China, Skepticism and Belief


China used to bother me quite a bit when I was younger. A lot of people seemed to live there, but it was notoriously absent from the world view of Chazal. (At that point in life, I had assumed that if something was real, it had to be explicitly featured in the chief texts of our mesorah.) How could something that big escape the notice of Chazal? One could follow a thread in Chazal that reduced the course of human civilization to a clash between Yaakov and Esav (after a few minor intrusions). There were many supporting actors besides the ones with top billing, but the Chinese didn’t rate as understudies or even extras.

Years later, I would often be asked the same or similar question by talmidim. What purpose, they would ask, do the Chinese serve? (Those were the years in which they were the Bad Guy Commies, not our trading partners and major consumers of our debt, so the question made at least limited sense.)

As the years went by, I modified my expectation of what I should find explicitly mentioned by Chazal and what I should not find. It’s a pity, because I think I found the answer to a question I no longer have. It was somehow not a surprise to find it in a thought of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, as I was preparing my weekly The Timeless Rav Hirsch shiur for publication.

It wasn’t just the words of Rav Hirsch. Hashgacha, and my role on a beis din for gerus had plenty to do with it.

Within the last year, I have had the privilege of meeting a few wonderful gerus candidates from China and other parts of the Pacific Rim. As is my wont, I first push hard – really hard – to convince candidates that they have no need to convert. They can be fine people without it; Judaism does not expect everyone to become Jewish; Jews face new insecurities and uncertainties about the future in a world in which “itbach al-Yahud” (Slaughter the Jews) is a more familiar cry than “Play ball!”

They push back, and I resist some more. Eventually, it becomes clear whether I can succeed in cooling a would-be convert’s ardor.

Several times in the past year, we got to the point where I almost gave up, and had to use my trump card. This card is reserved for those from the Far East. It has worked each time.

“OK, I see I am getting nowhere with you. You are determined to become Jewish, despite having had your eyes opened to the risks. You know how difficult and detailed halachic life can be, and you still want to go ahead. You are prepared to (pick all the ones that apply to your gender) give up easily available food; stop eating cheeseburgers; get up every morning for minyan; throw out your wardrobe and wear hot frumpy skirts in the summer; deal with a pool of potential mates smaller than the number of fiscally responsible people known to Nancy Pelosi. You claim that the discipline resonates within you, and that you cherish the values of traditional Judaism. You have looked at the heterodox movements and have come to believe that they are a sham. One small problem remains. Living the life style isn’t enough, and won’t even work, unless you firmly believe in the assumptions behind it. The most important assumption is the existence of G-d, a Being about Whom you were completely unfamiliar until very recently. He just is not part of the working vocabulary in your former part of the world. You cannot convert without a G-d concept, and I cannot figure out where you are going to find one, coming from your background!”

Stops ‘em dead in their tracks, each time.

But not for long. It sometimes took them months before they returned, but they did come back, with clear, articulate responses that were inspiring to listen to. They are not for publicizing now, as they would violate the privacy of some wonderful friends. I can share a sense of wonder at the ability of some deeply intelligent people who have never known of a deity to look back at their lives and discover G-d within them. The idea of G-d, so absent from parts of the East, can trigger inner conviction when presented to people in the proper manner. I guess that if I were a Presbyterian missionary in Taiwan at the end of the 19th century I would not be surprised, but that experience has (mercifully) escaped me.

As a believer, I was pleased that the idea of G-d could resonate deeply in those who had never heard (literally!) of Him. I was even more struck by the realization that billions of people simply had no need for the concept in the first place.

How could this be? Many important Rishonim treated emunah as a tautology hundreds of years ago. Prime Mover and First Cause arguments presumed that a person needed to know how the universe got here, and would understand the need for a Being that was responsible for creation in order to answer the question. There is no shortage of people in our community today who maintain that belief is tautological, that compelling evidence of His Existence is apparent to all those who do not deliberately close their eyes to it. How could it be that there are billions of people for whom the answer not self-evident? Moreover, they are not concerned with the question either!

Rav Hirsch provided some insight. With their backs to the Sea and the Egyptian army closing in on them, the Bnei Yisrael cynically confront Moshe. “Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us here to die?” Don’t be shocked by their lack of bitachon, says Rav Hirsch. Their disbelief is of great use to us to this very day. If our ancestors were the kind of people to be taken in by a charismatic leader who produced some great victory for them, we could not really trust their acceptance of our faith. They weren’t. They were stiff-necked skeptics who challenged Moshe again and again. Yet by the end of Devarim, their skepticism had turned to belief and commitment so firm that their descendants would endure the privations of the Galus rather than turn their backs on their beliefs. Something of significance had happened to make firm believers out of them.

