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Rosh Hashanah

A couple of months ago, I joined in a moment of mass ridicule. The occasion was a front-page article in The New York Times about ultra-Orthodox women burning $2,000 wigs because the hair had been traced to idolatrous Hindu rites. How peculiar, we thought.

The deeper peculiarity, however, was not my reaction to wigs and idolatry, but to the notion of the tainted. The very idea seemed so anachronistic, so superstitious: Why care about a thing’s origins rather than its present usefulness? We also made sure to proclaim our moral impatience: Why the waste? Why not at least donate the defiled objects to charity or, in the case of those wigs, give them to women who have cancer?

But this easy dismissal of the tainted comes at a cost to our moral and intellectual lives. In this season of New Year reflection and ferocious political debate, we need to re-examine why the integrity of sources does matter after all.

The Jewish legal tradition can help. The principle of asar-b’hanah prohibits benefit from contaminated conception. As you might expect, the Talmud’s particulars are complex. Only certain objects and activities preclude profit. Only certain designated advantages are forbidden. The means of disposal are various. Ownership of disallowed items is a matter of rabbinic dispute. We should note that American law, too, recognizes this classification in rendering “tainted evidence” inadmissible.

Other Jewish customs also thread fine distinctions in the use of sullied derivation. For example, you might come upon sacred Sabbath hymns sung to “Puff the Magic Dragon” or some other secular melody, but you’re unlikely to hear a cantor adapt a Christian hymn for his Friday night prayers.

Nuances aside, the underlying concept of asar-b’hanah cuts against the grain of contemporary future-oriented, consequentialist thinking. It asserts that not all value is practical value. Source is significant. Provenance counts.

We intuitively understand this. After World War II, the international medical community reached an important consensus: They would make no use of data obtained from the horrific experiments performed by Nazi doctors. The information was blemished, fatally asar-b’hanah. The use of “blood money” from German reparations posed a more agonizing dilemma. Were these funds beyond redemption, as well, or did present needs allow, even demand, exploiting this resource? Another quandary: Is it more admissible for Jewish institutions to accept these donations than it is for individual survivors to accept them — or less so? Israel now faces a related predicament regarding accepting funds from Christian evangelists who support the country to further their own missionary goals.

The dilemma of the tainted tracks our personal lives, as well. Alas, we are continually reminded that even the morally vile are capable of producing pivotal ideas and sublime art. Heisenberg’s equations stand despite his wartime activities, and Pound’s fascist rants do not vitiate the poetic significance of his cantos. Surely, goes the argument, we can’t reject culture’s great creations just because of the bigotry of its creators. Are we to turn off our radios when Wagner comes on? Throw out our copies of Celine and Marx and Proudhon, and T.S. Eliot and Jung and Solzhenitsyn, and Woodrow Wilson — and on and on?

The question is not rhetorical — we have decisions to make. For example, recent Nobel laureate José Saramago is a master of expansive phrasing, but his talent suddenly disappears in his shriveled antisemitic attacks on Israel — reason enough for me to buy some other author’s book for my weekend read. So too, in these days of hypersensitivity, I avoid the songs of Theodorakis, an old favorite but another persistent Israel basher.

Aesthetic experiences require a degree of intimacy, and we’re reluctant to “lose ourselves” in art created by artists with prejudices we find unconscionable. Extreme hypotheticals highlight this aversion: No matter how outstanding the work, could we blithely revel in the poetry of Hitler or the music of Mengele?

The need for trust is even more pressing in the intellectual arena; here the personal and the theoretical are messily entwined . I’ve long been wary of taking the philosophical hand of a Heidegger that was also raised in eager salute to the Fuhrer.

To be sure, this comes at a cost. You can’t exclude all the bad folk without depleting your cultural sustenance. But sometimes — and let’s be clear, these are personal and shifting calls — the taintedness is so discomforting, you’d rather do without.

But we need to be on guard in the opposite direction, as well. It’s tempting to point to polluted origins when it suits our purposes, and nowhere is this more evident than in our political exchanges. “How can you spout the views of Patrick Buchanan and the Christian fundamentalists?” someone shouts. “Well, you sound like Noam Chomsky and those other anti-American left-wingers,” the other responds. Intoxicated by political rage, we wantonly and regularly commit the logical sin of ad hominem, attacking the source rather than the argument. For of course, theories, policies and logic are not invalidated because the wrong people espouse them, nor validated because the right people do. Who defends what should give us pause, but not conclusions.

If all these distinctions leave us in murky territory, we’re in the right place. Judgments about the tainted are difficult, both communally and individually. Nonetheless, in recognizing that some things are indeed asar-b’hanah, we proclaim that our lives are not entirely determined by the pragmatic or the exhilarating. On those occasions when “purity” matters, origins matters. There are times when we need to discard our own tainted wigs.

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