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Remembering China’s forgotten Jewish community at Passover
Passover is that Jewish holiday that celebrates the Children of Israel’s Exodus out of Egypt, under their leader Moses. This year it has fallen on the week beginning Friday, April 6, which is the same day as Easter Friday. It is a springtime festival that commemorates a move from slavery to freedom, from servitude to responsibility and from dependence to independence. It is also a family holiday whose ritual takes place at home. The Haggadah asks us to invite anyone who is hungry or thirsty to join and in multicultural Toronto it is a festival where Jews often invite their non-Jewish friends to share this festive meal. In that sense, it is a bit like Christmas.
The “script” for the ritual meal and the “telling” of the Exodus is set out in a small liturgical text called the Passover Haggadah. In their numerous migrations, wherever Jews have found themselves, they have devised versions of the Haggadah that reflect their specific geographical and historical circumstances. The Haggadah has Israeli versions, Canadian versions, American versions, Moroccan, Turkish and Yemenite versions, Bukharin (central Asian) versions and modern Chinese versions.
It should therefore come as no surprise that Chinese and Persian Jewish scholars, Fook-Kong Wong and Dalia Yasharpour, have just jointly published a well-annotated reproduction of the Passover Haggadah of that now defunct Jewish community of indigenous Jews in Western China who once lived and prospered in the city of Kaifeng. As the community most probably came from Persia before establishing itself there more than a thousand years ago, the Haggadah and its commentary makes use of Hebrew, Aramaic and the Judeo-Persian language.
The rise of the Islamic empire in the 8th century AD and the subsequent urbanization of the Jews of Islam created of this once agricultural people a religious minority that was spread across both the Islamic and Christian worlds during late antiquity and the early middle ages. Medieval Arab geographers of the time describe one group of Jewish traders called the Radanites, who were said to have trading networks that included both France and China at either end.
Scholars now believe that there was a flourishing Jewish community in medieval Kaifeng, which had established itself by the 11th century. In a curious twist of fate, some of their ritual artifacts are now on display at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, because during the early 20th century, the site of the Kaifeng Jewish community’s former synagogue was bought by Bishop White, an Anglican Canadian missionary and antiquities collector who also founded the Department of East Asian studies at the University of Toronto. Until recently, Bishop White’s massive study of the community, called Chinese Jews, was the definitive scholarly work on this most obscure branch of the people of Israel.
Who were the Jews of Kaifeng? How Jewish were they? How Chinese did they become and, of perhaps greater interest, why did some of Europe’s most erudite Christian intellectuals and scholars once believe that the future destiny of the world depended on an examination and dissemination of the scriptures of these isolated descendants of Moses?
It is believed that by the early middle ages, there was a thriving Jewish community in Kaifeng. There they practised the basic elements of Judaism: Circumcision, marriage, funerals, the daily reading of the law and the celebration of Passover, Hanukkah and other festivals. They had knowledge of Hebrew and their Hebrew Torah scrolls were kept in circular containers in their synagogue, in a style that goes back to Iraq and ancient Babylon.
They adhered strictly to the Jewish dietary laws called Kashrut, which include a strict avoidance of pork, a tradition that contrasted them with their Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist neighbours, but one that they shared with the Muslim minority in the region. As a result of this similarity, they were once mistakenly identified by their Chinese neighbours as “Muslims with blue turbans,” in contrast to the “white turbans” of their Muslim neighbours in Kaifeng. Eventually, a synagogue was built. The ROM has rubbings from and a replica one of the original commemorative tablets from 1489/1512.
In Judaism there are only three criteria that make a synagogue: A mezuzah on the door, a place (the arch) for the five books of Moses (the Torah) and a table, or “bimah,” from where the scriptures are read. The synagogue at Kaifeng had an arch and table, but it was designed to look like a Confucian temple. Later it acquired aspects of its wider environment, so not only were there halls dedicated to ancestors, such as Moses and Jacob, but a hall dedicated to Confucius as well. From soon after the 1500s, China closed itself off to the outside world and the Jews of Kaifeng were left to their own devices. They slowly began losing knowledge of Hebrew and Jewish rituals, and through intermarriage and religious syncretism, joined mainstream Chinese culture.
Yet from the time of their arrival, these Jews were never persecuted and many of them served the Emperor in advanced capacities, gaining merit and the respect of the wider Chinese society. As the foundational beliefs of Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism make no mention of Jews or Judaism, anti-Semitism does not exist in the traditions of these cultures.
Despite their almost total isolation from the outside world, there were members of the community who were still able to read Hebrew up until the the end of the 18th century. Only during the late 19th and early 20th centuries did isolation, poverty and the architectural decay of the building finally indicate a major rupture with the past that culminated in the selling of their once-precious Torah Scrolls and manuscripts to Western scholars and missionaries. And so we ask again, why were these scrolls so special?
