It’s not always easy to find role models in the classical Jewish tradition for the kind of post-triumphalist theology to which I aspire, a theology which presumes that no single religious tradition has “the only way” to access holiness. That’s not surprising. For a long time, triumphalism was the name of the game not only in our tradition but across the map. But a recent study session with Rabbi Irwin Kula of Rabbis Without Borders offered me an intriguing talmudic role model: Rabbi Meir.
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.
What would it mean to take Rabbi Meir as a role model? I don’t know if it’s really possible for me as a progressive to place myself in the shoes of someone on the far right. In the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, can I really put myself in the position of someone who fears that the government is trying to take away their guns? Given my theology of GLBT inclusion, can I really try to find the spark of holiness in the mindset of someone who thinks queerness is an abomination?
Rabbi Shaya Isenberg, one of my teachers in rabbinic school, used to caution us that as wonderful as ecstatic connection with God can be, no one can live in that mindset all of the time. I might strive for devekut, for cleaving-to and immersion-in, the Holy Blessed One, while I’m davening shacharit — but I’d better be a bit more worldly and a bit more boundary-conscious when I’m driving my car down the road.
Boundaries are real. Categories are real. I can’t drive my car while in mystical union with God. I can’t be a civic actor in my community (or any community) if I’m paralyzed by the deep wisdom that every position contains a grain of truth.
And yet. I think that learning to navigate the tension between one’s own cherished beliefs and someone else’s contradictory beliefs is a recipe for spiritual growth. Engaging in that wrestle may not change my own convictions, but if I can open myself up to the partial truth contained in the other side’s convictions, I’ll relate to my own truths in a different way.
There are times when my post-triumphalism bumps up against someone else’s deep-rooted sense that theirs is the only legitimate understanding of, or path to, holiness. Those moments push me. Can I expand my heart and my boundaries enough to include that person in my “us,” to honor the pearl of truth even in a position which would exclude me?
This isn’t easy spiritual work. And it’s made more difficult by the reality that this extension of self doesn’t often happen in both directions. Even if I’m willing to stretch myself to try to find the truth in the position with which I disagree, there’s no guarantee that the person who holds that position is willing or able to stretch to honor the truth in my point of view. I can almost guarantee you that most Tea Partiers aren’t interested in locating the truths in my support of the Dream Act.
But if I take my spiritual life seriously, I need to try to rise to the challenge of finding the spark of truth in the arguments with which I disagree. If Torah is as rich and expansive as the tradition claims (and as I believe it to be), then it needs to be more than just a bolster that we use to prop up our existing political opinions. One of the things Torah can be is an inspiration, an impetus, to keep spiritually stretching. Moshe didn’t make it to the Promised Land, but it gave him something to yearn toward, and he grew over the course of the journey.
It’s worth noting that Rabbi Meir didn’t do away with tahor and tamei. He didn’t argue that because he could see the pure in the impure and vice versa, the whole system ought to be scrapped. He lived within the binary system. But he also saw through it. His heart and soul were broad enough to encompass both the distinctions between “us” and “them,” and the reality that ultimately the distinctions are illusory.
It’s a kind of koan, a logical impossibility. And it’s one way of understanding what it would mean to reach enlightenment (which is arguably what Rabbi Meir’s name means — it comes from the root which denotes light.)
Enlightenment is being able to see the tamei within the tahor and the tahor within the tamei, without discarding the system altogether or going crazy from the cognitive dissonance.
Learning to embrace opposites, to see the truth in the “other side”’s point of view, may be the most important spiritual work of this moment in history. Our world grows ever-broader and more interconnected. Thanks to the connective possibilities of the internet (if we use it wisely and well), there are more opportunities than ever to encounter difference. The challenge is to figure out how to throw the spiritual windows wide and to stay rooted at the same time. Not to scrap the distinctions between us and them, but to bridge the distinctions and integrate them.
If that’s what it would mean to be the spiritual heir of Rabbi Meir, I’m willing to try.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat was ordained by ALEPH in 2011 and is a Rabbis Without Borders rabbinic fellow this year. Since 2003 she has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi; she is author of “70 Faces” (Phoenicia Publishing, 2011, a collection of Torah poems) and the forthcoming “Waiting to Unfold” (Phoenicia, 2013, poems about motherhood).
More articles by
More articles in
ZEEK is presented by The Jewish Daily Forward | Maintained by SimonAbramson.com