STORIES OF THE LAW: NARRATIVE DISCOURSE AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF AUTHORITY IN THE MISHNAH.
By Moshe Simon-Shoshan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. 304 pp.
Moshe Simon-Shoshan's Stories of the Law: Narrative Discourse and the Construction of Authority in the Mishnah is a rich, innovative and thoughtful book. In a wonderful and rare blend of theoretical sophistication, nuanced textual readings, and philological sensitivity, Simon-Shoshan creates a new lens through which to read the Mishnah, a lens which seeks to reveal the underlying jurisprudential presuppositions of the Mishnah via the analysis of its narrativity.
Stories of the Law is divided into two parts. Part 1 opens in chapter 2 with Simon-Shoshan's definition of narrativity. According to Simon-Shoshan, narrativity refers to two textual attributes: the dynamic portrayal of change in a text and the reference in a text to a specific time, place, event, individual or object. His definition of narrativity rejects the traditional dichotomy between law and narrative (and, similarly, that between halakhah and aggadah) since, according to his definition, all texts exist on a narrativity spectrum where a text's measure of narrativity is determined by the number and prominence of its narrative attributes. Through the lens of narrativity, Simon-Shoshan proposes anew approach to the study of legal stories and legal texts more generally.
In chapter 3, Simon-Shoshan presents a nonexhaustive typology of the numerous forms of narrativity in the Mishnah. From low-level narrative literary forms such as apodictic statements and speech acts to full-fledged stories, such as case stories and exempla, Simon-Shoshan surveys a wide range of literary forms on the narrativity continuum. Then, in chapter 4, he illustrates how his typology enables one to map out the narrative topography of the Mishnah, that is, he demonstrates how his classifications can be used to separate the flowing Mishnaic text into distinct strata defined by their measure of narrativity. In chapter 5, Simon-Shoshan goes on to contextualize the Mishnah's narrative topography, arguing that, as a whole, the Mishnah embodies a relatively high level of narrativity that is in line with that of roughly contemporary Roman legal traditions and far greater than that of biblical, Qumranic, or Near Eastern legal texts.
A narrative theorist might be interested in the narrative topography of the Mishnah for its own sake or, perhaps, for stylistic or aesthetic reasons, but Simon-Shoshan has a different goal. For him, the ultimate object of mishnaic study is the meanings we can elicit from the text, and therefore he seeks to show in chapter 4 how Mishnaic topography can enrich our readings of the Mishnah. In order accomplish this goal, Simon-Shoshan posits the idea that "the varying degrees of narrativity in the Mishnah reflect the Mishnah's rhetorical and ideological complexities." This assumption rests on a Bakhtinian literary approach which seeks to delineate the distinct voices or "dialects" of a text and avers that each dialect reflects a different worldview. For Simon-Shoshan, the different levels of narrativity in the Mishnah are akin to Bakhtin's dialects and reflect distinct and contrasting worldviews. In other words, he suggests that the Mishnah "presents an open ended dialog between a series of different forms" (of varying degrees of narrativity) "and the worldviews they represent."
What distinct worldviews are reflected in the various literary forms outlined in chapter 3? Simon-Shoshan suggests in chapter 4 that narrative legal texts lean towards a narrative conception of the law and narrative theory of jurisprudence, while apodictic legal texts favor an apodictic approach to the law and apodictic theory of jurisprudence. "Apodictic views of law see law as a 'thing,' a body of norms that exist independently of any individual or community. In such a system a judge is 'an authority'... In contrast, a narrative view of law see(s) law more as an 'activity,' which has no existence outside of the individuals and communities that practice it... In this view, a judge is not 'an authority' but 'in authority.'" Thus, for Simon-Shoshan, the juxtaposition of varied literary forms in the Mishnah brings the apodictic and narrative jurisprudential theories into conflict and dialogue with one another.
Although Simon-Shoshan acknowledges that a specific legal form does not necessarily always reflect a single and particular jurisprudential theory, he maintains that in cases when an apodictic text reflects a narrative conception or vice versa, a dialogue is "generated by the at times uneasy relationship between the form that a Mishnaic law takes and the motivations that appear to underlie the ruling." Presumably, texts whose literary forms do not reflect the anticipated jurisprudential theory are rare exceptions to the rule that apodictic texts reflect apodictic conceptions and narrative texts narrative conceptions; otherwise, Simon-Shoshan's very presupposition of the link between literary form and jurisprudential theory would be at risk. In any event, Simon-Shoshan's presentation of narrative and apodictic conceptions of the law makes perfectly clear the type of meaning he hopes to wrest from the Mishnah via the analysis of its narrative topography. He seeks to bring to light the open-ended dialogue between contrasting jurisprudential theories which he believes undergird the varying levels of narrativity in the Mishnah.
In part 2 of the book, Simon-Shoshan focuses on stories of the Mishnah and offers close readings of a range of Mishnaic stories. Among the stories he interprets are some of the most well-known stories in all of the Mishnah, such as that of Honi Hame'agel, the murder in the temple and the dispute between Rabban Gamaliel and Rabbi Yehoshua over the determination of the new moon. His readings synthesize close and careful attention to the Mishnaic text, deployment of illuminating literary theories, and a consistent attempt to reveal the dialogue between contrasting jurisprudential theories underlying the Mishnaic text.
Unlike part 1, part 2 does not sustain a single overarching argument but rather highlights a recurring theme: the open-ended dialogic interactions between the Mishnah's voices and their contrasting worldviews. In addition, though part 2 is informed by the theoretical work of part 1, it is not dependent on part 1; each chapter in part 2 can stand on its own as an independent study. As a whole, the two parts of the book complement each other and together they keep the promise of the book's subtitle, seeking to reveal the construction of authority in the Mishnah via the analysis of its narrative discourse. For anyone interested in rabbinic literature or ancient Jewish history, Simon-Shoshan's tour de force is a must read.
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2017|
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