One of the darker themes of Christianity’s relation to Judaism was a theological and intellectual assumption by medieval and counter-reformation Christian theologians that the Rabbinical scribes had altered what later came to be called the Old Testament. In the New Testament, there are quotations, which seem as if they come from the Old Testament, but which cannot be found in the Hebrew Torah. Thus, Catholic theologians assumed that in the original Jewish scriptures, which they thought must have existed during the time of Jesus, these versions would no doubt have clear passages, which definitively predicted the coming of the Messiah — if only these lost scrolls could ever be found. Despite massive efforts by Hebrew speaking Christian scholars no evidence of these assumed passages could be found. This goes some way to explaining the medieval Catholic obsession with inquisitions, the burning of innocent Jewish victims and the burning of their religious books, especially the Talmud, which was held to be responsible for preventing Jewish conversion to Christianity.
And then in the 1600s and 1700s, the Jesuits came to China to convert the masses to Catholicism. To their shock and delight, they discovered the Jews of Kaifeng. They met with them, visited their synagogue and described their life leaving us the only drawings we have of their synagogue from the middle of the last millennium.
Jesuit master Matteo Ricci himself was met by an informed Jewish elder of the Kaifeng community during a visit to Peking. At first, Ricci believed him to be a member of the lost Christian communities of ancient China. Likewise, the elder believed that Ricci was a Rabbi and delighted in the thought that he had finally made contact with a representative of the Jewish communities, which they knew existed outside of China, but with whom they had no contact for centuries. Eventually, the two educated literati realized that they were Jewish and Christian and parted ways, but not before the Jewish elder eventually offered the Rabbinate of the community to Ricci upon one condition, that he give up eating pork.
For the next century, Jesuits did whatever they could to get access to the Torah scrolls of the Jewish community, but the growing realization of the Jews of Kaifeng that the Jesuits wanted them to abjure their Jewish faith prevented the Jesuits from purchasing or obtaining the Torahs for study and export to Europe. Nevertheless, some Jesuits were allowed to make copies of the beginning and ending sections of the five books of Moses. Having done so, they could still not find the passages that they so desperately sought for they (wrongly) believed that the Jews of Kaifeng had been isolated since the time of Jesus and that they must possess Torah scrolls that would predict the coming of Jesus. They argued that if the Jews in Europe were confronted with these different texts, they would leave Judaism. During that time the Jesuits and many other Catholic Europeans believed that if only the last remnants of Jewry would convert to Catholicism, then the second coming would be imminent, and the end of time would be at hand.
The Jesuits were also fascinated by the Jews of Kaifeng. They argued that as they shared a similar origin with Christianity and had adopted many Confucian customs, such as the veneration of ancestors in temples, then it was reasonable to assume that Chinese Buddhists, Daoists and Confucians could be brought into the church through a similar “accommodation.” This created a theological debate within Catholicism that almost split the church. However, the Jesuits were never given the chance to pursue their mission in pre-modern China, as they were eventually expelled by the Emperor who did not want a Christian presence in his realm. The Jews of Kaifeng remained unconverted.
Sara Irwin is the retired manager of the East Asian collections at the Royal Ontario Museum. Articulate and good natured, she is a historian of Chinese art. She explained that she had inherited the responsibility of curating the eleven objects associated with the former-Kaifeng community that was acquired by Bishop White, along with her other responsibilities. I had come to her office to meet with her to make sure that my bibliography was up to date and that the facts of my article were in order.
She told me that back in 1984, she was on a flight to a museum in Tel Aviv where many of the articles and manuscripts relating to the Kaifeng community were to be displayed in Israel’s Museum of the Diaspora for the first time. Not trusting the airlines packing facilities, a fellow curator from L.A. had rented a seat for one of the Torah case that came from the Kaifeng community that would soon be on display. Although it had no Torah inside, it caused considerable consternation from the stream of Orthodox Jewish men who were conducting their daily prayers at the back of the plane. Sara told me that she wisely avoided mentioning to any of them that “there was another identical Torah case in the jet’s luggage compartment,” as she feared this would create just a tad too much cognitive dissonance and she was anxious to make sure everything arrived in good shape.
As she walked me through the galleries where some of the artifacts of the Kaifeng community were on display, my eyes rested on two objects. The first was a black stone gong that in good Chinese fashion was once used to call the faithful to prayer in the Kaifeng synagogue. The second was a Torah case, now empty, which once held the scrolls that those Jesuit scholars of a bygone age were convinced would bring us to the end of time. Realizing that this had yet to occur, I looked at my watch and realized I was late for my next appointment.
First published in the National Post.