commented on the prohibition of creating sources of lights during the Jewish sabbath. He famously predicted: “One day, the Messiah will come and bring us the true light that will shine upon all of us eternally. Or, he added with undeniable premonition, an Israeli startup will come up with some clever workaround switch, sell it to IBM and make a lot of money.”

And here we are. The messiah has not even called and yet the perfect Shabbat light switch seems to have indeed been invented. Nothing short of a miracle, if you ask me … or, as the Union would say, a catastrophe of biblical proportions that will throw thousands of our goyim members out of employment …


To read more about the Jewish Question, please refer to the brilliant article written by Daniel Horowitz: Réflexions sur les Réflexions sur la Question Juive de Sartre.

“Light switches for Dummies,” or “How to circumvent 5000 years-old biblical laws with modern-day technology?” Article posted on the Times of Israel website on April 17, 2015.

Please note, for those who did not realize, that the tone and content of this piece is voluntarily satirical and excessive, along the lines often transgressed by Mel Brooks or Monty Python. As I often say: “Qui bene amat, bene taquinat” (He who loves well, teases well). I certainly hope I did not offend anyone with humour, particularly the Jewish friends and loved ones I cherish, respect and deeply admire – despite some philosophical divergences.

About Michel Botman

Michel Botman was born in Belgium, where visual arts have always flirted with the limits of reality. In the eighties, Michel Botman started exploring the first tools to manipulate images though computers. For about 15 years, Michel Botman worked throughout Europe in the emerging field of Computer Applications for the Graphic Arts. Extensive experience in Digital Imaging allowed Michel to move into the field of computerized systems for Diagnostic Imaging. As VP Sales & Marketing for eSys Medical and later with Eclipsys, Michel Botman always remained dedicated to the creativity and innovation that are at the heart of his career. At the present time, Michel Botman is refocusing his life towards graphic arts. “I studied photography in Europe, but never had time to practice it enough. Life took me on other paths towards computer technologies and running a business. I enjoyed it very much, but I also love art. I always keep my eyes open for exciting opportunities and people that touch my heart.” Michel Botman currently lives between Toronto, Canada and Bangkok, Thailand. Above Gravatar pictures are of Michel Botman and his son Noah Botman.
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