Modern Confucian Jewish Thought

shandong univesity

Let’s assume that the difference between Confucianism and Judaism in their classical articulations is deep indeed. For his part, Youde Fu of Shandong University identifies theological anthropomorphism and ethical heteronomy as distinctive features that distinguish the two traditions. Let’s also assume, if only for the moment, that Fu has not overstated these topoi in the history of Judaism in this interview that I found here online at the Brandeis student newspaper The Justice. What I’d like to pursue in a quick sort of way in this little post is the possibility that starting in the 17th and 18th century modern Jewish thought has become more “Chinese” than heretofore imagined.

“The existence of a single deity is the most fundamental concept in Judaism…He is creator of the world.” Although the concept of Heaven in Confucianism corresponds to the Jewish concept of God, Fu explained that, unlike the Jewish God, Heaven has no human characteristics. Furthermore, he said, Confucianism emphasizes the role of nature gods, ghosts and spirits. The two faiths also differ in that Confucianism tends to focus on self-discipline, while Judaism emphasizes man’s faith in God. In Judaism, Fu said, “man’s moral motive comes not from within, but from fear of an external power.” In Confucianism, man behaves correctly “because he wants to.” “God functions as both the basis and the goal of Jewish ethics,” he continues. “In Confucianism, the ultimate goal is to be a good man.”

Fu draws a distinction between classical Confucianism and the classical Jewish tradition. It seems to me, though, that the model of Confucian suggested here has a deep resonance with aspects of modern Jewish philosophy and modern Judaism. While unlike in so many obvious ways, Confucianism might illuminate significant parts great and small in the thought of Spinoza and Mendelssohn. I’m tempted to add Buber, Kaplan, and Richard Rubenstein, and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. I would also keep in mind Fu is very interested in Reform Judaism as a model for religious-cultural reconstruction and renewal.

Without exactly matching up with any one of these modern Jewish thinkers in every way with Confucianism, the more general significant points of contact are, in my opinion, these: [1] a non-theistic, non-anthropomorphic form of cosmo-theology, [2] nature, naturalism, and a natural attitude, [3] ethics based on immanent and anthropocentric frames of legitimating principles.

Here’s what I think a more explicit kind of generalized Confucianism and medieval neo-Confucianism would bring to Jewish philosophy:  a vastness of cosmic scope and sweeping scale, a confident knowing of place in the center of the cosmos and in society, a more clear-eyed balance brought to things both profane and sacred.

Here’s what Jewish philosophy would lose or modulate in the encounter: the personal and the subjective, the sense that, yes, this all depends upon me qua subject, my responsibility vis-à-vis God and my uncomfortable place vis-à-vis other people, the sensed realization that one’s condition always hangs upon a thread.


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.
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