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Detailed History of Kaifeng Jews Part II

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II The Western Fascination with Kaifeng Jewry No summary of the history of the Jews of Kaifeng can ignore the great fervor and widespread religious speculations that were evoked in the West by the news of their "discovery" in 1605 by Matteo Ricci, particularly throughout Catholic theological circles. The kehillah itself, however, was apparently never aware of the strange uses to which the mere revelation of its existence was quickly put in that remote barbarian corner of the world called Europe. In 1628, the first of the several Jesuit mission houses that functioned intermittently in Kaifeng was established by Father Francois Sambiasi. From statements made by the Kaifeng Jews in the early 1720s we know that at least two of his successors, Fathers Rodriguez de Figueiredo and Christiano Enriquez, were received as guests in the synagogue some decades before that time; and from this we may infer that meetings with other resident missionaries were not infrequent. In view of the special interest of these men in the proselytization of their Jewish townspeople, the total absence of contemporary reports in either the Jesuit or Jewish records indicating the baptism of even a single Jew suggests that the kehillah was by then more cognizant of the differences between Judaism and Christianity than either Ai Tian or Ricci's rabbinical correspondent had been, and that its members responded negatively to the conversionary entreaties of the missionaries. In fact, the earliest known direct report during this period of meetings in Kaifeng between Jew and Jesuit is dated 1704 and comes from the hand of the Jesuit priest Jean-Paul Gozani, whose motivation for making contact with the kehillah went far beyond the conventional limits of missionary endeavor. Surprisingly -and even more important to him than converting the city's Jews-his primary reason for dealing with them was to secure certain information that might help persuade the Vatican to approve the Jesuit Order's grandiose plans for the mass proselytization of the Chinese people. What is even more surprising is that Gozani was instructed to obtain documentation from the Kaifeng synagogue that would presumptively clear the way for the second coming of Christ, and with that the dawning of the messianic age. One of the most vexing problems facing the Catholic Church in connection with its evangelical campaign in China was to decide how much of their old Confucian thoughts and ways of life presumptive candidates for baptism should be permitted to take with them if and when they actually embraced the Catholic faith. And if they were permitted to carry over certain of these Confucian tendencies, what, if anything, should later be done to counteract and eradicate these troublesome proclivities? This was by no means a new problem for the Church, for it had faced very much the same predicament in its dealings with forcibly converted Jews in Europe and in its missionary endeavors in India, Africa, the Americas, and elsewhere. What intrigued the Jesuits most was the manner in which the Kaifeng Jews had integrated certain Confucian customs into their own monotheistic religion. They felt it necessary, in addition, to find out which Chinese terms the Jews used to identify the Divinity (the Terms Question)--terms, they concluded, that if used by the Jews could be trusted to be entirely free from the taint of idolatry or polytheistic thought. The Jesuits, whose policy it was to define Confucianism as a way of life rather than as a religion, felt that if potential and newly acquired converts were denied the right to retain a fair number of their old familiar beliefs and practices, the Catholic campaign to Christianize China might never be brought to fruition. Here, however, they were completely at odds with their Dominican and Franciscan counterparts, who perceived the introduction into the Church of even the least jot of Confucian ideology to be fraught with danger and to border on heresy. Unlike the Jesuits, however, both the Dominicans and Franciscans insisted that the terms employed by the Chinese for the concept and name of God implied certain material attributes to Him that were utterly irreconcilable with Christian dogma. The polarization arising from this set of opposing views regarding the identification of Confucianism as either a pagan religion or as a code of morals that had been deeply ingrained in the minds of the vast majority of the inhabitants of China gave rise to a bitterly divisive dispute that is known to ecclesiastical historians as the Chinese Rites Controversy. This dispute was not resolved until 1939, when the decision was made to adopt the position advocated by the Jesuits. By that time, however, the effort to convert China had been brought to a standstill. The nation, then being invaded by the Japanese and split by civil war, was soon to be ruled by a movement that was unbendingly antagonistic to its indigenous theistic establishments, let alone to a new foreign faith. The door through which