Moshe Shoshan

Moshe Shoshan is a scholar and teacher of rabbinic literature. His primary interest is in the intersection of narrative studies, literaray theory and rabbinic literature.  His work has also dealt with fundamental issues of the nature of rabbinic law and its conception of rabbinic authority. His recent book Stories of the Law: Narrative discourse and the construction of authority in the Mishnah  (Oxford 2012),  offers a new perspective on the Mishnah by look at it through the lens of narrative theory. Among his major conclusions is that the Mishanh needs to viewed as a political work dealing with the question of rabbinic authority. Dr. Shoshan holds a bachelors  degree in comparative literature from Princeton University and a masters and doctorate in Judaic Studies from the  University of Pennsylvania. He also studied as a Fulbright scholar at the Hebrew University. He currently teaches courses in Rabbinic literature and ancient Biblical interpretation at the Hebrew Universities Rothberg International School. 

Truth, Violence and the Law: A Political Reading of the Story of the Oven of Achnai

The story of “The Oven of Achnai” in Bavli Baba Metzia 59a-59b is perhaps the most famous and most analyzed story in the entire rabbinic corpus. Most interpreters of the story have focused on Rabbi Joshua’s famous declaration that the law “is not in heaven,” and read this story as being focused on philosophical and theological questions such as the nature of truth and the relationship between humans and God in the development of the law. More recently several scholars have called attention to the fact that when read in its larger context, it becomes clear that the story has a deeply ethical agenda as well. It also seeks to teach us about the importance of proper interpersonal relations. While I accept both these theological and ethical approaches to the story, I argue that at its heart the story needs to be understood as being fundamentally about the realm of politics.

In this talk I will argue that the essential themes of the Oven of Achnai story are concerned with the question of the role of violence in political discourse. The conflict between Rabbi Eliezer and the rabbis is in large part a political struggle. At stake is not simply the rabbis varying legal opinions but their freedom and their very lives. The story looks at both physical violence and social-psychological violence, violence that is legally sanctioned as well as that which operates beyond the norms of the community. In the process the story confronts the tension between the right to individual dissent and the need for majority rule that exists in all democratic communities. Among the lessons we learn from this story is that for the rabbis, the political community is an inherently unstable entity which can be managed, but not fully controlled. Furthermore there is an inevitable price to be paid by those who engage in violence, even when such activity is morally justified. Finally, it illustrates the rabbinic belief that fundamental theological and epistemological questions can only be considered with in their broader ethical and political contexts.