I'm delighted to have an essay in Zeek once again. This essay owes a tremendous debt to Rabbi Irwin Kula and to the text study session in which he led my cohort of Rabbis Without Borders Fellows at our February gathering. The essay (like the text study session) looks at the Talmudic figure of Rabbi Meir as a paragon of post-triumphalism and a role model for striving to see through / beyond binary distinctions.
Here's a taste:
Talmud teaches (Eruvin 13b) that in the generation of Rabbi Meir there was none equal to him. He was the best mind of his generation, bar none. Why, then (the sages ask) was the halacha not fixed according to his insights? Because his insights were so deep that no one else could fathom them. “He would declare the ritually unclean to be clean and supply plausible proof, and the ritually clean to be unclean and supply plausible proof.”
The categories of tahor and tamei, clean and unclean (or, susceptible to ritual impurity, and not-susceptible to ritual impurity), were foundational to the sages of the Talmud. This was one of the primary binary distinctions through which they understood their world. And Rabbi Meir saw right through it.
A lot of progressive Jews are squeamish about the whole idea of tahor and tamei. (I’ve been there myself: what do you mean, the blood my healthy uterus generates every month makes me unclean?) Our discomfort with that system may get in the way of appreciating just how radical Rabbi Meir was.
But try this on for size: imagine looking at a staunch Republican and being able to see the Democratic values that person nonetheless holds. (And vice versa.) Imagine someone who could perceive the relativism beneath the most fundamentalist exterior — and the fundamentalism to which even the most relativist may be prone. In our modern paradigm, I think these are translations of what Rabbi Meir did and who he was in the world.
You can read the whole thing at Zeek: Being Meir.