Friday, May 9, 2014

The Theology of the Chinese Jews, 1000-1850

Jordan Paper  book The Theology of the Chinese Jews, 1000-1850, explores the Jews of Kaifeng, for the most part, through a Chinese lens.  Most of the scholarly work tackles the Jewish community at Kaifeng through from the vantage of Jewish, diaspora history.

Professor Paper, however, is trained as a scholar in Chinese literature and history, and brings to the study of the Kaifeng Jews a distinctly Sinitic angle.  He knows the history of Chinese religious and philosophical language, and shows how the Chinese Jews may have used these terms to understand Judaism as they practiced it in the unique environment of Kaifeng, China.

Since we do not have any theological works from the Jews of Kaifeng (they may have never written them, or two works, written by important Chinese Jews which may have theological content, may be lost) Professor Paper primarily uses  Chinese inscriptions from inside the Kaifeng synagogue (and transcribed by visiting Jesuit priests in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries).  

His thinking is these documents are the true theological view of the Kaifeng Jews. Unlike the commemorative stones displayed outside and dedicated to the rebuilding of their synagogue, or the Hebrew and Judeo-Persian books inherited from their tradition, these sayings are an active remolding of their tradition; and most importantly, meant to be read by Jews practicing in the synagogue.

This is a unique and most interesting book; that it is based on a great deal of speculation is not Professor Paper’s fault, since the historical record has so little to say.  But in the end, it is difficult to reach firm conclusions about Paper’s take on the Jews of Kaifeng

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