“What is hateful unto you, do not do unto your neighbor.” — Hillel
“Do not do unto others what you would not want them to do unto you.” — Confucius
Our age of globalization is also an age of “localization” — that is, global markets are more successful when they adapt to local needs. This affords us with fruitful ways to construct the self by seeking family resemblances and potential compatibilities with others. As a historian of minority groups with a keen interest in Jews of the Roman Empire, I have been fascinated by the impacts of geographical expansion, the nexus between a central government and its numerous local communities, the tensions between individual political freedom and the momentum of an empire, and the multiethnic society and its consequent negotiation of cultural and religious identities. All of these concerns are relevant in China. But, over the years, I have grown increasingly intrigued by the dissimilarities rather than the similarities.
My visit to a rabbinical college in Philadelphia several years ago proved transformative. After observing how the sacred history of the Jewish people was reenacted daily in the murmuring of prayers, I began to understand that the unique partnership between God and the Jewish people is continually reaffirmed and reinforced through prayers, which anchor the meaning and power of present reality to a sacred past. This remembrance affirms and structures Jewish identity. I began to think anew about teaching Judaism in China: Some elements, like prayers, are fundamental components of Jewish tradition but structurally and culturally alien to the way we live now in China. How is it possible to present these elements in my own teaching and research, so as to induce enough awareness of their intrinsic value to Judaism without inciting suspicion that I am trying to ferment faith commitments? How would I approach Judaism and Jewish civilization historically with all its complexity?
I thought about one of the founding myths of rabbinic Judaism: During the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 70 C.E., the Jewish leader Yohanan ben Zakkai foresaw the destruction of Jerusalem and sought to take preventive measures to avert the simultaneous destruction of Judaism. He approached the Roman general and asked if he could relocate to Yavneh, where he hoped a devastated Judaism might be healed by the formation of a new culture that would replace the Temple. The Roman general found the suggestion foolhardy and agreed without knowing that his decision would give this defeated people a chance to create a spiritual center that was destined to outlive the victorious Roman Empire.
In the 1940s, the talmudist Gedalyahu Alon published a seminal paper in which he questioned the historical authenticity of this founding myth. He argued that Yavneh was a Roman internment camp for war prisoners where Yohanan ben Zakkai was sent against his will. And then, about a decade ago, one of the trailblazers of Chinese Jewish studies, Xu Xin, suggested that Yavneh represented a revolution not only because it transformed Judaism but also because it affirmed that Jewish identity was no longer anchored on race, geography, or political system, but on culture. Even more important, the revolution was led by Yohanan ben Zakkai, a paragon of the Jewish intellectual. And so, Yavneh marks an unprecedented shift wherein Jewish intellectuals became the communal leaders.
Both interpreters of what happened at Yavneh tempered their knowledge with their contemporary concerns and social commitments; both authors imbued their interpretations with concerns about national fate and history. Alon emigrated from Berlin to Palestine in the 1920s. When he wrote his 1940s essay, Yavneh seemed to epitomize two opposite tropes: The first focused on the concentration camp where Jews were slaughtered; the second alluded to Palestine under the British Mandate, where, though still impoverished, an increasing immigration harbored a hope of national resuscitation. Xu Xin, on the other hand, lived through the turmoil of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, whose dark shadow still lingers on the title of his paper “On the Revolution in Yavneh.” His interpretation of Yavneh is saturated by feelings for the innumerable Chinese intellectuals whose dignity was trampled and whose lives were deprived during the revolution.
I am of the mindset that teaching Jewish studies in China contributes to cultivating a sophisticated perspective by seeking common ground while reserving differences between the two Jewish and Chinese civilizations. In cultivating an open-minded approach to and respect for the dissimilarities between these, I can help my students to fully understand themselves and their own position in this global village.