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The Theology of the Chinese Jews by Jordan Paper (review)

From: Journal of Jewish Identities
Issue 6, Number 2, July 2013
pp. 113-115 | 10.1353/jji.2013.0019

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I read The Theology of the Chinese Jews, 1000-1850 on my recent trip to China. I found it to be a valuable resource as I listened to different religious groups (Chan and Llama Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, and Confucianists, as well as the present "descendants" of the Jews of Kaifeng who are trying to make a comeback) in Kaifeng and in Xi'an. What they presented about themselves can be compared with Paper's training as a scholar of comparative religion and his expertise in Chinese religion. The Theology of the Chinese Jews is a slim volume at only 175 pages. This includes a two-page appendix of logographs for terms and translations, five pages of notes/footnotes, and five pages of bibliography/ references. I wish the author had included an index, as I found myself flipping back and forth to find elements that needed to be clarified as I read the book.

The book is a unique hybrid of comparative religions and theologies, history of religions, and the place of the history of the Kaifeng Jews in the religions of China. It is a valuable book for those who have little knowledge of the Jews of China and for scholars who struggle with the place of Chinese Judaism in the religions of China and the history of Judaism elsewhere in the world. For scholars who study the identities of the Jews in different time periods it is a must. The Kaifeng "descendants" of the Jewish families are perhaps, like the Crypto-Jews and the Ethiopian and Lemba Jewish descendants, a wonderful case study for anyone interested in how we define Jews and Jewish identity in the modern period.

Paper's main contribution is the comparison between normative Jewish theology from the Middle Ages to the modern period with Chinese (primarily Buddhism and Taoism) theological views that are assumed to have affected the theological views of the Jews of China. Comparative theology is a very difficult subject to write about even when there are good written accounts of exchanges between the religious thinkers of the period. We can safely do comparative theology of the ideas from the writings of Maimonides, Ibn Sina, and Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages because they actually cite one another in their writings and are using the same religious vocabulary. Paper's book proposes a much more difficult and speculative study of comparing known Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian textual positions (from relatively the same time period) of the Jewish settlement in China and comparing them with a very limited series of Jewish textual material available from the Kaifeng Jews. To be sure, Paper is assuming that the Jews of Kaifeng possessed and used the writings of Sa'adia Gaon, Maimonides, the Talmudim, etc. To be fair, Paper knows how difficult the comparison is. He uses as a point of comparison, for example, major steles (standing stones) that stood in the courtyard of the synagogue until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when the synagogue was destroyed by a flood. These steles were written for non-Jews in Chinese to explain what the synagogue and Judaism was.

Steles are archaeologically well-attested features at archaeological sites all over the world. The standing stones, two of which are featured on the cover of the book, are perhaps the most emblematic symbol of Kaifeng Jewry and are today in the city museum of Kaifeng and unreadable. The transcriptions and translations of the steles are based upon the work of Charles William White. They stood at the synagogue in its last incarnation until it was destroyed by the flood of 1841. Thanks to illustrations done by Father Jean Domenge in 1722 and correspondence by Roman Catholic priests who visited the site, it is possible to understand the context of the synagogue and its eighteenth-century building and the place of the steles, although it is based on their own faulty understanding of what the rooms and building was used for. There were also name plaques that figure in the descriptions which may imply a variety of illustrated wall hangings or signs that also provide evidence of the beliefs of the Kaifeng Jews that Paper uses in the book. The missionaries...

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