The Chinese-Jewish Conversation (CJC) held its fifth event, “New frontiers of Torah U-Madda: Chinese and Jewish Ecological Values,” on March 3, 2020, with the support of the Katz School of Science and Health, the Provost’s Colloquium Initiative, and the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. CJC director Prof. Mordechai Cohen opened with a discussion of the biblical precept of shmitta and the socio-ecological values it represents. Scientifically speaking, the obligation to let the land lie fallow every seventh year protects the environment, as it ensures the land’s continued fertility by preventing the depletion of its nutrients. But shmitta has other important features: on the seventh year all loans are forgiven. In effect, society re-boots: the land, the agricultural cycle, and commercial activity begin anew. After seven shmitta years, the fiftieth year is the Jubilee. The shofar is blown and “liberty is proclaimed throughout the land” (Leviticus 25:10, engraved on the Liberty Bell). In biblical times, impoverished people were sold into servitude to repay their debts. On the Jubilee year, these slaves go free, and are granted a new beginning. Land that had been sold reverts back to its original owners. As God says in Leviticus 25:23, “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as temporary dwellers.” We never truly “own” the land. We use it—but it belongs to God. This provides a comprehensive explanation for the Jubilee and the shmitta. Those who hold financial power—be they slave owners (in ancient times) or lenders—must understand that their wealth is entrusted to them by God and ultimately is temporary. It is their social responsibility to let others have the opportunity to advance. The shmitta requirement to let the land lie fallow, likewise, demonstrates that we do not own the land. Therefore we are not permitted to ruin it. We are entrusted with the land and may use it, but are obligated to preserve it for coming generations.

In ancient times Israel was an agrarian society. The Jewish people experienced and appreciated the natural landscape of the Land of Israel. All of this changed with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, when we were exiled from the land and essentially lost our physical connection with it. “The Land of Israel” (Eretz Yisrael) was primarily a spiritual ideal over the long exile. In the modern state of Israel, however, Jewish people have re-established their connection with the natural landscape. This is reflected in modern art and literature, as brought out in the next presentation, by Dr. Rachel Ofer, Professor of Literature at Efrata and Herzog Colleges in Israel. Deuteronomy 20:19 prohibits cutting down fruit-bearing trees during a siege, saying: “For is the tree in the field a man, that would oppose you in battle?” In the Bible, this is a rhetorical question, with the obvious answer: No! But, as Dr. Ofer noted, this verse is given new meaning by the modern Israeli poet Nathan Zach, in his Hebrew poem: Ki ha-Adam Etz ha-Sadeh (“For man is a tree in the field”), meaning that there are many points of similarity between man and the tree—an element of the natural world around us. This identification is also brought out by the modern Israeli artist Anna Ticho, who portrayed trees and plants expressing human emotions. Dr. Ofer concluded with the Israeli singer Shalom Hanokh’s rendition of “For man is a tree in the field.”

The main speaker of the evening, Daniel K. Gardner, Dwight W. Morrow Professor of History at Smith College, is a world-renowned expert on the Confucian tradition and its contemporary relevance. His current project, for which he was awarded an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship in 2016, is “Imagining an ‘Ecological Civilization’: China’s Environmental Turn in the 21st Century.” Gardner was interviewed by Elena Peng, a co-author on Chinese environmental legislation since 2014, and now a consultant for the CJC. Referring to Gardner’s 2018 book, Environmental Pollution in China: What Everyone Needs to Know, Peng remarked: “What I want to know is what motivated China now to adopt a new policy of environmental consciousness?” Gardner explained that it reflects the confluence of socio-economic and political-ideological factors. To begin with, pollution was causing increasingly visible hazards and dramatic threats to public health. Garbage was floating in the rivers, and city dwellers were choking on smog. China’s earlier policy to “pollute first and clean up later” allowed for economic prosperity; but the cost was becoming too high. In combatting pollution, the Chinese Government turned to the Confucian tradition for inspiration—making the vision of an ecological society a political goal. Speaking in ideological terms, Pan Yue, Vice Minister of Environmental Protection, wrote in 2011 that “for the past century, China has studied the west and followed the western path of industrialization,” but that now “it should take time re-examine… its own cultural traditions.” As he continues: “One of the core principles of traditional Chinese culture is that of harmony between humans and nature.  Different philosophies all emphasize the political wisdom of a balanced environment.  Whether it is the Confucian idea of humans and nature becoming one, the Daoist view of the Dao reflecting nature, or the Buddhist belief that all living things are equal, Chinese philosophy has helped our culture to survive for thousands of years.  It can be a powerful weapon in preventing an environmental crisis and building a harmonious society.” (Pan Yue, “Ecological Wisdom of the Ages,” 2011

Gardner cited sources for this from the Chinese classics. The ancient adage “Heaven and humankind are one” (tian ren he yi) was explained in the Confucian tradition to mean that human beings and all of nature must exist in harmony. As the 16th century Neo-Confucian philosopher Wang Yangming explained: “The great man regards heaven and earth and the myriad things as one body… when we see plants broken and destroyed, we cannot help a feeling of pity. This shows that our humanity forms one body with plants. It may be said that plants are livings things as we are.” The 11th century Neo-Confucian mystically-oriented philosopher wrote: “Heaven is my father and earth is my mother, and even such a small creature as I finds an intimate place in their midst. Therefore, that which fills the universe I regard as my body and that which directs the universe I consider as my nature. All people are my brothers and sisters, and all things are my companions.”

