Why did Rabbi Meir’s colleagues not set halakhah according to him, even though “there was none like him in his generation”? The Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 13b asks, then supplies an answer:
שֶׁלֹּא יָכְלוּ חֲבֵירָיו לַעֲמוֹד עַל סוֹף דַּעְתּוֹ. שֶׁהוּא אוֹמֵר עַל טָמֵא טָהוֹר וּמַרְאֶה לוֹ פָּנִים, עַל טָהוֹר טָמֵא וּמַרְאֶה לוֹ פָּנִים
Because his colleagues could not fathom the depths his mind, for he would declare the ritually unclean to be clean and supply plausible proof, and the ritually clean to be unclean and also supply plausible proof. [Note: Lit: “show it a face.”]from Halakhah.com, which uses adapted Soncino translation
Eruvin 13b at Sefaria. Jewish Encyclopedia on Rabbi Meir
This explanation uses the phrase “mareh lo panim [מַרְאֶה לוֹ פָּנִים],” mentioned in the previous post, and translated above as “supply plausible proof,” with “panim” understood as a singular face. “Panim” is just as often read as plural, faces, as seen in some of the following other translations:
- In recent SVARA studies, we settled, as in the above translation, on “לוֹ [lo]” as referencing an “it” (to/for it), referring to the question at hand, i.e., that he “makes visible faces of it” or “shows to it facets.”
- In addition to referencing an “it,” however, “לוֹ” can also refer to “he/him,” as in a male human (or perhaps a non-human male animal). Thus, the Sefaria Crowd-Sourced Translation has “faces were turned on him.” There is no further note, specifying whether faces are turned with rapt attention, in confusion or annoyance, or in some other manner.
- The William Davidson translation (used in popular Koren/Steinsaltz edition), says “display justification” for this phrase. Some other translations use plural “proofs” or “justifications.”
Graphic descriptions below.
So, R’ Meir was offering some kind of multiplicity — involving different, or more varied, views and proofs — which hindered his colleagues from seeing their way clear to a ruling. Perhaps he was bringing his colleagues into unfamiliar territory or presenting his ideas in ways that were inaccessible to others. Maybe he exhausted their patience or the time available before practical considerations intervened. Might his colleagues have been able to reach a conclusion if he’d limited the number or range of facets? Would that have been better for the community? Or was he raising essential issues others were ignoring, by choice or by accident?
In short: Is propensity for “mareh lo panim [מַרְאֶה לוֹ פָּנִים]” an asset or a debit for the scholar and for the community? Might limits on this methodology be of benefit to the scholar and/or to all? Or would limits block something essential?
More on R’ Meir and Today
I have not found R’ Meir’s propensity for “mareh lo panim [מַרְאֶה לוֹ פָּנִים]” mentioned elsewhere, except in passages that seem to be quoting Eruvin 13b. If anyone knows of related passages, please share. The continuation of Eruvin 13b itself, however, includes more food for thought about R’ Meir’s methods…. more to come.
Meanwhile, some questions to consider —
Today, do we, consciously or not, limit the range and number of perspectives considered? What is the effect on individual scholars who may be expressing uncommon views? What is the effect on the community overall? What about a more cosmic view: Are we damaging something fundamental in limiting facets of Torah? Are we, on the other hand, prolonging debate when the time for action is at hand?
Graphic descriptions: 1) Clear solid icosahedron = “multifaceted”? (from photo by Peter Lomas via Pixabay) 2) Emoji faces with expressions which might be described as varieties of shock, annoyance, and confusion, plus “really!?” and “not again!” = “faces turned on him”? (variety of Pixabay sources). 3) Neuron network = “justification”? (image: Gerd Altman via Pixabay).