Catholicism hoped to enter China was now slammed shut. There was an additional reason for the Church's great interest in the Kaifeng community. Catholic theologians, followed shortly by Protestant thinkers, were eager to obtain one or more of the Torah scrolls owned by the Kaifeng synagogue. These men presumed, though erroneously, not only that the Jews had come to China before the beginning of the Christian era, but that they had almost from the time of their arrival in the country been utterly cut off from contact with the Jewish population of the rest of the world. It followed, then, that the texts in all the Torah scrolls owned by the Kaifeng synagogue must have been copied by the Chinese Jews from exemplars that were part of a chain of Torahs going back to those that were originally brought to Kaifeng by its first Jewish settlers. The Torah texts of the Kaifeng synagogue, it was therefore pointed out, could be expected to be identical with those of the Torahs that were in use throughout the Jewish world prior to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth-texts whose integrity successive generations of Christian theologians had been attacking ever since the 2nd century of the Common Era. These "pristine" Torahs, their argument went, had originally contained an array of passages foretelling the coming of the Christian messiah in language so specific that not even the most obdurate of Jews could fail to accept. The absence of such prophecies from the pre-Christian Jewish scriptures, they charged, could be explained quite simply-they had been blasphemously removed, or perhaps altered in meaning, by the rabbinical authorities during or slightly after the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. (Later, Islamic theologians would argue that since neither the Hebrew nor the Christian scriptures contained prophecies regarding the coming of Mohammed, it was obvious that both the rabbinical and the priestly establishments must have deliberately removed these from their respective texts.) It occurred to the Christian theologians that if a Torah from Kaifeng were brought to Europe and placed on open display there, its "pristine" contents could be relied upon to demonstrate to Jews everywhere that they had been shamefully betrayed by the ancient rabbinical authorities in whom they had so long put their trust. Such a demonstration, it was generally agreed, could be counted upon to open the eyes of the Jews and convince them to acknowledge Jesus as the true messiah the sine qua non and immediate prelude, as the Church had long taught, to his second coming and the redemption of mankind. With this overweening consideration in mind, the Jesuit missionaries Jean-Paul Gozani, Jean Domenge and Antoine Gaubil approached the Kaifeng Jews in the years between 1704 and 1723 and tried to buy several of their synagogal books, above all a Torah scroll. Unable to persuade the Jews to part with such treasures, they resorted, though unsuccessfully, to other tactics: two attempts by Domenge to bribe synagogal members and a scheme to have a friendly prince of the realm apply pressure on the Jews to turn over these writings to the Jesuit Order. Actually, the Jews had permitted both Domenge and Gaubil, each of whom had apparently mastered the basics of Hebrew, to look at the synagogal Torahs. However, the two missionaries had been disappointed, for the few passages they checked showed absolutely no indication of having been altered. Still, it was nearly a century and a half after their time in 1851, that is, when European scholars were at last privileged to examine the Kaifeng writings in detail that it was at last acknowledged that no difference whatsoever existed between the Kaifeng biblical texts and those that could be bought in Jewish and Christian bookstores throughout the world. Whereas Christian intellectual circles were roused to enthusiasm, however misdirected, by the revelation of the presence of an ancient Jewish enclave in the depths of China, the Jewish theological reaction to this news might be characterized as indifferent. In 1650, it is true, the celebrated Amsterdam rabbi Manasseh ben Israel mentioned Kaifeng Jewry several times in his widely circulated Hope of Israel, while attempting to convince Oliver Cromwell's Puritan regime to permit the Jews to return to England, from which they had been expelled in 1289. Manasseh observed, almost parenthetically, that the Torah texts of Kaifeng established the fact that the Scriptures of the Jews could not have been rewritten in any way that might be taken as a ploy for concealing the coming of Christianity's savior. To date, historians have been unable to retrieve even a single subsequent allusion to Kaifeng from the wealth of the Jewish literature written prior to the late 18th century. One must concede, of course, that it is scarcely possible that the Jewish writers of that period, fascinated as they were by the many stories about the Lost Ten Tribes and the kindred curiosa contained so abundantly in that literature, could have neglected so distant and mysterious a Jewish community as that beyond the Great Wall. What is more