Rabbi Kook in Nanjing

The story of Jewish Studies in China is just beginning.

Professor Xu Xin 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Professor Xu Xin 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I STEPPED ONTO CHINESE SOIL AT PUDONG International Airport in Shanghai after a journey of 20 hours from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I did not know what to expect, never having traveled to the Peoples’ Republic before.
The next day the high-speed bullet train got me to Nanjing. But what I discovered in a week in that city revealed much about the transformation of China – a transformation not just about an economic boom but about the intellect, culture and spirit of the country itself.
Meet Hannah, Yona and Esther. They are doctoral students in Jewish Studies at prestigious universities. Their interests range from theology in the “Book of Job” to the Holocaust to the philosophy of Martin Buber. These students are the future leaders of their society – they take their studies seriously and with a dedication that is rare.
Hannah, Yona, and Esther are not students at Columbia University, Oxford, or Hebrew University. They are not American Jews or Israelis. They are not the children of Western businessmen working in China. They are not Jewish. They are Chinese.
I met these doctoral students at an academic conference this summer at Nanjing University. Professor Xu Xin, the charismatic and tenacious driving force behind Jewish Studies in China, had invited me to present a scholarly paper at an “International Symposium on Monotheism and Postmodernism.” The Nanjing University professor attended two of my classes at Wynmoor – a retirement condo community in South Florida – while on a visit to the United States to conduct research.
Most of what I had known of Judaism in China concerned the medieval Jewish community of Kaifeng – it disappeared long ago – and the modern Jewish refugees from Hitler, who settled in Shanghai.
After hearing Xu Xin speak at Wynmoor, I also understood that most people in China associated Jews with economic success, wealth, and a high degree of intelligence.
The three-day symposium in Nanjing was a revelation. Not only was I impressed by the presentations of professors from Japan, the US, Canada, Israel, and Australia, but I was utterly intrigued by the passion of Chinese professors and doctoral students to understand monotheism and integrate it into their own lives and their worldview.
They remain rooted in their Chinese identity yet confront a history and theology of which their countrymen know little.
They are the future of Jewish Studies in China and they will strengthen their country’s commitment to understanding the unique and universal history of the State of Israel. While my presentation was one of the few at the symposium that focused on Zionism – part of the presentation was a discussion of the messianic idea in the thought of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the most influential and profound thinker in the realm of religious Zionism – I am hoping that more of the students from Nanjing, Hong Kong and Beijing will delve into the importance of the Jewish State from a theological and historical perspective.
Jeremiah (a.k.a. Zhenhua Meng), the professor who organized the logistics for the symposium, speaks fluent Hebrew – better than my own, despite the fact that I completed the Hebrew ulpan at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem with flying colors. In a wider world where Zionism is condemned by intellectuals and academics, this professor’s experiences in Israel and his Hebrew fluency are rays of light in the darkness.
The site of the conference is of great significance. In the years leading up to World War II, Japanese forces occupied Nanjing, murdering 200,000 Chinese civilians and raping 20,000 women, including 11-year-old girls. The Chinese, however, refused to be broken, not allowing millennia of history and civilization to succumb to racist conquerors. The Jewish will to survive in the face of Nazi genocide is certainly a facet of our history with which the Chinese people can identify.
Just as the Chinese faced discrimination and condescension from Western colonialists, so did Jews emancipated in Europe face some of the same forms of belittling their religion and culture. Both ancient civilizations had to confront modernity and adapt to a rapidly changing world without sacrificing pride in their past.
As the founding director of the Glazer Institute for Jewish Studies at Nanjing University, Xu Xin has embarked on an important and historic mission. As China emerges as a global economic powerhouse and attempts to open up to the West, Chinese understanding of the nature of monotheism and its roots in Judaism is growing even more urgent and important than in the past. Abraham’s calling of more than 3,000 years ago remains a relevant force in the life of Jews and non- Jews around the world.
The story of Jewish Studies in China is just beginning. The implications of Chinese doctoral students who added Hannah, Yona and Esther to the names of their birth – and whose dedication to their intellectual and spiritual life can be found, in part, in their devotion to Jewish Studies – are staggering. One billion people cannot be ignored – nor can they afford to ignore an ancient yet still potent idea that has sparked and fostered civilizations.
Eli Kavon is on the faculty of Nova Southeastern University’s Lifelong Learning Institute in Davie, Florida.