The Rabbis, the oven and the ostracism

The Talmudic story of Akhnai’s oven is one of the most famous and  misunderstood texts of the Jewish tradition.  One of its major themes is that Jewish religious decisions are made through majority rule, and no longer through divine revelation.  However, another major theme is that abusing others – in this case dissenters – is an offense against God.  This broader cautionary message of the story is too often ignored.

The part of the story usually quoted is found in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia, 59b.  Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus repeatedly invokes divine miracles and even God’s direct intervention to make his point to his colleagues that he is correct about a specific matter of Jewish law.  Each time he does this, the other sages reject his methods of proof.  Finally, when God declares that Rabbi Eliezer is correct, they respond that since the Torah is no longer in heaven, but given to us on earth, we no longer listen to heavenly authority when we make religious rulings.  At the end of the story, Elijah the prophet famously informs the rabbis that God laughed joyously when they rejected God’s arguments, declaring, “My children have defeated Me!”

The story emphasizes the rabbis’ inventive, bold assertion of their human interpretive authority over the Torah, as deeply religious people committed to Torah. Yet its larger literary and halakhic context (Bava Metzia 58b-59b) is about onaat devarim, the halakhic prohibition against verbal oppression, what we might call verbal bullying.  Right after this story, the Talmud relates how Eliezer’s colleagues declare everything he ruled ritually pure to be impure, then publicly excommunicate him.  The narrator explains repeatedly that Eliezer’s cries of pain from being abused reach God, resulting in death and destruction in the world, so great is God’s empathy with people wronged by words.  The text at one point does argue that majority rule and unanimity are so vital to communal solidarity, they at times warrant draconian punishments for dissenters.  However, that theme is dwarfed by the Talmud’s more forceful message decrying mistreatment of others, especially those who disagree with the majority. (My colleague, Professor Jeffrey Rubenstein, carefully analyzes the entire story in his excellent book, Talmudic Stories, from The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.)

A culture of dialogue in which dissenters’ rights are treated respectfully by the majority is obviously critical to the health and strength of democracies.  The story of Akhnai’s oven emphasizes that the promotion of civil disagreement is also critical to the health of the Jewish people.  Michael Kay, an American Jewish educator and education scholar, talks about the vital role that education for critical thinking and civil discourse can play in helping students to prepare themselves for contemporary Jewish and general life. He cites studies indicating how exposure to, and relationships with, those with whom you disagree or who are different from you – what he calls interactional pluralism – actually strengthens personal Jewish identity and values. (See Interactional pluralism creates educational environments in which people listen to one another, argue passionately but respectfully, sharpen personal perspectives and critical thinking, and, most important, learn to live in peace with each other.  This actually describes Jewish  tradition at its best and broadest, howbeit in a contemporary context.

To demonstrate interactional pluralism at work, Dr. Kay tells a story about a student of his who discovered that his future freshman roommate at college had posted virulently anti-Israel literature on Facebook. When he called the college to ask for a change of rooming assignment, his request was denied.  Educated in an actively pluralistic school environment, the young man called the roommate to introduce himself and to explain why he felt passionately about Israel and Her safety.  The two freshmen had a thoughtful discussion about history, politics and media bias, and later on the roommate actually removed the postings out of deference to his new friend.  They had reached a level of constructive dialogue, in part because this student had internalized the philosophy of interactional pluralism in a distinctive Jewish context.  He employed it successfully to influence someone to think more critically and to be more sensitive about how others feel about Israel.  The Jewish community could afford to take a page out of this young man’s playbook as one framework for our own most difficult internal conversations.

Dr. Kay’s story and our Talmudic narrative underscore that interactional pluralism is more than an educational or debate strategy.  It is a vital Jewish value which establishes a baseline of decency and civility for discussion and disagreement.  Pluralism is not equivalent to relativism, and an opinion should not be treated as valid merely for the sake of catch-all inclusiveness.   Thoughtful people should be able to subject it to rigorous analysis and scrutiny and then to validate or discredit it.  Yet discrediting an idea does not give a community carte blanche to ostracize the person who holds it.   As a historically marginalized minority that has built or helped to build two model democracies, we Jews understand the supreme danger of onaat devarim as a form of public policy.  Further, with a critically thinking tradition full of cautionary tales like Akhnai’s oven, we know that bullying dissenters can be ethically, intellectually and politically self-destructive.

Though they used their colleagues as their models, the rabbinic storytellers of the Talmud were unsparing in their criticism of any Jewish person or leader who speaks abusively towards others.  Their message for our balkanized Jewish community today is loud, harsh, and clear:  we need to learn to disagree civilly and kindly with one another. We need to avoid onaat devarim when conducting authentic Jewish debates, whether we are talking about Israel, religious values, or the Jewish community’s future.  Refusal to do so is the moral equivalent of putting our heads into an oven.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.