Among the arguments of the New Atheists is the notion that there is a G-d gene, a byproduct of evolution that predisposes humans to belief in a higher power. If this were true, the effectiveness of all arguments for belief would be compromised. (NB – I used the word “arguments,” rather than “proofs.” At least to the people with whom I have dealt, the latter just do not work.) The Gra is supposed to have urged people to substitute Kuzari for Shaar ha-Yichud in Chovos ha-Levavos, claiming that Kuzari represents the authentic mesorah of the Jewish people. It might follow from this that the authentic argument for Jewish belief is R.Yehudah ha-Levi’s (author of Kuzari) argument that Jews know G-d because they were there, because they enjoyed a historical relationship with Him.

If all human beings were possessed (as I had been led to believe in my youth) of a real need to believe in a higher power, we would be more likely to doubt our mesorah of such a relationship, as surely as we would if we thought that earlier generations were gullible pushovers. Billions of Chinese demonstrate that there is no such compelling need. Like the skepticism of those who questioned Moshe moments before the splitting of the Reed Sea, the Chinese fortify our mesorah for belief!

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13 Responses

  1. Phil says:

    Amazon has a book called: “Wisdom in Early Confucian And Israelite Traditions: A Comparative Study” — for those interested (and for those who can afford the expensive book.)

  2. sammy finkelman says:

    I don’t think that either the translation “Red Sea” or “Reed Sea” (“Sea of Reeds”) is correct and I am not sure anyone knows what the right translation is.

    The fact that there is a difference of one letter is only something you see in English. Sea of Reeds comes from the idea that Suf there is related to the word “Suf” where the little container holding Moshe was put when he was a baby (Shemos 2:5) and the idea that word there means reeds or plants from which papyrus was made.

    The translation “Red Sea” goes back more than 2,000 years to the first translation of the Torah into Greek. But that could be because they already then didn’t know what it meant.

    Yam Suf might mean something like the edge of the sea (root: Sof)

    Or maybe it means a sea that has tides. (unlike the Meditterrean) That would be everything but there are spots where it gets pretty big, so again maybe t would only be the end of a narrow channel..

    There are at least two DIFFERENT places called the Yam Suf. There is one place near Egypt, and there is another one at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba. And not just in Nach, but probably in Mishpatim which we just read last week (Shemos 18:31) the Yam Suf referred to there is not the same Yam suf that was split.

    You *can* however say that it was if you translate “Yam Suf” as “Red Sea”

    Rashi does not say that, but at Shemos 10:18 he says that the Yam Suf extended west and east. Rashi did not have any maps so what he describes is not exact but he seems to use the term as meaning everything from the Gulf of Suez to the Gulf of Tiran.

    There is another word “Ye’or” that isn’t translated right. It is usually translated as river, with the idea that it always means the Nile River. however you cannpt do this in a few places in Parshah V’ayreh dealing with the first two plagues (Shemos 7:19, 8:1) because three different words for bodies of water are used and one of them is Nahar. There it is translated as “canal” So Rashi also understands it. But if canal is the translation there it is the translation everywhere! But people miss it because they don’t truly understand the geography because it was all different already by the time of Onkelos even.

    Egypt had a series of canals – irrigation and drinking water canals. All of this was gone 1,000 and more years later.

    The word “Ye’or only appears otherwise in Daniel – and there too there were irrigation canals.

    About the idea of God – it may be the Chinese had lost the idea of God sometime after the burning of the books when much of Chinese history was erased.

  3. Tzurah says:

    “The most important assumption is the existence of G-d, a Being about Whom you were completely unfamiliar until very recently. He just is not part of the working vocabulary in your former part of the world.”

    I’ve spent some time in Japan, and despite the popularity of East Asian spirituality here in America, the average Japanese is remarkably un-spriritual. They are Shinto/Buddhist at about the same level that a Reform or unaffiliated Jew is Jewish. They will (perhaps) participate in the holidays and lifecycle events out of a sense of national/ethnic tradition, but without a sense of spiritual meaning. People have a vague sense of karma, i.e., that good and bad actions will be repaid in kind, but the sense of personal all-powerful all-knowing deity who cares about your moral actions is not a part of the general cultural background.

    From the Chinese people I know, it seems to be similar for them as well, perhaps more so because of their Communist history. (Koreans are different b/c Christianity became very popular there, largely through it’s association with Korean nationalism and anti-Japanese activity during the Japanese colonial period (1905-1945).)

    That being said, there is a very old Chinese concept of Heaven/god called Tian (“Heaven”) or Shangdi (“High Lord”) with some very tantalizing similarities to the Jewish concept of G-d. However, even this concept does not appear (to my non-specialist mind) to stress an involvement of the deity in personal morality.

  4. Phil says:

    Shlomo Schrader, what “cute idea” are you referring to? The idea that suf happens to mean reed? Or the idea that some typo crept in along the way, causing us to say “red” instead of “reed”? If the latter, I don’t see Artscroll making that mistake. At least it doesn’t say anything of the sort in the Stone Chumash at Exodus 13:18.

