When 14 is better than 24 karat

Does yin-yang, the Chinese dualistic philosophy that asserts opposite forces (e.g., light and dark, hot and cold, male and female) are actually complementary, have a Jewish corollary?  Yes, tahor-tameh, pure-impure.

Though Judaism draws a sharp line between tahor and tameh, each underscores the necessity of the other.  In terms of Jewish observance, tameh isn’t pejorative but simply reflective of one’s ritual state at a given time.

A woman in menses is considered tameh, something associated with her intrinsic nature.  Due to the blood that is released, childbirth also renders her tameh.  The birth of a child is to be celebrated.  There is nothing invidious about it.

The essential character of tahor-tameh has prompted considerable rabbinic commentary since ancient times.  While seemingly quite removed from the two, perhaps an appreciation of the composition of precious metals can shed helpful light on the relationship.

While most of us own gold in the form of jewelry it isn’t likely pure but rather 10, 14 or 18 karat, corresponding to 42, 58 and 75 percent.  Why are there so few 24 karat (100%) gold-rendered rings and bracelets?  Because the purer a precious metal, the softer and more difficult it is to work with.  Items made of purer forms of gold are much more susceptible to bending, dents and scratches.  Therefore, in order to increase gold’s durability it is combined with another metal (alloy) like copper or nickel.

The same is true in regard to pure silver.  Alloys are required to increase its strength.  Sterling silver, usually combined with copper, is 92% pure.  A silver plated object has a decidedly lower amount of pure silver in it.  Just like executing pieces with pure gold and silver present formidable challenges, so does remaining in the state of tahor.  Ritually speaking, for both men and women, it is virtually impossible.

Yom Kippur (when the Torahs as well as ourselves are garbed in white and the purity of the day is epitomized by the long, consummate tekiah gedolah that concludes it), represents the purest expression of Jewish religious observance.  But we can’t live in it 365 days.  The holiest of Jewish holy days serves to remind, inspire and hallow Jewish value, not call for us to try to inhabit it throughout the year.

In terms of moral purity, unadulterated virtue is also inconceivable.  Ethical behavior, particularly in a free society, involves entering an often imperfect world to perform acts of tikkun olam, not withdrawing from it in order to preserve a perceived immaculate character.  We take our gold, i.e. our convictions, into the fray to combine it with the righteous alloys of others to fashion a more stable, equitable and hopeful society.

The gold in us still retains its purity, but its utility is given greater possibility.  As a Chinese proverb aptly puts it: “Real gold is not afraid of the melting pot.”  Indeed, it glitters that much more in the darkness.

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