Over the past couple of decades the Chinese have become more interested in the Jews. Of late the Chinese regime has been bringing Jewish scholars and theologians to the People’s Republic to discuss Torah, Talmud, Mishnah and even some of the more mystical tracts.
It’s no surprise that China-Israel trade is increasing, nor that the China-Israel relationship has grown and deepened. Israel may well be the most dynamic country in the world, bursting at the seams with high-tech startups, dazzling inventions–especially in military and medical technologies–and highly educated and talented people.
But I’m not talking about Israel here. This is about the Chinese fascination with the Jews and Judaism, the religion and the People of the Book.
I’ve got a theory. It’s based on some real history, some anecdotes from participants in those ongoing conversations, and my own views of how the Chinese think about the world. Some of it will likely turn out to be fanciful, but it’s an important subject and it behooves us to ponder it. David Goldman has done some first-class pondering already, as is his wont, and I’m hoping to add some context.
Back when the country’s greatest modern man, Deng Xiaoping, converted the PRC economy to capitalism, Chinese “social scientists” went to work trying to figure out what makes capitalists tick. They were quickly baffled. They kept running into problems; that “knack” we’ve got somehow eluded their new system. After a while, they figured out that the capitalists’ success couldn’t be entirely explained by the nuts and bolts of the marketplace, or by institutions like private property, important though they were. Yes, it would have been easier just to read Michael Novak’s magnum opus, but they got to his end place: religion is an essential part of successful capitalism.
In their amazing way of organizing most anything, the Chinese launched churches, and of course millions upon millions of them attended Christian (mostly Catholic) services. To be sure, the Party kept a suspicious eye wide open, and some of the churches were deemed too dangerous, even in the cause of Communism. But on they went, convinced they were on the right path. If anyone doubted it, they had mountains of research and even Tocqueville to justify the turn to religion.
After a couple of decades of this, there were still problems, and their social scientists took another look. This time around, they found–surprise!–lots of Jews involved in capitalist enterprises, from banks to stock exchanges to corporations. Indeed, the Jews had a history of doing it. Maybe the Jews knew something the others didn’t? Well, look at Israel…or New York…
And so they’re talking to Jews, not about capitalism but about Judaism. State radio now broadcasts in Hebrew. The Jewish experts who are brought to China find themselves speaking Hebrew with their Chinese interlocutors. Chinese students can now learn Hebrew, and immerse themselves in Jewish studies (maybe they’ll give Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree sometime soon?).
If you grew up when I did, this will all remind you of jokes that used to be told in New York City. I can’t repeat them here because political correctness forbids it, but they’re about Chinese people in New York who only speak Yiddish.
I wish them well, and I have a bit of advice for the Chinese quest for the secret of capitalist success. First, the Jews do well at lots of things because Judaism is a quest for the right questions, not a canon of correct answers. The constant questioning, and the resultant playfulness of Jewish culture, are central to our success. This is hard for the leaders of the PRC to absorb, and dangerous to their political enterprise, even though in the long run it’s the only way they’re going to get away from the folly of attempting to maintain political control over a “free” economy.
Meanwhile, I have no doubt the Chinese have noticed that the world’s oldest man is a Jew living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He drifted away from the faith for a long time, but has recently reembraced it. He’s a scientist, he thinks the soul outlives the body, and he’s still asking questions.
With such evidence, I think the Chinese are going to continue their Jewish studies. Maybe Shanghai will reestablish the thriving Jewish community for which it was known for so long…and if there start to be mass conversions to Judaism in China, it will be great fun to watch the response of the Jew-haters, won’t it?