(Modern) Jewish Studies in China

kaifeng synagogue

Cousin Joseph Burman stumbled across my letter to Aaron Hughes in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the state of Jewish Studies. Since I think this is relevant to the place of Jewish Studies in the university, I want to mention that Joe is Director of Prospect Identification and Strategies in the office of Development, Marketing and Communications at the University of Michigan. Joe was kind enough to forward me this link here about Jewish Studies today in China. Appearing also in the Chronicle of Higher Education it was written in 2006 by Paul Mooney writing from Jinan, China.

As Jewish Studies scholars, hopefully with the help of sympathetic university administrators, continue to try to figure out how to project the field out into the world, China seems profoundly relevant. Mooney’s article focuses on Avrum Erhlich and Xu Xin at Nanjing University, where I’m told the interests are primarily historical and literary, and Fu Youde at Shandong University, where the interest in Jews, Judaism, and Jewish Studies is weighted more towards philosophy and thought. For what it’s worth, I know a number of colleagues have made it out to China of late, and there seems to be great excitement. Friend-colleague Greg Kaplan, who has worked and spent more time in China than anyone I know has met these guys and thinks very highly of them.

What I want to do here is pick through and organize Mooney’s article to try to get a sense of what’s going on, with Aaron’s argument very much in mind about the need to open up Jewish Studies to the world. This is as much about marketing as it is about intellectual content. I’m interested in two things. [1] Why Jews, Judaism, and Jewish Studies in China? [2] What might Jewish Studies in China teach us in the United States, Israel, and Europe about Jews, Judaism, and Jewish Studies?

The interest in Jews, Judaism, and Jewish Studies looks like it’s a mini micro-trend. But in China, the scale is as such that even something small, relatively to the larger population, can turn out to be something huge.

I’ll turn to the second question later, but as a stab at a partial answer to the first question, it seems that the interest in China regarding Jews, Judaism, and Jewish Studies has to do with China itself and its own place in the world. These interests include empire, modernity, America as mediated through things not unrelated to the Confucian tradition such as literature, religion, and philosophy.


Mooney writes, “The enthusiasm for studying Judaism… reflects a growing interest in that religion elsewhere in China as well, both in academe and in popular culture. Along with Shandong, 10 other Chinese universities now offer courses in Jewish studies. Not answered by Mooney, but you can pull out a sense of what’s going on from his article.” As if to prove a point made by David Nirenberg in Anti-Judaism, it would seem that with philo-Judaism  as well, Judaism constitutes a concept with which to “figure” out or model one’s own sense of the world. Part of this has to do with new perspectival horizons. Mooney quotes Professor Xu, “My students are excited because they’ve never heard these things before…They never thought they could view life in this way.”  But that doesn’t answer the question as to Judaism. But again, why Judaism? I found this remark here by Professor Fu interesting, “Unlike Christianity, Judaism opposes to worshipping God as its foundation,” said Prof. Fu. “In fact, the Jews aren’t necessarily very religious individuals.” My guess is that more than Christianity, Judaism bears feature in common with Confucianism, and that what’s at stake here is an interest in religious culture.


Confucianism and the textual approach to a classical tradition are both key here. Mooney writes, “Pop into any of the classrooms in the building that houses the School of Philosophy and Social Studies on Shandong’s tree-shaded campus and you are likely to see students reading the Bible in Hebrew, conjugating Hebrew verbs, thumbing through the Talmud — a centuries-old collection of Jewish law and commentary — or debating the similarities between Judaism and Confucianism.”  Writing about Porfessor Xin, Mooney continues, “He also marveled at Jewish friends who regularly read the Talmud and the Torah ‘just for the love of learning,’ comparing them with Chinese colleagues, who, he says, learn just to pass exams or get better jobs. ‘How many Chinese scholars read Confucian classics every day?’ he asks.”

As for ProfessorFu from Shandong, Mooney explains that he “sees Confucianism, the social philosophy that shaped the thinking and behavior of Chinese for centuries, as playing a role similar to that which Judaism played for Jews. Although many Chinese do not deem Confucianism a religion, Mr. Fu argues that Chinese are thirsty for religion and a spiritual way of life, and that the country is a ‘hotbed for Confucianism to take root, sprout, and grow up.’Indeed, Confucianism has enjoyed a revival in China in recent years, with scholars dusting off the writings of the man once vilified by the Communists for his “feudal” thinking, and universities offering courses in what is known as guoxue, or national studies.


More than Confucianism, what seems to matter more is this relation between religion, culture, and “national studies,” or modernity. About this, Mooney writes, “In the early 20th century, Chinese intellectuals, who were keen to see China modernize, looked to the Jewish experience for inspiration. In the 1920s, Yiddish literature provided an example for the development of vernacular Chinese. And Sun Yat-sen, father of the Chinese Republican revolution, praised the Zionist movement as a model for popular independence.

