China discovers Talmud and the Kabbalah

Three years ago, Amit Elazar, an Israeli living in Beijing, founded “Shofar from Zion”, an organization dedicated to spreading Jewish culture and wisdom in China. A group of Chinese volunteers have translated hundreds of articles and books about Judaism into Chinese including my book on Jewish spirituality titled “Awakening to a New Day.” In wake of the translation, I was invited to China to deliver a  series of lectures. During my trip I was astonished to discover the depth of interest and knowledge about Judaism of many of those who I was privileged to meet. One of my translators gave me as a gift a coin of emperor Song Huizong (1082-1135), the last emperor of the Northern Song Dynasty.  His reasoning for this gift was because it was minted at the same time that Rashi lived (1040-1105), whose commentary to the Torah and Talmud fascinates him. Another young woman told me that her study group had just completed studying the commentary of the “Ain Yakov” on the exegetical texts of the Talmudic tractate Brachot.  I also met for the first time after years of correspondence, Yong Zhao, author of “Midrash Sinim, Hasidic legend and commentary on the Torah.”

The waiter as individual

One of the lectures I delivered was devoted to individualism in light of Rabbi Kook’s conception that the image of God in each of us is expressed by our ability to choose. The next day, one of the participants,Paul, told me that after the lecture he went to a restaurant where a waiter dozing off in a corner caught his attention.  “In what way is the image of God manifested in this waiter who seems so ordinary and anonymous?” thought the student to himself. Suddenly the waiter noticed that he was being looked at, and the waiter responded by breaking out in a broad smile.  Paul, now filled with excitement continued: “By smiling, the waiter made a conscious choice of how to respond. He could have ignored me or become angry at me.  It is in his making of a choice, this is what expresses his individuality, the image of God inside him!”.

Two Jews, three opinions, one heart

Another lecture was devoted to the Jewish discourse of debate, disputes and multiple truths. I shared with them the teaching of the Zohar, that the Hebrew word for peace, shalom is connected to the Hebrew word shalem, which means whole. The word shalom begins with the letter Shin, which in Hebrew represents fire, and ends with the letter Mem which represents water. Shalom is the linkage and harmony between opposites: fire and water, female and male, left and right. The Chinese were quite surprised when I told them that in Jewish mysticism, women are fire and men water. A member of the audience remarked, “for Chinese men are fire and women water. It is therefore dangerous for a Chinese man to marry a Jewish women, too much fire.” We then clapped our hand to create a meeting between the left hand and right hand which as Rabbi Menachem Froman has taught,  this symbolizes the meeting between opposing sides and thereby creates Shalom. I concluded by quoting  Rabbi Dov Singer’s proverb, “Two Jews, three opinions, one heart”.  A young Chinese woman then stood up and taught me: “I would like to explain why in the proverb it is three opinions and not two opinions. At first, two people have two opinions, however if they meet with one heart, truly listening to each other, a new opinion will emerge, this is the third opinion.” This is what happens when we clap our hands, at the beginning we have two hands, left and right, but when they meet, something new is created, the sound emitted by clapping.

China and Israel: A brotherhood of fire and water

At the conclusion of the lecture series, my hosts gave me a gift — two artistically designed tea cups, one red, the color of China’s flag, the other blue, the color of Israel’s flag, they named the creation shevet achim, “brothers together”, to express the friendship between China and Israel. Red and blue are also the colors of fire and water which by forging together create Shalom.  Fire can symbolize “Doing” and water “Being”. Israelis are often proud of our progress in technology, a reflection of  “Doing”, but in our encounter with China, what we most have to offer them is the spiritual, the “Being”.  In China, the economy is surging ahead and the trains rush  forward at 350 kilometers an hour, but while the body races ahead, it is important not to leave the soul behind.

Tents of Abraham

Throughout the world there are thousands of Chabad houses tending to the needs of each and every Jew. My vision is that there will one day be additional places that are open to all people to spread light and blessings. This would be a return to Abraham’s tent which was a center where all were welcome, and provided for the materiel and spiritual needs of all. Even before realizing this vision, there is so much we can each do towards this vision. This year more than three million tourists came to Israel. Most of them are not Jewish and many have come because they are striving for a connection to the Holy Land.  Let us, like the Chinese waiter in the story, choose to great them with a smile.  It will do  good for them. It will do good for us.

I thank Florence Xia and the FROOTS art gallery for graciously  hosting and sponsoring my lecture series in China.

About the Author
Yakov Nagen is the Executive Director of the Ohr Torah Interfaith Center, a division of Ohr Torah Stone. He also heads its Blickle Institute for Interfaith Dialogue and Beit Midrash for Judaism and Humanity. He is a Rabbi at the Yeshiva of Otniel and has written ten books about Jewish Spirituality, Talmud and Interfaith.
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