By RABBI JOSEPH H. PROUSER
Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg was born in Worms, Germany 800 years ago, in or around the year 1220. He was a great communal leader, Talmudist, Tosafist, and liturgical poet. He maintained a yeshivah at his own expense, training many students who themselves went on to become leading rabbinic luminaries. Prominent among these was “the Rosh” – Rabbeinu Asher ben Yechiel.
Rabbi Meir was, infamously, kidnapped and held for ransom. The Rosh led the effort to raise the exorbitant 20,000 marks demanded for his release. Rabbi Meir, however, would not allow the ransom to be paid. He explained that if such extortion were rewarded, an epidemic of hostage taking would ensue. Many innocents would be endangered: subjected to imprisonment and held for ransom. Rabbi Meir stayed in prison until his death seven years later. His body was only returned for burial (in return for ransom) fourteen years after that.
Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg is remembered not for any single, major, rabbinic work… but for the volume of his scholarly productivity – especially during the confinement he willingly accepted upon himself in a principled effort to stave off the deadly epidemic he wisely foresaw and selflessly combatted. The ultimate act of social distancing!
Yehi Zichro Baruch. Rabbi Meir’s example of moral epidemiology is a blessing to us today.
(Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey and the former National Chaplain of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting.)