Wang’s words resonate with the aforementioned Jewish notion that “man is a tree of the field” and the identity between humanity and nature it implies. As Peng pointed out, the Chinese concept of heaven (tian) has been compared to the Judeo-Christian notion of God, and the Bible likewise says that man was formed in God’s image. Moreover, the Bible speaks of human beings metaphorically as “children” of God (Deuteronomy 14:1). And so, the Chinese notion that humanity and heaven are one has much in common with Jewish thought—and the vision of the ecological society emanates from both traditions.

Peng asked, however: “Did Confucius say it? Did Confucius mean it?” Can the modern value of environmental protection truly be traced to the classical Chinese sources? To this Gardner offered a twofold answer. He admitted, first of all, that he’s not sure if the modern concerns can be read into the ancient philosophical texts as their true intention. However, he went on to say that just like any religious tradition, the Confucian traditions must be re-interpreted to address the challenges of a modern world, and this gives the ancient texts new relevance. Professor Gardner’s own research into neo-Confucianism is a prime example. Much as Saadia Gaon and Maimonides interpreted the ancient Jewish texts philosophically in their Muslim cultural-intellectual context, Chinese scholars of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) reinterpreted the traditional Confucian texts in light of the metaphysical concerns of their time, spurred by the competing philosophies of Daoism and Buddhism. In a 1998 article, Gardner himself offered a comparison between Midrash and the modes of interpretation attested in the Confucian tradition. Both, he argues, respond to similar stimuli: to address new cultural and intellectual pressures and reaffirm the traditions of the past. As he writes: “Any threat to the hegemony of the… [sacred literary] canon and to the lived tradition that takes that canon as its inspiration incites commentarial activity and response.” (See Daniel Gardner, “Confucian Commentary and Chinese Intellectual History,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 57, 2 (1998): 397–422.)

After the event, many in the audience noted that the evening brought out the ideals of Torah U-Madda in exciting new ways. As one observer remarked, “This interface of ideas and cultures is what a university is about! Comparisons between Jewish and Confucian interpretations; mix of the ancient and modern; shmitta and environmental protection; modern Israeli, song, art and literature illustrating the Chinese idea that man and heaven are one.”


The event was recorded and is on the Revel and CJC YouTube channel:

Shmitta by Mordechai Cohen

“Man is a tree in the field” by Rachel Ofer

“Imagining an Ecological Society” by Daniel K. Gardner, interviewed by Elena Peng


Photo and video credits: Imagination Creations




The Rule of Peshat: Jewish Constructions of the Plain Sense of Scripture and Their Christian and Muslim Contexts, 900–1270 by Mordechai Z. Cohen was just been published by University of Pennsylvania Press:

Click here

ABSTRACT: This volume sheds new light on the vibrant medieval tradition of peshat interpretation, which was intertwined with other disciplines and cultural influences. Beginning in the ninth century, Jews in the Muslim East drew upon Arabic linguistics and Qur’an interpretation to open new avenues of philological-literary exegesis, as opposed to the rabbinic midrashic modes of reading. This Judeo-Arabic school later moved westward and reached its climax in al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) in the eleventh century. At that time, a revolutionary peshat school was also pioneered in northern France by the Rashi (1040–1105) and his circle of students, whose methods are compared in this volume with contemporaneous trends in Latin learning. The heretofore little-known Byzantine exegetical tradition is also outlined in this volume—beginning with recently discovered fragments of a tenth-century commentary penned in or around Byzantium, followed by later commentaries written in the Balkan orbit, mostly notably Leqah Tov by Tobiah ben Eliezer. The volume then moves on to three pivotal figures who consolidated the medieval peshat tradition: (1) Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089–1164), who epitomized Andalusian Bible exegesis as an itinerant scholar in Christian lands, where he encountered Rashi’s peshat model; (2) Moses Maimonides (1138–1204), who drew upon Greco-Arabic philosophy to interpret the Bible rationally, and upon Muslim jurisprudence to establish the biblical sources of Jewish law; (3) Moses Nahmanides (1194–1270), who developed a four-layered interpretive scheme that is compared with the medieval Christian notion of the four senses of Scripture.


