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.

 

Dr. Tzahi Weiss

On Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies welcomed Dr. Tzahi Weiss, associate professor of Jewish mysticism and Hebrew literature at the Open University of Israel, to speak about “Rethinking Kabbalah.”

In his lecture, Dr. Weiss posited that the development of a theosophy of ten sefirot [emanations], an attempt to systematize attributes of the Jewish God, was actually a conservative rabbinic measure. He explains that in the early 13th century, there were popular Jewish beliefs that the rabbis felt were problematic and even heretical. These beliefs included veneration of angels and upholding a binitarian belief system wherein God is conceived of having an upper part (ilat ha’ilot or sibat ha’sibot) and a lower part (metatron). By outlining a sefirotic theosophy while simultaneously emphasizing the unity of God and the necessity of praying to the one God himself, early kabbalists were trying to counter the problematic trends of their time.

Dr. Weiss’ understanding of the emergence of kabbalah differs from that of the standard understanding that treats kabbalah as a revolutionary new development rather than a conservative rabbinic response. In support of his understanding, Dr. Weiss noted that there are no early texts which criticize the system of the sefirot, per se.

Dr. Weiss details this theory in his book, Cutting the Shoots: The Worship of the Shechina in World of Early Kabbalistic Literature.

 

 

November 3, 2019

Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagen ’89YC, ’89BR, ’94R, is a Rabbi at the Otniel Yeshiva in Israel and a leading figure in encounters between Judaism and Eastern religions.

In two lectures sponsored by the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, The Katz School of Science and Health, the Chinese-Jewish Conversation and The Confucius Institute at SUNY, Dr. Nagen expanded upon the idea that at its core, Judaism is a method of detecting truth through honest (rather than self-aggrandizing) disputation that, when done with sincerity and humility, integrates principles of “doing” (defined as an effort to fix things because the world is constantly under construction) and “being” (which he sees as a focus on the present moment) into a balanced and active life.

(l-r): Dr. Mordechai Cohen (professor of Bible; associate dean, Bernard Revel School of Jewish Studies; divisional coordinator of academic Jewish studies and Yeshiva College; and director of the Chinese-Jewish Conversation) and Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagen

In “Introduction to Jewish Thought from Beijing and Shanghai,” delivered on Oct. 24, 2019, he spoke about his family’s connection to the Jews who went to Shanghai for refuge. This family history has made him sensitive to the ways in which the traditions of Israel and China complement each other, especially in their respect for a truth derived from an engagement with ancient wisdom.

Audience member at lecture by Rabbi Yakov Nagen
Enjoying the wit and wisdom of Rabbi Yakov Nagen

In “To Do and To Be: Judaism’s Integration of East and West,” on Oct. 28, 2019, he continued this train of thought by referring to the two stories of creation in the Bible, what Rabbi Dr. Joseph Soloveitchik referred to as Adam I and Adam II in The Lonely Man of Faith. “The world of Adam I,” said Dr. Nagen, “is a story about conquering and about separating and dividing time.” However, the world of Adam II is “timeless,” linked to the imagery of water and cyclical life. For Dr. Nagen, the two stories come together in the word “shalom,” with its knitting together into a dynamic whole the opposites of fire and water.

Much of the material in these lectures can be found in his book, Be, Become, Bless – Jewish Spirituality between East and West, where he converses with both Eastern spirituality and Western thinking in an attempt to create a synthesis that unifies “being” and “doing” in service to a search for truth.

 

Dr. Shalom HoltzDr. Shalom Holtz, professor of Bible at Yeshiva College and associate dean of academic affairs, has a new book coming out from Brown Judaic Studies. Titled Praying Legally, Dr. Holtz explained how “in the Hebrew Bible and related ancient sources prayer there is an opportunity to make one’s case before divine judges. Prayers were formulated using courtroom or trial language, including demands for judgment, confessions and accusations.” This use of legal language, he noted, “reveals ancient Near Eastern thoughts about what takes place when one prays.”

Dr. Holtz noted that “Praying Legally is a direct outgrowth of my earlier research on trial procedure attested in ancient Mesopotamian records. This book, and several other articles written along the way, draw out the connections between the language of earthly litigation and the ways humans address their petitions in the divine courtroom, through prayer. In the book, I emphasize how courtroom imagery in prayer allowed human speakers to ‘have their day in court’ and even question divine justice.”

 

One of the most famous works of Jewish philosophy from the Middle Ages is arguably Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed. The Guide has been translated into many languages and has been a popular read among theologians and philosophers around the globe.

On Monday, Sept. 16, 2019, the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies invited Dr. Mark Steiner of Hebrew University of Jerusalem to discuss the true impact of Maimonides’ Guide on the work of the renowned Enlightenment philosopher David Hume.

Dr. Mark Steiner discussing Maimonides’ influence on philosopher David Hume

Dr. Steiner, who has authored multiple books relating to mathematics and philosophy, began the lecture exploring Maimonides’ opposition to the Mutakallimun, believers of a stream of Jewish and Islamic theology that attacked science in the service of religion.

At the beginning of his Shemoneh Perakim [Eight Chapters] and the Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides explains that the Mutakallimun based their beliefs on what Dr. Steiner calls Axiom I: “Something is possible if, and only if, it is imaginable.” In other words, they determined what is possible not from reason but from imagination. Maimonides then went on to explain how science disproves Axiom I by demonstrating that something can be possible without it being imaginable.

Dr. Steiner pointed out that Dr. Michael Schwarz, scholar of medieval Islamic texts, found no expression of Axiom I in any texts of the Mutakallimun. By Maimonides’ lifetime, there had been no members of the Mutakallimun for over 100 years. Dr. Schwarz suggested that Maimonides reconstructed what the Mutakallimun should have believed, not what they actually believed, in order to distill their philosophy into clearer arguments that he subsequently refutes.

The only other place where Axiom I can be found in all philosophy is in the Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume, an 18th-century empiricist. Hume’s statement of “nothing we can imagine is absolutely impossible” is alien to both his rationalist predecessors and his empiricist colleagues, and as none of the Mutakallimun actually expressed their beliefs in such a way, it is plausible to suggest that Hume read one of the many translated copies of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed. Steiner admitted that more investigation is necessary to determine if Hume had access to the Guide, but he believed there is enough evidence to suggest he did.

Though the Guide was not found in Hume’s personal library, it may be in the library Hume used while writing the Treatise. Steiner added that Hume knew of Maimonides since he read and quoted Pierre Boyle’s famous dictionary, which praises Maimonides.

For those well-read in philosophy, Dr. Steiner’s lecture piqued curiosity and shed light on the transmission of philosophical concepts throughout the ages. Only time will tell what other philosophical mysteries Dr. Steiner will uncover.