  5. Jacob Winkler says:

    The need to believe in a higher power doesn’t necessarily mean a deity that is separate from creation and relates to it with a personality similar to ours. A reverence and faith in the over-arching all-encompassing, timeless and immortal, non-physical, indestructible laws of science, would probably suffice. A belief in a transcendent Force or flow, which is exhibited throughout traditional Chinese belief, would certainly fit the bill.

  6. Phil says:

    I’m not making any definitive claims, but…

    “Surely these shall come from afar; Look, those from the north and the west; And these from the land of Sinim.” (Isaiah 49: 12).

    I’ll need to brush up on, ahem, Sinology to see if there’s any meat to this theory that Sinim refers to China. Some of the gentile concordances make this claim.

  7. Shlomo Schrader says:

    Nice article.
    Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky has proven that the original term is indeed the “Red Sea”. The “Reed Sea” , although a very cute idea, and although adopted by the final posek a.k.a. Art Scroll, is mistaken.

  8. Yoel B says:

    Rav Hirsch’s insight is brilliant. It’s supported by what one of my teachers, the late political philosopher Joseph Tussman said: “There weren’t enough graves in Egypt?” was the first Jewish joke on record. (I would characterize the remark as ironic, or maybe sarcastic, rather than cynical. Cynics wouldn’t be able to see G-d’s hand in their deliverance or to sing His praise as they did.) Like all good Jewish witticisms, it’s deep: Egypt was a death-ridden civilization with elaborate funerary practices. When escaping slaves can crack wise like that as their former masters’ pursuing army bears down on them, they are not being ruled by their fears, and are exactly the sort of people who would repeatedly test Moshe.

  9. Moom says:

    I think most Chinese do seem to believe in gods and spirits etc. Members of the Communist party in the PRC officially don’t. The role of a supreme creator God is less important though than even in Hindu culture. There is a spectrum from Judaism and Islam at one end where a single supreme all powerful creator God is all important, though Christianity with its trinity, through Hinduism, through Buddhism, to Taoism/Traditional Chinese religion at the other extreme of decentralization of god.

  10. Shira says:

    With their backs to the Sea and the Egyptian army closing in on them, the Bnei Yisrael cynically confront Moshe…..If our ancestors were the kind of people to be taken in by a charismatic leader who produced some great victory for them, we could not really trust their acceptance of our faith.

    Which brings in a secondary point about our faith in actual leadership as well – acceptance of Moshe solidifies at the Sea, and from the get-go is linked to the presence of G-d rather than leadership charisma. Exodus 14:31 “Israel saw the great hand that G-d inflicted upon Egypt; and the people revered G-d and they had faith in G-d and in Moses His servant.”

  11. Raymond says:

    What a thought provoking essay. I never thought of it that way.

    Then again, maybe I did. While I continue to have doubts about G-d’s Existence, I will acknowledge that the evidence that works most effectively for me is that story about somebody who approached some 18th century French Enlightenment atheist (of all people!), asking him, “How do you know that G-d exists?” To which Voltaire (or somebody like him) simply replied, “The Jews.”

    The proof that Rabbi Akiva gave for G-d’s existence, namely the Argument from Design, does not quite make sense to me. For one thing, science may one day (and may already have) discovered how order is inherent in the universe, without the need for putting G-d into the equation. And is the universe that ordered in the first place? With defective births, disease, starvation, death, and man’s inhumanity to man existing in the world, one might just as justifiably make the claim that the world is nothing but a cold-blooded, ruthless, chaotic jungle.

    But then come the Jews. How is it that we still exist? Why are we here? True, there would have been a whole lot more Jews in the world if not for the chronic antisemitism that has plagued our world, yet the fact remains that we have outlived so many of our enemies. Could this be because we have a strong need to survive? I doubt it, because I am sure every group of people (at least the sane ones) have just as much of a desire to survive. Do we just so happen to have knack for knowing how to survive? Given how much we sacrifice our safety and self-interest for false promises of peace both in Israel and elsewhere, I seriously doubt that we are really all that clever when it comes to our surviving.

  12. DF says:

    Well-written article. Will have to think about this a little more, but in the meantime, two small points:

    1. Arent you pushing back on the potentail geirim too much? Rambam says explicitly that one should NOT try to forcefully to dissaude them, and you seem to be doing exactly the opposite.

    2. You dont have to call it the “Reed” Sea. Contrary to contemporary urban legend, the “Red” sea is not just a mistranslation or misreading of Yam Suf. The name “Red Sea”, after the coloration of the water, was current thousands of years ago.

  13. S. says:

    The Chinese, one the great and long-lasting civilizations, are here for the brief moment in the 20th and 21st century where there is officially a lot of atheism? Isn’t that what the Russians were here for (although five minutes after the USSR fell the churches, mosques and even to some extent shuls were filled again.)