by Michael Bettencourt

Dr. Ronnie Perelis

Dr. Ronnie Perelis

Dr. Ronnie Perelis, Chief Rabbi Dr. Isaac Abraham and Jelena (Rachel) Alcalay Associate Professor of Sephardic Studies, and Dr. Flora Cassen, associate professor of history and associate professor of Jewish, Islamic, and Middle Eastern studies at Washington University in St. Louis have received a Cross-Institutional Cooperative Grant from the American Academy for Jewish Research (AAJR) to organize, according to their application, “two workshops—one at Washington University in St. Louis, the other at Yeshiva University in New York City—to discuss the analysis and translation of the works of Yoseph Ha-Kohen and Luis Carvajal. These workshops will not only help us formulate the best ways to bring our ambitious project to completion, but also assist us in constituting a committed group of collaborators.” This grant will spark ideas and new connections between scholars.

“Our hope,” said Dr. Perelis, “is that these conferences, which we are titling ‘Translating the Americas: Early Modern Jewish Writing on the New World,’ will set the stage for our more ambitious project of collecting, annotating and translating the fascinating texts written by Early Modern Jews about the New World in Hebrew, Spanish and other languages. Of course, given the challenges we face today with having in-person meetings, we are also planning a series of virtual encounters around this multifaceted theme.”

Read the full proposal here.


February 19, 2020

The Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, YU Libraries and the Seforim Sale hosted a lecture by Dr. Moshe Sokolow, the Fanya Gottesfeld-Heller Professor of Jewish Education and Associate Dean of Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, on his new book, Reading the Rav: Exploring Religious Themes in the Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

(A full video of the lecture can viewed on the Yeshiva Academic Institutional Repository.)

Dr. Sokolow’s purpose in writing the book was not to add another volume to the large body of work written about the Rav but instead use the man’s work to take the Rav “to places where he himself never went.” In this particular case, being an educator, Dr. Sokolow wanted to excavate “the mine of his erudition” to tease out what might have been Rabbi Soloveitchik’s thoughts about Jewish education, a subject he never tackled directly.

To do this, he examined two well-known works: The Lonely Man of Faith and Fate and Destiny (often known as Kol Dodi Dofek). At the heart of each of these works, said Dr. Sokolow, is a dialectic that, if examined closely, provides the outline of what the Rav might have considered a proper and effective Jewish education.

In the former work, the dialectic in play is between Adam 1, the man who seeks to control the external world, and Adam 2, the man who seeks to control his inner world. The synthesis of the two results in a person who has the skills to subdue the stuff of the earth but guided by an introspection that provides limits, insights and humility, a condition that is “whole internally and successful externally.”

In the second work, he finds a tension between fate, which can result in passivity, where the person is moved by “the forces of the environment,” and destiny, “an active mode of existence, one wherein man confronts the environment into which he was thrown.” Too much fate, and stagnation may occur; too much destiny, and hubris may rule. The synthesis results in a person whose strength of faith guides the life-choices destiny offers, life-choices best shaped by Torah study and an observant life.

Dr. Sokolow concluded that if the Rav were to write directly about what a Jewish education should be and do, he would focus on how that education would build within students these creative tensions between the need to be active in the world balanced by the need to ensure that such worldly action is guided by introspection nourished by Torah study.


On November 12th, 2019, a new dimension of Torah u-Madda was opened in a program about the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius and Ezra ha-Sofer, presented by Prof. Annping Chin of Yale and YU Bible Professor Mordechai Cohen. This was the fourth lecture event of Yeshiva University’s Chinese-Jewish Conversation (CJC). It took place at Yagoda Commons on the Beren Campus and was co-sponsored by the Katz School, the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies and the Confucius Institute at SUNY. A video recording of the event is on the CJC website.

Provost Selma Botman opened the program by emphasizing the core values of family and education shared by the Chinese and Jewish traditions. She spoke passionately about the strong values conveyed by her parents, both hard-working immigrants from Russia, who sought to improve the prospects of their children through higher education.

Offering greetings on behalf of SUNY was Dr. Gui Albieri, Vice President for Student Affairs and Chief Diversity Officer at the State University of New York, and American Director for Confucius Institute for Healthcare at SUNY College of Optometry. Albieri defined himself as a “part-time philosopher” and revealed to the audience that he has long been a devotee of Prof. Chin’s works—and that he was excited to finally meet her in person.