Literature and Philosophy

I’m willing to bet that for many scholars, inside and outside China, who don’t grown up in a text-heavy Jewish religious milieu, the gateway into Jewish Studies tends to be based on literature or philosophy. About Xu Xin, Mooney relates, “He was in high school when the Cultural Revolution began, and at the age of 18 was sent to the countryside to work for two years. He entered Nanjing University in 1973 as a worker-peasant-soldier and graduated three years later. As academic life returned to normal, Mr. Xu focused his attention on post-World War II American literature. He was particularly attracted to American Jewish writers. In other words, Professor Xu’s gateway into Jewish Studies was the postwar American scene after the calamity of the Cultural Revolution in China. American Jewish writers opened for him the world of Jewish culture and Judaism as a way perhaps to understand his own country.

For Professor Fu, the gateway into Jewish Studies was philosophy. Mooney prsents Fu relating “a similar tale of an accidental discovery and a rapid growth in interest and academic enterprise. Mr. Fu, who is China’s leading expert on George Berkeley, the 18th-century Irish philosopher, was invited to work on a project to translate the works of Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century philosopher of Jewish background, into Chinese.”

What I would observe in both cases is the non-orthodox entry-point into the larger field of Jewish Studies.  It wasn’t Talmud or medievalism, and it wasn’t history per se. In these two particular stories, it was American Jewish fiction and the so-called heretic Baruch Spinoza who opened the door for these two scholar-colleagues into Jewish Studies, and, to consider it more broadly, Jewish modernity and the modern confluence of religion, culture, and secularism. Maybe that’s what makes sense in China. Maybe that’s how it looks. Why literature and why philosophy? Perhaps it has to do with scale. Images and concepts are more generalizable, more recognizable than the mass of empirical detail that defines historical study, and as such, they allow more ease of access into unfamiliar terrain.

Personal Ties and Patronage

I do not want to belabor this point, but nor would I underestimate the importance of personal ties and patronage in the development of academic disciplines. In his article, Mooney describes Professor Xu’s visits to the United States, his forging of personal ties with colleagues and members of the Jewish community. Xu set up the China Judaic Studies Association with the help of prominent American Jews, and the Glazer Center for Judaic Studies at Nanjing University was built with donations from American and British Jews. It’s too easy to forget that money and capital are fundamental aspects of the modern experience, and that nothing happens without these kinds of flows and currents. About this kind of cultural investment, there’s nothing to be apologetic.


I’m not sure what to make of this claim, but Mooney mentions it in his article, so I’ll mention it too. We saw this a lot with the postmodern romance with midrash in the 1980s and 1990s. It is suggested that one of the things that makes Judaism as a tradition appealing is the idea of open criticism. We see this idea at work in Mooney’s article as well. “’Chinese citizens can also benefit from adopting the Jewish notion of critical but constructive self-examination, says Mr. Ehrlich.’ Many Chinese are fascinated with the absence of censorship, the liberal criticism heaped on Jewish protagonists, the lack of uniformity in thinking and practice, and the high degree of innovation exuding from the Jewish experience,’ he argues. ‘They are curious about how the Jews can remain united without consensus, without obsession with land, and without homogeneity of any sort.’” What I would say is that this idea or idyll of tradition and criticism is an integral part of the modern Jewish experience, if not the classical Jewish tradition per se.

Reform Judaism and Market Economy

Students of Jewish Modernity and Jewish thought will immediately note that Mooney describes Professor Mr. Fu as “quick to draw similar connections. He argues that of all peoples, the Jews have been the most successful in dealing with the challenges of modernity.”  While I myself might be less sure about this point, I would note that the interest here has to do less with tradition per se and more with its reform, less to do with Judaism per se and more to do with Reform Judaism.

The goal of Jewish reform … was to retain Jewish cultural identity by reserving Judaism while accepting modernity and merging into Western society,” he says. [Fu] sees the Reform movement in 19th-century Judaism as a model for China. The movement’s goal, he says, was to transform the Jew into a European, integrated into Western culture, who, at the same time, would remain faithful to his religion. ‘The Jews have modernized themselves materially,” he says, “living a modern life in Western countries on the one hand, and they have maintained their cultural identity — namely, their Jewishness — on the other.” As China has transformed its economy into a market system, Mr. Fu continues, Chinese people have grown perplexed about who they are.’ Most Chinese do not know what their cultural identity is and how to keep it,’ he says. ‘In short, they have lost their ‘Chineseness’ and are soulless.’”

Neo-Neo Confucianism

As for the image I selected, it’s not a copy or a photograph of “the real thing,” but rather a model at Beit Ha’tefutsot of the Kaifeng Synagogue. As a model, there’s a simulacral quality to its appearance. Maybe at play is not Confucianism and not medieval Neo-Confucianism, but a contemporary form of what one might call neo-neo Confucianism. At least in the case of Professor Fu, that seems to be very much in play as scholars and students in China begin to take a serious look at Jews, Judaism, and Jewish Studies, as shaped not by Jewish cultural perspectives and contexts, but from perspectives and contexts specific to contemporary China.

It may be that students of Jewish Studies have something, a little, or a lot to offer to students of China, particularly in relation to the modern experience. From my own perspective as an American Jew, I am just as interested to see and to figure out what Jews, Judaism, and Jewish Studies might take away in terms of changed perspectives and orientations, as we open the field to the shape-shifting alternative points of view generated by different historical and cultural connections and contexts. About this, more tomorrow.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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