likely is that they did write, and perhaps quite frequently, about Kaifeng Jewry, and that we may reasonably anticipate that at least a few samples of their work will some day come to light. Following this long stretch of apparent silence, Jewish references to the Jews of China began to emerge in increasing numbers. From the 1 860s onward, western travelers who since 1724 had been barred by imperial edict from venturing into the interior of the country, were again enabled to visit Kaifeng and its Jews. Bursts of new information now came to light and the reports provided by both Jewish and Christian visitors to the city uncovered historical data extending beyond those that had been made available in the Jesuit accounts. Regrettably, much of what has been disseminated in print and on lecture platforms about the Jews of Kaifeng had no other purpose than to entertain, and tended to be historically distorted or to contain numerous other misrepresentations. Thus, Voltaire saw fit to make the Jews of China the butt of his wit by contriving a tale which presented them, and by extension all Jews, in a very negative light. Treading in Voltaire's footsteps, numerous other anti-Semitic propagandists produced a venomous literature that often tended to make Voltaire's fulminations seem relatively innocuous. Thus, the Nazi press found it convenient to exploit the story of the Chinese Jews (in extravagantly distorted form, of course) and use it in vicious attacks against them and against the Chinese people as a whole. Those Jews who first arrived in China, the Nazis insisted, had promptly contaminated the genetic lines of their hosts, with the result that although two thousand years had now gone by (sic), the degenerative impact of "tainted Jewish "blood" could still be recognized in the features and the character of the entire Chinese population. These propaganda attacks against the Chinese by the German allies of the Japanese may have been part of the reasons that prompted Japanese intelligence to send two agents to Kaifeng during World War 11 with directives to determine whether what remained of its old Jewish community posed a threat to the Japanese occupying forces. The agents' reports, far more realistic than the orders that had sent them to Kaifeng, made it clear that the city's Jews were too few, too weak and too divided to pose any kind of threat whatsoever. Numerous other anti-Semitic horror stories based on deliberate misrepresentations of the saga of the Jews of old China have appeared in American periodicals… Conclusion In 1663, the reconstruction of a new synagogue in Kaifeng was carried through under the direction of Major Zhao Jingshi of the Middle Army, who had participated in the defense of the besieged city at the time of the inundation that destroyed the existing synagogue. In the lapidary inscription with which the Kaifeng Jews commemorated the dedication of their new house of worship, it is stated that Major Zhao, "fearing that the members of the religion, owing to the ruin of the synagogue, might disperse and never come together again, and unable to contemplate the work his ancestors had built up and preserved through the centuries suddenly destroyed in a single day...sent troops to patrol and protect the remnants of the synagogue day and night." The inscription further informs us that, together with his distinguished cousins, the mandarins Zhao Yingcheng and Zhao Yingdou, Major Zhao uncovered "the actual foundation of the former synagogue," thereby encouraging the kehillah to erect a new synagogue in its place. Major Zhao ordered that the story of Kaifeng Jews be cut in stone, so that "it would be handed down to future generations." Two centuries later the synagogue had fallen into decay, there was no longer enough will left in the ranks of Kaifeng Jewry to pull their community together and construct a new center for worship and study. In part, this was a consequence of the Taiping Rebellion and the series of other military and political upheavals that rocked China at the time—as China declined politically and economically in the 19th century so did its Jews—but it also was the result of the community's very small size and its remoteness and long isolation from the rest of the Jewish people. In the 20th century, the 1663 stone was lost, and for decades the Jewish descendants in Kaifeng have only had their story to pass along from one generation to the next. And yet, despite all odds, the descendents of the ancient community continue to identify as Jews, maintain a connection to the site of their synagogue and street, and strive to educate themselves and their children as Jews. Since the opening up of China, Western Jewish contact with the Kaifeng Jews has resumed in several forms. Western Jews visit Kaifeng as tourists and teachers, Kaifeng Jews study in Israel and elsewhere, and the community also has access to the internet and its treasurehouse of Jewish materials.

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1 Sara Di Diego = "Matteo Ricci was a Jesuit priest who went to missions in China. Work Cited:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matteo_Ricci"