Dr. Gui Albieri, Dr. Jie Chen, Dr. Mordechai Cohen, Dr. Annping Chin, and Dr. Selma Botman

In the first part of the program, Prof. Cohen made a comparison between Confucius and Ezra, who were near contemporaries. Both of these great, spiritually motivated men lived in times of political weakness and sought improvement by restoring the values of their respective ancient traditions. Confucius looked to the early rulers of the Zhou dynasty (11th century BCE) for inspiration and expounded their values to his students. According to tradition, Confucius edited the “Five Classics” that embody the wisdom of ancient Chinese culture—and which would come to be known as the “Confucian canon.”  The teachings of Confucius himself are recorded in the work known as “the Analects” (Lun yu). According to Jewish tradition, Ezra, together with the men of the Great Assembly, brought together and edited the 24 books of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible). During his lifetime, Ezra was faced with a Jewish population in Judea that was ignorant of Torah law, which he reinstated through a dedicated project of education that culminated in the public reading of the Torah in Jerusalem, as described in the book of Nehemia, chapter 8.

“Confucius, You Surprised Me: Readings from the Analects on Learning, Governance, and the Political Life” was the title of the lecture by Prof. Chin, a leading world scholar of Confucian philosophy. She focused on three chapters of the Analects to discover what Confucius thought about learning, governance, and the political life: How they relate to one another and how they translate into action and policies. Chin also discussed what might seem surprisingly fresh and compelling about Confucius’ views and what they can teach us as we confront our own political realities.

Dr. Annping Chin

The selections from the Analects (Book 12 – 14) addressed three parts: Learning, Governance, and Political Life. In the first part, “Learning,” Chin cited the observation Confucius made about a young man who seemed to be very accomplished: “He is not someone who seeks to make progress. He simply wants to grow up fast” (Book 14.44). Chin explained the contrast between “making progress” and “growing up fast”. For Confucius there are no shortcuts in learning; one doesn’t truly “grow up fast” intellectually. The real masters of learning make their progress gradually, through perseverance and repeated practice.

In the second part, “Governance,” Chin cited Book 13.18 of the Analects:

The governor of She said to Confucius: “Right here, in our place, there is a man called Upright Gong. When his father stole a sheep, he bore witness against him.”

Confucius responded, “Where I came from, those who are considered upright are different from this man. Fathers cover up for their sons, and sons cover up for their fathers. Being upright lies therein.”

From the governor’s perspective, “uprightness” was manifested when the son reported his own father to the local law enforcement agency. Yet Confucius believed that “uprightness” was shown when the fathers and sons protect each other from outside authorities. Chin pointed out that here Confucius addressed a moral question: How do we define “uprightness”? Is it defined by the law, or by some other value system?  For Confucius this virtue was embedded human nature and the complex inter-relation between respect for family and for society.

The third part, “Political Life,” or “Politics” was the main focus of the lecture. Chin cited from the Analects, Book 14.39, which uses a series of metaphors:

The Master was playing the stone chimes in Wei when a man, carrying a bamboo basket, went past his door. This man said, “This playing is fraught with a heavy and careworn heart.” He continued, “How squalid this keng keng sound! If no one understands him, then he should just keep what he believes to himself and that is all: ‘If the water is deep, just wade across it. If the water is shallow, lift your hem and cross it.’ ”

Dr. Chin emphasized that the recluse (the man with the bamboo basket) resorted to metaphor to imply his viewpoints about politics. In the sentence “If the water is deep, just wade across it. If the water is shallow, lift your hem and cross it,” the water represents the political situation, and the recluse’s advice to Confucius was that when the current situation becomes hopeless, it is a waste of time and effort to even become involved. Confucius said about the recluse:

“This man sounds like he knows what he wants. If he is so resolute, he should not have                              any difficulties.”

Based on the commentators of the Analects, Chin explained this as a veiled critique. In one sense, Confucius envied the recluse for the freedom to stay apart from the troublesome affairs of society and the world around him. in this worldly world. But Confucius chose the more difficult path to stand out politically and seek proactively to change society for the better.

Lastly, Chin cited a famous passage, Book 13.3 of the Analects, which focuses on Confucius’ political aspirations:

If names are not rectified, what is said will not seem reasonable. Then what is said does not seem reasonable, nothing will get accomplished. When nothing gets accomplished, rites and music will not flourish. When rites and music do not flourish, punishments and penalties [will take their place, and they] will fail to be just when put into use. And when punishments and penalties fail to be just in practice, people will not know where to put their hands and feet. Thus when a gentleman names something, the name can surely hold up in a speech. When he says something, his words can surely be carried out in action.

Here Confucius expresses his famous conception of the “rectification of the names,” meaning to make words correspond to reality–according to traditional social designations and relationships. In his view, every member of society, from the political leadership on down must fulfill their proper roles, which will bring harmony to the country in a society enriched by music, art, and literature.


More than 100 people participated in this event and learned from the lecture. In the subsequent discussion, the audience asked questions about the relevance of Confucius in our politically challenged society. As Chin noted—Confucius’ insights often speak to our modern situations with great insight.

Closing up the event, Cohen thanked the speakers, the organizers, and the audience and noted that more activities are planned to the Chinese-Jewish Conversation next semester.